Work-from-home under threat in South Africa

 ·28 Jan 2023

South African companies might start seeing a reversal of the work-from-home trend that has embedded itself in corporate culture over the last few years – and employees can thank Eskom.

While this is something that many bosses have been wanting to see for some time, it’s not happening for the reasons they would have hoped for, says Linda Trim, the director at workplace design consultancy, Giant Leap.

“The reality is people who have enjoyed working from home may simply have little choice but to return to the office,” Trim said. “Few people have the resources and patience to try and complete a full work day with no power for big blocks of the day.”

Indeed, load shedding and a souring economy may be the deciding factor in the battle between employers and employees in determining the future of work culture in South Africa.

The prevailing message delivered over the last few years was that employees had the upper hand in negotiating the way companies worked. With a skills crisis and a drive for a better work-life balance, many companies were forced to restructure into more flexible operations.

The narrative posited that employers have to work at presenting themselves as an attractive job prospect – especially for the younger generation of workers who demand more flexibility and a better work-life balance.

In a large-scale survey conducted by financial services firm PwC in August last year, top directors from South Africa and abroad said that they were restructuring working arrangements to retain talent.

According to the group’s Executive Directors Report for 2022, employees said they were feeling more empowered than ever and had higher expectations for working arrangements such as hybrid work.

However, Trim noted that with load shedding and a poor economic outlook for South Africa, these views and feelings might reverse.

Regarding power issues, offices are often better equipped with alternative power sources or are busy installing solar panels – providing access to power during a time when it is becoming increasingly scarce.

In addition to this, the reality of South Africa’s employment landscape may also be setting in, with employees realising that they cannot simply pick and choose jobs they want.

“With a poor economic outlook, many people will want to be seen working at the office demonstrating their value,” said Trim. “This year, we could see the reversal of the remote working trend of the last three years.

Trim added that hybrid working arrangements, where workers go into the office part of the week, had gained broad – but often unsatisfactory – acceptance as a compromise between the rise in work from home and companies wanting people to return.

Even when companies demanded a return to a full-time working schedule, many employees continued to hold out, she said. However, recent studies have shown that the outcomes of this arrangement aren’t quite what people expected.

Trim cited a recent Microsoft research report from September 2022 which found that the number of weekly meetings held digitally had increased 153% globally since the start of the pandemic – and 42% of workers multi-tasked during those meetings.

“85% of the leaders it surveyed felt they did not have confidence employees were being productive in a hybrid workplace,” said Trim.

However, the jury is still out on how the world of work will change in 2023, she said.

“The coming year could determine who has the upper hand in determining what work looks like in the future. A recovering South African economy and skills shortages have given workers more say recently. But a recession and Eskom might take some of that away.”

Read: Workers are switching jobs in South Africa and moving into these different fields

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