South Africa: Life after lockdown: flexible working is here to stay
As businesses resume operations in line with the “gradual and phased” reopening of the economy outlined in the Alert Level 4 Lockdown Regulations, one thing is for certain – it is not and will not be business as usual. The Alert Level 4 Lockdown Regulations and a new set of Occupational Health and Safety Directions, both published on 29 April 2020, have presented employers with an opportunity to formalise flexible working arrangements. If done right, this may be highly advantageous not only in the short term, but also in the long term.
The Alert Level 4 Lockdown Regulations mandate employers to adopt ‘physical distancing’ measures, which include:
- Enabling employees to work from home or minimising the need for employees to be physically present at the workplace;
- Adopting special measures for employees above the age of 60, or those with known or disclosed health issues, comorbidities, or conditions which may increase the risk of complications or death if they are infected with COVID-19; and
- Putting in place workplace plans to enable disease surveillance and prevent the spread of infection.
Furthermore, in terms of the Occupational Health and Safety Directions, employers must “as far as practicable, minimise the number of workers on at the workplace at any given time through rotation, staggered working hours, shift systems, remote working arrangements or similar measures in order to achieve social distancing”.
For those companies which think that, come the end of the pandemic and the lockdown in its various phases, remote working will be a thing of the past, this is unlikely. On the contrary, there is an increasing push by the ever growing millennial workforce for flexible working arrangements. A recent Buffer survey involving over 3 500 remote workers found that 98% of remote workers would like to work remotely (at least some of the time) for the rest of their careers. Thus, to ensure not being left behind by the 4IR and to retain talent in this ever-changing environment, it is vital that employers embrace the opportunity to regularise their flexible working arrangements and adopt a progressive strategy that both optimises output and cuts costs within the bounds of the newly regulated landscape. Flexible working arrangements are here to stay.
It is important to note that flexible working arrangements are not limited to remote working arrangements. Flexible working is a term more broadly used to encapsulate any working arrangement which deviates from the traditional norm of a rigid 9-to-5, five-day week structure. Flexible working arrangements could include staggered working or “flexi” hours, job-shares and full or partial remote working. The possibilities are seemingly endless.
For the sceptics of remote working arrangements, numerous studies have extolled the personal and business benefits of working from home. A Stanford study involving a randomised control trial on 1 000 employees of Ctrip (a Chinese travel company) indicated that working from home during a nine-month period resulted in a 13% increase in performance. That is almost an extra day of output per week! It also showed a 50% decrease in employee resignation rates. In an Airtasker study, people reported that working from home helped them (i) to skirt office politics and distractions and (ii) to have improved concentration, attributing this to a change in scenery. In addition, Harvard Business Review found that ‘high trust organisations’ (ie companies which embraced flexible working arrangements) are 50% more productive. Flexibility has also been found to have a positive effect on employees’ work-life balance and general morale. For some, the regained commuting time has translated into building healthier exercise habits, which is beneficial for employees’ holistic well-being. The lack of a daily commute to and from work may assist in preserving greater environment by reducing carbon emissions too.
Importantly, and in the present circumstances, allowing employees to work from home also helps to combat the spread of sickness, including COVID-19, among co-workers and their families.
And if you still aren’t convinced – remote working holds the potential to reduce operational costs, such as costs relating to office supplies, maintenance, water, electricity and property insurance.
In regularising flexible working arrangements, a workplace policy would need to be carefully formulated to ensure compliance with the new Alert Level 4 Lockdown Regulations relating to the incremental re-introduction of the economy and address inevitable business-specific challenges, including unreliable internet access, office set up and social isolation. Pursuant to their risk assessments, employers will need to consider, going forward, which categories of employees can continue to work remotely and how employees will be selected fairly and within the bounds of the law.
Other than the regulation of practical and logistical arrangements, such as who will be entitled to remote work, and when, a flexible work policy may also need to, amongst other things, establish structured daily check-ins between managers and teams; establish “rules of engagement”, provide opportunities for remote “physical” interaction, particularly on video calls; offer encouragement and emotional support for those who might struggle with the legal parameters imposed on re-entering the workforce.
Given the challenges that employers may face in “policing” any misconduct or poor performance, managers would need to be upskilled to manage remote workers, while making use of and adapting the virtual platforms which support and optimise remote working.
Before a policy of this nature is implemented more permanently past the pandemic, employers may want to impose a trial phase. During which further consultation with employees can take place through surveys, informal discussions and/or focus groups. This would help uncover business-specific needs, interests and anticipate challenges experienced in the trial phase.
Business post hard lockdown will play out differently for each employer, but the economic reset has presented an opportunity for employers to rethink and embrace different ways of working which could ultimately help them get back on their feet faster. If done right, regularising flexible work arrangements may prove to be an invaluable business move with far-reaching financial and operational benefits in the long term.
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