Go to the office or stay away?

Over a year of working remotely has opened up new possibilities, and now there is talk of a remote work visa to attract digital nomads to South Africa.

When it comes to finding South Africa’s new normal, there is no one size fits all. As employers and employees have quickly adapted to the multiple challenges of doing business remotely since the national lockdown began last year, new understandings of work have emerged.

For many, remote working has become a central tenet of life under Covid-19. In a mid-pandemic study conducted by Michael Page, 79% of South African respondents said they worked from home – before Covid, only 26% were allowed to do so by their employers.

The dramatic increase in remote working initially raised concerns about a loss in employee motivation and productivity, but a significant body of research now suggests that stepping away from the office can have the exact opposite effect: something 63% of those surveyed reported an increase in productivity during the lockdown, with many more satisfied and motivated.

For Amanda Maree, Enterprise People Change Manager at Absa, the transition to working from home has been made easier by consistent and timely communication and a well-developed Covid-19 strategy.

Equipped with what was called a “Thriving Remotely” toolkit, Maree could call on her organization for more than technical assistance. She and her colleagues were counseled on issues as mundane as the arrangement of their workspaces at home, and as burdensome as the psychological toll of their new situation.

“Despite all the chaos around us,” says Maree, “Absa made me feel like I was still a valuable asset and treated me like one.”

The 2021 Robert Walters salary survey revealed an equally positive attitude towards remote working. South African employees interviewed for this study noted improvements in their communication skills, technical skills and productivity – although a quarter (24%) of employers cited declining productivity as their main reservation regarding long-term remote work.

While finance, management and IT-related services have made it through the shift to remote working, often with significant increases in productivity (McKinsey, 2021), other sectors have also failed. more resistant to migration. Remote work optimization strategies rely heavily on an organization’s ability to quickly reconfigure existing infrastructure and deploy new resources, but there are barriers that no degree of careful planning can eliminate entirely. .

Mia Jansen van Rensburg, a teaching assistant at the University of Johannesburg, had to replace her classroom with a WhatsApp group chat.

“The university has provided mobile data plans to students, but it is not always possible for them to make video calls,” says Van Rensburg. “Data is running out and some of them live in rural areas with poor coverage. “

According to her, no virtual classroom can replace learning on campus.

In a recent survey of South African employees, more than half of those polled said they were happy to return to their workplace – and 40% said they had free rein to decide whether they would return or stay. on the spot.

It has also led many national economies to attempt to capitalize on the spending of remote workers by offering a ‘digital nomad’ visa – specifically aimed at remote workers. Cape Town is leading the call for such an offer in South Africa, engaging with the national government to introduce a remote work visa that would allow remote workers to reside and pass through South Africa.

The remote working revolution has centered on a higher demographics of LSMs. Many critical roles inevitably require face-to-face contact, and workers in the transportation, healthcare and retail sectors remain vulnerable to the virus. There are things you just can’t do from a distance and risks that can’t be avoided.

“You cannot ‘take the social distance’ in an ambulance,” said a health worker, adding: “You are constantly worried, even if you have taken the necessary precautions.”

It’s a sobering reminder that the relative safety of a makeshift home office is beyond the reach of many South Africans.

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About Andrew Miller

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