Coping With a Remote Workforce on Global Scale

COVID-19 — It’s on everyone’s lips, front of mind, causing the global economy to stir, governments to scramble and directives and injunctions to come to the fore. And for the first time, we see how truly connected every country is, and how possible it is for most employed persons to be sent home to work remotely.

It raises the question of whether such a scenario could be used for good — to promote development? The impact of COVID-19 on the world markets illustrates that we are a global economy and that work can be done from anywhere.

What if this is the opportunity for remote work without geographical borders? Persons could be employed across the globe. This would address unemployment, add to skills development, and positively “disrupt” traditional employment models.

The impact on the fourth industrial revolution

On March 17, the South African Department of Employment and Labor released a COVID-19 guideline. This was against the backdrop of the South African Presidency declaring COVID-19 a state of disaster under the Disaster Management Act. On March 23, the President announced the start of a nationwide lockdown to try and contain further spread of the virus.

One of the main guidelines suggested that employers should encourage their employees to work from home or work “remotely.” This guideline could be just the publicity the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) needed in South Africa.

The term 4IR was popularized by the World Economic Forum for the current and developing environment in which disruptive technologies and trends are changing the way we live, work, and relate to one another. The two main focuses that stem from the 4IR are working remotely and the introduction of a “gig” economy.

A gig economy refers to a free market system in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements. The term “gig” refers to work for a specified period of time.  Gig workers include freelancers, independent contractors, project-based workers, and temporary or part-time hires. The digital age enables a gig economy, where the workforce is increasingly mobile and where job and location are decoupled because of our ability to work remotely now. In South Africa, this has been slow to take off, and we look to platforms such as established multinational platforms such as Uber to assess the appetite of the land. We also saw the launch of One Circle HR, a platform to gig human resources services go live.

Understanding the benefits and challenges of remote

Looking at remote work, it is necessary to consider how possible it was to go remote.

  • One of the main issues that employers faced in going remote was of employees adjusting to a new work environment and how to maintain the same level of productivity as they do in a physical workplace.
  • Working remotely created more time — less traveling time, less need to dress conventionally, and a relaxing of the workplace environment while remaining professional and productive. Meetings and conferences are diverted to platforms such as Skype, Zoom, or Teams, which are just a click away.
  • As a consequence of the additional time, employers needed to ensure that employees did not work in excess of statutory minimums if these where applicable
  • Connectivity is an initial issue that employers face in the transition to remote working in terms of costs, internet access, and internal company system traffic because companies are set up to be connected from the workplace and not from home. This is only a transitional issue, and most companies have coped easily and have transitioned smoothly to be connected remotely.
  • Managing remote work and ensuring collective productivity was also an initial issue. Companies are dealing with this by conducting spot checks, last activity on Skype or internal systems, and actual analyses of what employees are working on and how they are using their time.
  • Maintaining morale was overcome by creating team events on these platforms used to meet and work. We watched employees from one organization share how the pub quiz was convened remotely and everyone participating admittedly

An upside to remote working that employers are realizing is that there’s no need to keep the lights on at a workplace if no one is there.  There’s also no need to waste costs on travel.  The lack of travel means more time and less impact on our carbon footprint.

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Working remotely means an employee can work anywhere and have a relaxed working environment.  Work-life balance is more attainable. This is attractive to young entrepreneurial talent and parents. The time lost in travel can cost a family time eating breakfast or dinner together.  Ultimately people feel more in control of their days.

There’s some concern surrounding the lack of human connection. But the 4IR is adapting human connection with happy hour Zoom calls, team social sessions, and more, allowing people to connect on new levels.  The networking opportunities are greater than ever before and can reach further around the globe than ever before.

Can remote be permanent?

It is possible for the future of work to be remote, but what checks and balances can we put in place to keep this intact? Employers will need to make sure that that there are measures in place for regulating and monitoring their employees. These measures need to ensure that employees are productive.  Entrepreneurs have built virtual workplaces with meeting rooms and office station. Access and supervision can be monitored, subject to personal information laws.

COVID-19 ignited remote work, and this may be the building block that starts the creation of future working models, looking at innovation, intrapreneurship, reskilling, and upskilling the workplace. COVID-19 could well be the spark that creates global work opportunities without borders.

Make yourself a cup of tea, find a routine, and get busy working.

Sherisa Rajah is a labour, employment and human rights lawyer in Fasken’s Johannesburg office. With a focus on forensic enquiries relating to employee misconduct, labour litigation and employment law, she represents clients in the financial, manufacturing, pharmaceutical, construction, mining, and SoE and municipal sectors. Sherisa has advised incubator funds empowering entrepreneurs in the start up space. She represents clients across Africa and the Middle East. She also serves as an employment expert on the South Africa Presidential Commission on 4IR. She can be reached at srajah@fasken.com 

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