When Covid-19 became a global pandemic in 2020, businesses had to adapt very quickly, sending employees home to work. Businesses implemented remote work policies to regulate employees’ productivity and adherence to their terms of employment.
More than two years down the line, with the national state of disaster now over and Covid reaching endemic status, how do businesses and employees navigate the changing world of work?
“Remote work is definitely here to stay. Employers are still encouraged to have staff on rotation and working remotely to reduce numbers in offices and minimise risk,” said Dr Richard Malkin, chief executive of Workforce Healthcare.
“Employees realise that they can work from home, spend less time in the traffic, save the costs of transport and even if they don’t feel well, they can still put in a productive day at home. They now face several issues that they need to tackle to ensure fairness in the workplace and protect their businesses. Grey areas must be addressed to clarify the terms of the employer-employee relationship.”
When Covid-19 hit, the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Hazardous Biological Agents Regulations, were implemented in accordance with the Disaster Management Act, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and the Labour Relations Act.
But this legislation did not necessarily extend to the remote office and was overlooked by many companies trying to survive the crisis, Malkin said.
He noted that there are still several issues facing employers who allow remote work:
While some employees can work remotely, others cannot. A receptionist, for example, who is expected to be at the office will not have the privilege of saving on transport costs, but her colleague who works remotely will.
Must the employer provide a travel allowance for the receptionist to ensure pay parity? You may have to.
Can the company information and intellectual property be regulated properly at the employee’s remote workplace?
Businesses must assess, measure and mitigate all risks, and also deal with the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA).
The Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Hazardous Biological Agents Regulations, Labour Relations Act and POPIA extend to remote work and therefore employers should conduct inspections, location approval and risk assessments and audits should take place.
The practical rollout of this will be extensive yet companies and the state will need to deal with it. Australia, for example, amended legislation such as labour law, tax law, income law and social security law to deal with home office work.
Costs of the remote office
There has been a debate about whether it would be fair for an employee working remotely to expect the employer to pay for setting up a home office. Some believe that the most logical argument is that, if the law permits and you are able to work at the office but choose to work remotely, the cost should be for your own pocket.
“There is an obligation on the employer to facilitate an environment and if possible, a remote working environment for employees with comorbidities who face poor health outcomes with Covid-19. As time goes by, this may be the only scenario in which set up and running costs of a remote office are warranted,” Malkin said.
“Isolation does not work for everyone and can have a negative impact on productivity. Collaboration and team effort also take a back seat when working remotely and meeting virtually has its limits for team spirit,” Malkin said.
He added that Workforce Healthcare has seen that working from home has had the following impacts:
- Isolation: Being physically disconnected from peers and colleagues has left some feeling like they have nowhere to turn when feeling anxious or stressed, there is a sense of loss of support networks.
- Increased workload: Many face an increase in workload which may lead to burnout and frustration. Lines are being blurred between work and home life especially because the workplace has now been brought into the home. People are also doing more and taking on more because they feel like they have to prove that they are in fact productive which leads to anxiety for some.
- Fatigue: Many are feeling the strain of constant back-to-back virtual meetings. There is no longer time to switch off while driving to the next meeting. Many employees complain that they are also working longer hours as there is no need drive home and therefore, they start earlier and work until later.
“Companies need to assist their employees to navigate these issues. This can be done through education and awareness around mental health, implementing an employee wellness programme so that employees have support and companies should consider certain days which are meeting free e.g., no internal meetings on Wednesday afternoons.”
Mentoring and training
Physical presence during training and mentoring has huge value.
“I am not convinced that this can be replaced by a no-contact approach, but the younger generation may just prove me wrong,” Malkin said. . As we continue to adapt and become accustomed to a changed way of working and running profitable businesses, it is important to get it right.”
Asking the wrong questions
According to Sarah Rice, Chief People Officer at sales management firm, Skynamo, the binary choice between working from home or returning to the office is a red herring.
“The binary argument of remote vs in-office is saying that one kind of time is more important or better than another. But this just isn’t true. We need both,” she said.
“What we need to be asking ourselves and each other is – what kind of time is best to help us reach our objectives? What does this business need more of? And what do I need to get it done? Then we can start to design a way of working that gives people the flexibility to choose how to get the work done.”
Rice said that following a hybrid working model is the way forward, even if it won’t happen overnight – but companies need to start having this conversation sooner rather than later, including their employees in the discussion, if they want to return to a more productive dynamic.
“Hybrid work environments promise workers flexibility in scheduling work, but what people really need is autonomy, mastery and purpose to feel fulfilled. Teams need trust, alignment around a common goal and open communication to be effective,” she said.
“And to be honest, most of the time the working world is designed to ignore all of these things regardless of whether you are in the office or fully remote. It comes down to relationships and how we build them.”
“We probably won’t get hybrid working right initially. It’s still going to feel strange for a while. But it’s worth staying the course and figuring it out, rather than going back to a previous model that, frankly, didn’t work all that well either.”