The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world, sending shockwaves throughout every household and corporate in South Africa. While some employers had been keeping an eye on the developing trends of digitalisation and globalisation of the workforce—COVID-19 and the resulting national lockdowns in South Africa—forced all employers to face the dreaded “remote management” of staff, and for many employers, an amplified dependency on technology. Most employers were not sufficiently prepared for this sudden and drastic change to their operations and workforce management, and now need to learn from the experience.
It has undoubtedly also been a difficult transition for many employees to navigate the remote work environment. Previously, a relatively clear split existed between the office, where one worked, and home, one’s sanctuary and place of rest. Suddenly the two were forced to merge, and the abrupt transition led to an increase in stress and anxiety. The concept of the working day and productivity had to change due to employees having to deliver work from home while simultaneously attending to personal demands such as home schooling and tending to ailing or elderly family members. Employees have been forced to multitask and juggle their work and personal obligations in a more demanding way than ever before, while employers, unable to physically monitor their staff, have been anxious about attentiveness and productivity.
Without prior notice, employers who have traditionally managed performance and implemented discipline in person, in the office, have had to learn how to do so remotely, with a substantial reliance on technology. This also required managing working hours and time off, providing necessary home office equipment, and maintaining accessibility and connectivity, all within the confines of long established and often codified practices which never anticipated a global pandemic and nationwide lockdown. These unexpected circumstances and demands have highlighted areas of rigidity and inflexibility in these workplace policies and approaches, long overdue for reconsideration and development to meet the needs of the modern working environment.
In order to survive what is likely to be a new normal of local or even global disruption to traditional business operations, and to capitalise on the forced change, employers must and evolve their manner of engaging and managing staff. This includes reviewing and adapting employment contracts and human resource policies to anticipate disruptive events and the need for remote work and varied working hours, to ensure continued and hopefully uninterrupted productivity. Additionally, key performance indicators and performance measurement processes may need to be revisited to ensure that the true value of the work is measured, regardless of the manner of output.
Communication is and will remain key to maintaining structure and workforce coordination within an organisation. Having infrastructure which enables connectivity in a manner which is adaptable and accommodating to changing circumstances (such as the shift between onsite and remote work) is therefore crucial to the modern workplace. Many corporations globally had already been implementing virtual infrastructure pre-pandemic (such as Skype, Microsoft Teams or cloud-based solutions), while others have become familiar with these tools as a result of the national lockdowns. Training and clear instructions on the use of such tools are essential to ensuring their effectiveness and full capability extraction.
Careful consideration must be given to how the new, more adaptable and flexible workforce structure and its operation is to function. As new rules are created for this evolving workforce and its management, these must be codified and made clear as well as understandable to staff. This will reduce stress and anxiety that inevitably comes with change, ensure a smoother and more effective transition into the “new way of working”, and ensure accountability in the event of transgressions. However, it must be borne in mind that changes to terms of employment may require specific legal processes to be followed, and professional advice should be sought prior to any such rollout.
Adapting to the new world of work may also require a reconsideration and restructuring of the workforce. This may mean reshaping a rigid workforce through the recategorising of staff (for example from employee to contractor) to allow for the flexibility of both the operational requirements of the employer, as well as the economic needs of the worker. This “gig economy” and decentralisation of the workforce was already a trend prior to the pandemic but has gathered speed of late. It may necessitate re- or upskilling existing staff to meet the new demands of the employer’s evolving operations and the automation or digitalisation of traditional job functions. And in the worst case, it may require trimming down a bloated workforce and redundant or ineffective roles. This reshaping of the workforce must be done under careful guidance of human resources or legal support, as these exercises may result in significant labour dispute costs if incorrectly implemented.
It is more important now than ever for decision makers and human resource managers in every workplace to find ways of supporting employees to adapt to the new, accelerated changes in the workplace. This can be achieved by putting in place employee assistance programmes (attending to the employees’ physical and mental wellbeing), ensuring individuals are connected and communicating within their teams through effective leadership and dependable technology, and redefining productivity and KPIs according to the individual’s circumstances and contributions to the organisation.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated that which was nonetheless inevitable – the evolution of the workplace to one where what one does, does not always depend on how one does it, and the value one adds to an organisation is not measured by the hours one sits at a desk. But the pandemic also showed us that we are better equipped to handle flexible working arrangements than we anticipated. This forced rearrangement of the workplace has resulted in many positive consequences for both employer and worker, such as health and safety protocols being prioritised, overheads and real estate costs being reduced, and in some cases, a healthier work life balance.
There is no doubt that the economy is and will continue to feel the weight of the pandemic for a long time to come. However, businesses have been catapulted into the “future of work” which was being discussed a year ago and is now the “way we work”. Businesses no longer have the option to consider whether they want to modernise their operations and workforce – they have been forced to respond, they need to adapt, adopt and accelerate changes to sustain the business, and it is how they do so, which will determine their success and longevity.