What will the future of work – and its workforce – be like?
Will the workforce of the future continue to reflect the dramatic shift in the global business landscape that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, which forced offices to close and employees to work remotely from their homes utilising online virtual communications technologies?
The jury is still out. The Financial Mail notes that the South African real estate industry has recorded a marked uptick in working professionals semi-grating from the cities to smaller coastal and inland villages and towns in the past few months. However, FNB property sector strategist John Loos warned that while many commercial property brokers expect companies to re-evaluate their office space needs, “the extent to which working from home will be adopted in the long term is still uncertain”.
A “Workforce of the Future” survey conducted in EMEA by Cisco says employees want to retain some aspects of remote working, such as increased autonomy and faster decision-making. However, only 5% of those surveyed worked from home prior to the lockdown.
Closer to home, a study on “Remote Working in South Africa 2020”, conducted by World Wide Worx, in partnership with Cisco, provides some interesting insights. It reveals that at the time of the lockdown, only 37% of companies were somewhat prepared for the sudden switch to remote working with less than a quarter (23.5%) having a detailed digital transformation strategy that had enabled the digitalisation of all processes within their organisations.
This indicates that more than three-quarters of companies did not have enough time to prepare for remote working in the two days between the lockdown announcement and the start of the national shutdown.
Nevertheless, the shift to remote working since the lockdown led to improved productivity for 29% of companies; and among companies that had already fully rolled out digital transformation strategies, productivity leaped by a massive 70%.
Interestingly, the survey found that many of the often-touted benefits of remote working such as flexible working hours and reduced stress, did not contribute to the success of the shift. In fact, over half (51%) of respondents stated that the emotional impact of working from home had been “severe” for both staff and managers. However, this could be regarded simply as a typical response for any severe – and sudden – change in a working environment.
In contrast, the “Workforce of the Future” survey revealed that two-thirds of respondents (66%) had a greater appreciation of the benefits and challenges of working from home, including improved life-work balance.
So what of the future – especially as employees and managers become accustomed to the remote working “new normal”?
Eighty-seven percent of the EMEA respondents said they wanted the ability to choose whether to work from home or office, and manage their hours.
South African businesses, asked whether they were changing their remote working strategy for the post-COVID-19 crisis, the vast majority (81%) of respondents said they were not, but might consider doing so in the future.
“More than nine of out of 10 businesses found remote working to be efficient, which suggests that outputs are similar in remote work as they are in the office. This is despite the fact that the bulk of businesses say that remote working results in high employee (64%) and management (90%) stress,” says Garsen Naidu, General Manager, Cisco sub-Saharan Africa.
“Hand in hand with productivity not being boosted for the majority of organisations, this suggests that the experience of working from home remains problematic, although 91% of decision-makers reported that their employees were very co-operative when working from home. This indicates that the digital office is not simply a physical shift from the traditional office to the home office, or the embrace of digital collaboration, but requires a strategic shift in the way an organisation operates.”
When it comes to allowing their employees to work remotely after the pandemic ends, the majority (61%) of respondents weren’t sure they would, with only 38% taking the contrary view.
And in response to the question of whether their employees would actually want to work from home in future, 40% said “yes”, 45% were uncertain, and only 15% said “no”. The negative response is probably attributable to poor remote equipment and/or bad connectivity.
And that, Naidu notes, could be the problem.
“While the impact of digitisation is widespread, the benefits it yields are distributed unevenly,” he says, pointing out that South Africa currently ranks 78 on the Digital Readiness Index that was published by Cisco in early 2020.
“We should also not forget that a significant proportion of South African employees does not work in an office environment. However, digitisation and technology is impacting all sectors of the economy, from manufacturing, retail, entertainment and agriculture to education and healthcare.
“Nevertheless, when it comes to office workers, the survey results are clear indication that there is a good foundation to build on for widespread remote working in the medium to long term,” Naidu concludes.