Thanks to lockdowns and safety concerns, many employees have been working from home. Could WFH become the new normal that well outlasts the pandemic?


Full disclosure: I am typing this sentence from bed on a Friday morning, it’s 11.30 am, about 17ºC and raining outside. Now, ordinarily at this time in the week I’d be sitting at a desk in an office, fully dressed, groomed and in ‘work mode’ – a mix of adrenaline from deadline tension, a brisk cheerfulness from interacting with colleagues, and a kind of low-grade ‘there aren’t enough hours in the day’ exasperation, all of which (I used to believe) light the proverbial flame under the proverbial derrière to get one cracking on one’s to-do list.

Right now, though, I’m in ‘relax’ mode even though technically I am working, which – it turns out (for me personally) – is far more conducive to a state of ‘flow’ in which ideas, words and concepts fluidly converge to form an article. It feels a bit weird but I like it, and I suspect it is making me more productive, as I’m expending less energy on stressing over the dearth of time: my daily commute no longer wastes two hours of my day, no more am I interrupted by chatty colleagues, and I can better control how I spend that time.

I am not alone in preferring this mode of work. According to US-based analytics company Gallup, in April, 62% of employed Americans were working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic and, of those, 53% would prefer to continue to work remotely as much as possible, once public health restrictions were lifted.

Pre-COVID-19, this was a nightmarish prospect for many business owners, who feared that allowing employees to work from home would result in slacking off and have a deleterious effect on the bottom line. At least when workers are in the office, line managers can keep a beady eye on the ‘floor’ to ensure the work is done. This has long been the conflict between employees who value the flexibility of working from home (or an internet café, or the beach), and employers who contend that it results in lower productivity. Forecasters of the past few decades predicted a far larger portion of the workforce would be working from home by now, yet – while there had certainly been an increase in companies offering flexible work hours – the vast majority of professionals remained office-bound. Until the pandemic hit.

For better or worse, everyone agrees that the COVID-19 virus has changed the way we work forever. In the space of only a few weeks, a profound revolution has occurred in how we work, where we work, and – as we will examine later – why we work. Businesses not only had to pivot their offering to survive a shifting consumer base in an exponentially more uncertain economic climate, they also had to find ways to rally their staff remotely.

But this we already know. What’s less certain, and arguably more interesting, is how all of this is going to impact the way we work, now that the initial shock and tight restrictions of the lockdown have eased, and after the immediate threat of COVID-19 infection has passed. Much depends on when a vaccine will be available, in which case it would be safe for people to return to offices en masse. However, if no vaccine is forthcoming, the need for social distancing will remain and so too our need to find ways to work that are not office-bound. Either way, some blue-chip international companies such as Twitter and Facebook have told their employees that they can work from home indefinitely, regardless of when a vaccine is found, with Morgan Stanley and Barclays considering following suit.

This has implications for all aspects of how humans organise themselves when it comes to office work, from tech to leadership to recruitment. Everyone who works from home is going to have to become more technologically savvy, from video-conferencing platform Zoom to Houseparty. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Businesses are going to have to up their game considerably in order to remain adaptable and competitive as they are dragged, ready or not, into the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

‘Many organisations see technology as their silver bullet, but most will overlook key workplace strategies and key human capital considerations that could ultimately derail their initiatives to emerge from COVID-19 thriving,’ says human-capital specialist Roy Clark.

‘Interestingly, even before COVID-19 arrived, up to 78% of organisations failed to meet their business digital transformation objectives and 92% of organisations are believed to be incorrectly structured to operate in this new digital environment. COVID-19 is accelerating the need for digital change.’

Clark posits that companies will need to focus on three key digital-technology pillars: robotic automation (getting bots to do mundane, repetitive human tasks, which has been effectively done in the finance and human-resources industries); AI (as a prediction tool that leverages data); and virtual or augmented reality (‘in the future, collaborating with your team using VR and AR will be the norm’).

One such augmented-reality tool that is still in development is JumpLoom, an online 3D environment that can be accessed from a desktop computer or 3D headset. Technical jargon aside, the tool will enable anyone to attend a meeting in a three-dimensional virtual-reality boardroom (for example) and interact within that setting (with an overhead projector for PowerPoint presentations and everything) – as opposed to a screen filled with a Rubik’s cube of talking heads à la Zoom.

While businesses grapple with their current employees’ new work arrangements, ‘the new normal’ will also affect employment practices.

‘I think employers are going to be far more cautious and conservative when it comes to hiring,’ says Tamara Wolpert, GM at VGP Recruitment, a specialist recruitment agency for the communications industry. ‘We may well see a trend where the preference is to employ on a contract or freelance basis, rather than permanent as companies re-establish themselves. Aside from the budgetary benefits of a contractor, i.e. not being committed to paying a full-time salary, the labour laws in South Africa are very stringent and punishing, so employing freelancers/contractors also mitigates the “minefield” of retrenching/firing any employees who are under-performing. Retrenchments are also very costly in that permanent staff who are retrenched are due a retrenchment package. However, this is not the case with contractors.’

Clark echoes this with what he terms the rise of the freelancer. ‘There will be a shift in mentality by employees and freelancers alike. It will become obvious to them that it is not “where one works” but rather “what one works on” that will determine not only their employability but also their job satisfaction. This lends itself to an exciting new world order where working individuals realise that anyone can “work the way you want to live”.

‘The career Holy Grail of “work /life integration” has been elusive for many because of a legacy world order for the way we worked. In the old world, hours spent at work in the physical work space was a measure of one’s dedication and commitment to the task or company, regardless of the efficiency of the time used and the productivity of the employee for the extra hours spent at work.’

He adds that the notion of job security and full-time employment being a safe haven will be eradicated to become merely a memory. ‘Professionals will take control of their own freelancing careers that now offer multiple lanes, multiple options for growth and experiences where one can flow into and out of really significant and meaningful work.’

This raises the question of whether – if more and more jobs do not require any in-person contact – these positions or projects will be outsourced beyond our borders, broadening the talent pool for businesses.

Managers who are used to working with their team under one roof may be more shell-shocked than anyone when suddenly faced with the prospect of meeting deadlines and hitting sales targets. A fearful response could tempt them to micromanage, leading to an increased risk of stress and burnout for everyone involved. The need for leaders who inspire through empowerment and open, authentic communication has always been there, but in the post-COVID-19 work world, it will be more important than ever.

‘There may be a temptation for managers who are concerned about not being able to see and have direct contact with those that are working under them to tighten their grip – increasing stress and anxiety. This is not going to encourage the kind of initiative and creative thinking that companies need now more than ever before,’ says Caroline Ravenall, a human-performance specialist and executive coach.

Since our interactions are likely to exist predominantly in the digital realm for the foreseeable future, it’s more important than ever to bring humanity to the equation, or leaders risk alienating their employees.

Humility, authenticity, candour and the ability to listen are all qualities that may become far more important in business leadership than ever before, as will literacy around basic human needs for acknowledgment, creativity, volition, agency, connection and privacy. An idealist might hope that this digital shift, counter-intuitively, will bring us all the closer to fully expressing our humanity in the workplace, and to think more carefully about what rewarding work really looks like.

By Robyn MacLarty
Images: Gallo/Getty Images

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