1 Introduction

1.1 Working Conditions – The COVID-19 Impact

As a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic many countries have embarked on national lockdowns, bringing economies to a halt. In response to the expected impact of COVID-19, McKinsey & Company revised their growth outlook for Africa from 3.9% to between -3.9% and 0.4%. Although these estimates do not consider fiscal stimulus packages or currency devaluations, it does allow for some insight into the devastating effect the Corona Virus will have on the African economy. (Evans, 2020)

In countries like South Africa, where 20% of the work force is in the informal sector, the impact will likely be more severe as a result of a shortage of capacity and resources required to rebound from a crisis like this (Evans, 2020), (Stith, 2020). Widespread job losses are expected as a result of the closure of multiple businesses in particular SMEs due to the forced lockdowns measures (Jayaram, Leke, Ooko-Ombaka, & Sunny Sun, 2020). At least one million job cuts are expected from the formal sector alone in South Africa (Stith, 2020). To stem this several support structures are needed such as debt relief and budget supplements (Stith, 2020). In addition, companies need to develop new ways to keep functioning and generating revenue. One such way has been to increase their ability to accommodate remote working, which may even continue into the future.

At an online IDG Tech Talk on 12 March 2020 it was highlighted that enabling businesses to work remotely is not that easy. Businesses amidst the COVID-19 struggle are mainly focusing on getting the necessary collaboration tools to allow them to continue functioning. They should however also be training their employees on how to work remotely. It doesn’t help having the right tools if employees don’t know how to use them effectively. It was also pointed out that now is the time to get the correct systems and infrastructure in place to avoid similar challenges in the future. (Brown, 2020)

1.2 Remote Working

The demand to work remotely, or working-from-home (WFH), has steadily been increasing over the last few years. Remote working on a regular basis has been growing by 173% between 2005 and 2018 (Global Workplace Analystics, 2020). 98% of employees in the United States have expressed their desire to work remotely on a permanent or at least part-time basis (Buffer & AngelList, 2020).

A survey conducted by Owl Labs in USA found that over 80 % of employees indicated that they would be happier, feel more trusted, less likely to leave, less stressed and more committed to the company if allowed to work remotely. 91 % of remote workers felt that they had a better work-life balance and approximately 80 % felt they were less stressed and more productive. You can read up on the study here. (Owl Lab, 2019)

The World Economic Forum also stated that significant changes will be occurring in the future regarding automation and the requirement for companies to adapt their work environment and become more flexible. Younger workers prefer decentralized work environment and more control and ownership of how things are done. (Bruce-Lockhart, 2020)

According to Hallway there are at least 67 companies that are completely remote or distributed, as it is also referred to. You can find the list here. Remote businesses pride themselves on their agility and ability to deliver better quality and more value to their clients. They are able to easily navigate time zones and language barriers as they are well equipped to deal with these situations.

Due to the outbreak of COVID-19 businesses have had to rapidly adapt and set up their employees to work from home. PWC reported that only 16% of South Africa’s companies however had the ability to work from home indicating the significant lack in infrastructure and ability to equip our workforce to work remotely. According to Hern, COVID-19 is increasing the pressure on employers toward a permanent change in work conditions as employees question the reason to go into the office (Hern, 2020). This suggests a spike in the number of permanent or regular remote employees in the future which has been rapidly increasing since the start of the pandemic.

2 Remote Working – What is The Business Impact?

2.1 The Bottom-line and Why Employees Matter

As illustrated in Figure 2 businesses are continuously required to change and adapt to meet market shifts and demands in order to deliver a profit through the services, products or intellectual expertise they provide.

Figure 1: Virtuous cycle of a business.

Key to the company’s success is their employees who are fundamental in enabling the success of the business. Increasing productivity, reducing unnecessary costs and improving efficiency are some of the ways a business seeks to continuously improve. It is, however, important to maintain a good working culture and team orientated business amidst all these initiatives.

Glassdoor conducted six studies to evaluate the link between satisfied employees and the influence on business results. They evaluated employee satisfaction with the market value of the company, financials, stock performance and earnings. In all the studies a link could be found between the employees’ satisfaction and business performance. Confirming the significant contribution employees make to the success of the company. (Chamberlain, 2017)

Amidst the global trend of increased remote working, one way a business can improve its employee satisfaction is considering permanent or partial remote working conditions. It must be said however that for a portion of the economy this is not a possibility. Industries such as manufacturing and mining will always rely on a labour force, working on site, to be able to function and produce required goods. Even in these industries, however, there are the possibility of exploring more flexibility in the working environment.

2.2 What Are The Business Benefits?

There are significant benefits to be gained from a remote or dispersed workforce, the list is quite long, and this section provides a summary only.

  • At the forefront is gaining access to a more diverse international talent pool of employees. You have the ability to appoint employees from across the world. This would not be possible if you are situated in a specific area and your company does not have the facilities or systems in place which allows collaboration of remote employees. (Jay, 2018)
  • A business can save on renumeration packages as an employee does not have additional fuel expenses and eliminates the need to spend hours long commuting to an office. Employees will also experience significantly less stress by eliminating exposure to traffic. This allows for a healthier and safer employee, increasing productivity. (Jay, 2018)
  • A significant benefit is also a reduction in office renting space. A much smaller office can be utilized for contact sessions or in-person meetings. Even if weekly contact sessions are required, rotation of different teams could allow for a reduction in the space required. For full remote working, coffee shops can also be utilized for contact sessions or workshop hubs that allow you to rent a meeting room on an ad-hoc basis as required. This completely eliminates the need of a dedicated office space. (Jay, 2018)
  • Forbes recently wrote an article on some of the research findings from Gallup, Global Workplace Analytics and Stanford University (Farrer, 2020). The study found remote work led to an increase in productivity of between 5% and 40 % in teleworkers. (Farrer, 2020)
  • The article also highlight the significant performance improvement found, with a 40 % decrease in quality defects in products (Farrer, 2020).
  • Employee retention was also found to increase. 12 % of employees stayed with a company instead of leaving after being offered remote working as an option (Farrer, 2020).
  • Employees are more productive as they can manage a schedule that works for them and allows them to decide for themselves when they work. This enables a more autonomous workforce, giving employees more buy in and ownership. This does however, come with certain rules to allow collaboration between employees and different teams. (Hunkeler, 2018)
  • Studies also indicate a reduction absenteeism, as employees can fit work in around their personal life and easily catch-up on lost time due to a doctor’s appointment or taking their child to a dance class (Hunkeler, 2018). The article by Forbes reported a 41 % reduction in absenteeism.
  • It also needs to be said that for international companies, building a suitable team is now much easier and it is possible to formulate a highly effective team to work on a project from across the world. Having all the infrastructure already in place makes this easy and highly effective.

2.3 What Are The Business Challenges and Risks?

Despite the numerous benefits of remote working, as with everything in life, there are challenges and risks that a company needs to consider. Timecamp, Lucidchart and Harvard Business Review share some insight into some of these challenges.

  • As many companies have realized amidst COVID-19, one of the key challenges is access to stable internet connectivity. This is especially challenging in developing countries like South Africa and Africa where most households don’t have access to stable, fast internet. This requires companies to supply their employees with data bundles and remote routers which in turn can increase costs considerably. Even then, due to remote locations the connectivity may still be very poor.
  • Another challenge that must be managed is ensuring continuous and effective team communication. Your day, which was once filled with conversations at the water fountain or the coffee station, is now reduced to topic specific and brief conversations over tools such as Skype or Zoom. Employees lose out on some of the casual office banter and stress relief of sharing your experience with colleagues. Employees are also reluctant to ask a quick question that would save them a large amount of time. They may also waste time doing something that is no longer required due to a lack of proper team communication.
  • A large portion of remote workers also raise concerns of overworking. Employees struggle with time management and separating personal and work life. Managing communication with team members are also difficult with platforms like WhatsApp where its challenging to switch off from work with messages constantly streaming onto your phone.
  • Maintaining a company’s culture is also quite challenging. Remote work allows for less time to develop relationships between co-workers and less visibility of a company’s values. It can lead to a company that is disjointed if this is not managed appropriately.
  • Employee discipline and distractions. A big concern for companies are how effectively an employee can work from home with all the distractions of television, laundry and kids. However, one valid point made in an article by Laurel Farrer on Forbes’s website is that office settings also have distractions such as the coffee room and lunchroom where employees spend a lot of time. In the end it comes down to trusting your employee. (Farrer, 2019)
  • Having a mix of on-site and remote employees may lead to remote employees feeling disengaged and overlooked in terms of performance and contribution to the company. This needs to be actively managed to ensure remote workers are not overlooked or feel last in line when it comes to project assignments.
  • Due to the introduction of different time zones and working cultures, companies lack the proper manage systems to help different teams navigate through these situations as effectively as possible.

Despite these challenges and risks, numerous companies have felt that the benefits outweigh the challenges and have come up with innovative solutions and many strategies to mitigate the risks.

2.4 Other Innovations Companies Are Using To Improve Their Work Conditions?

In addition to remote working, numerous businesses across the globe have been experimenting with different ways in which a business can operate in contrary to the old school ways in a bid to increase their bottom-line. The motivation for these companies are aimed at reducing costs, improving employee’s satisfaction and finding innovative ways of doing business. All in the pursuit of growing a more successful business capable of delivering high quality value.

Google is probably one of the most well-known companies that places a high focus on employee experience. Some of the benefits they provide to their employees are extreme flexible working hours, free lunch, the famous nap pods and many other. Google also heavily rely on data analysis to identify new ways in which they can improve their productivity. (Patel, 2020)

Some companies have also experimented with a 4-day work week concept. Business Insider recently reported that Microsoft’s Japan subsidiary experimented with this. It was found that productivity increased by 40 %. Quite a significant increase for only one less workday, although the study was only conducted over a month period. The sustainability of this remains to be seen. In addition to the 4-day week, they also encouraged shorter meeting times of 30 minutes (Eadicicca, 2019). Perpetual Garden, a New Zealand based company, also experimented with a four-day work week and the benefits were significant enough that they have adopted this working strategy full time as reported by CNBC (Fox, 2019). Some of the unforeseen benefits Microsoft also found were a reduction in electricity and printing, adding additional cost savings. (Eadicicca, 2019)

3 Overcoming Remote Work Challenges – Innovative Solutions

There are a variety of areas that businesses need to focus on in order to avoid the common pitfalls and ensure successful implementation of remote working practices. The solutions below are ways in which your business can implement common and new working practices effectively when working remotely. The diagram below summarises the areas of focus and their key concepts:

Figure 2: Adapting your business for remote working.

3.1 Communication & Engagement

Daily (or every other day) Check-in meetings allows you to catch up with your team and help team members to focus on their priorities for the day. This is also useful to communicate urgent changes to planning or schedules. Here is a video to help you host effective stand-ups or check-in sessions. (Development That Pays, 2015)

– Once or twice a week contact sessions, if possible, where teams or groups meet in person can also be beneficial which lends itself more towards partial remote working. This allows an employee to prioritise their work and all the necessary meetings can be scheduled for those contact days in the office. This is mainly for longer meetings or when being physically present may be beneficial like reviewing drawings or conducting a HAZOP study.

– Communication can be maintained by making use of one of the multiple communication platforms currently available. Platforms such as WhatsApp, Microsoft Teams or Slack is useful to ask questions and give quick updates on progress or project happenings. Some companies run a continuous “office space” by keeping an active meeting channel online during the work day, or set up social spaces, where employees can dial in while drinking their coffee or taking a break to simulate “water fountain discussions”.

– Developing and agreeing on communication principles and best practices across the different communication channels available is important. Deciding as a team which platform to use for which type of communication saves a lot of time and avoids confusion and unnecessary delays. This also aids in respecting each other’s personal time outside of office hours and is crucial when working with an international team where time zones may also affect collaboration time.

– Host teleconferencing sessions with your team with the sole purpose to build relationships and to get the team to socialise and engage outside of tasks and deadlines. Time Doctor and Snack Nation share some useful exercises you can do with your team remotely.

– Remote working requires basic rules of engagement and etiquette, for instance via teleconferencing. Have standards like muting your microphone if you’re not speaking, or switching off video feed to prevent unnecessary interruptions and aid members with poor connectivity. Having No Agenda – No meeting rules also ensures effective and concise meetings.

– If internet connectivity allows, have the presenter keep their webcam on, this allows for the richer communication, informed by body language. Distant Job wrote a helpful article on how to use body language effectively with working remotely and what to keep in mind when connecting with team members remotely, you can access the article with this link.

– Employees should be encouraged to engage during meetings and talks by using the chat or message function built into most teleconferencing platforms. This allows feedback to the presenter and allows more engagement from those listening in.

– Collaboration with other companies is a powerful way to add skills to your company and allows you to conduct project for which your company itself does not have all the necessary skills. Being equipped for remote working makes these types of collaborations much easier and effective, increasing the pool of collaboration partners.

3.2 Knowledge Sharing

– Hosting informative sessions where employees can share knowledge and information monthly is a good way to transfer knowledge and refresh each other’s memory on good practice on how certain things are done in the company. This is also an opportunity where people who attended a conference or external training course can share the lessons learnt with the wider group of colleagues. A useful platform that could be used for these sessions is Meetup.

– Monthly or weekly newsletters or flash reports are a useful way to keep employees informed on things currently happening in the company. These could be events such as birthdays or new members who have joined the team.

3.3 Performance

Performance reviews and feedback are important tools to help employees grow and develop. EPCM wrote an article on new ways to provide performance feedback that you can read here.

Clear performance measures need to be in place to be able to manage and measure a projects progress and performance. This provides clear guidance to a remote worker on what needs to be done when which enables better time management from their side.

3.4 Workspace & Infrastructure

– It is critical to have effective tools that are fit for purpose and is well suited to your company’s needs to allow remote working such as good communication channels and teleconferencing tools.

– Hire a smaller office which can be utilized for required infrastructure such as storage of important documentation etc. This also provides a space for contact session of project teams to meet up or have work sessions.

Remote or floating license keys enable multiple users’ access to software even though only one person can use it at a time.

– It is critical to put the necessary security measurements and systems in place to protect your client’s information and ensure data is back-up appropriately. Remote working requires internet access to business systems which may require VPNs etc.

– Ensuring your workforce has a stable internet connection is a major challenge, routers and 3G internet data cards can be supplied to ensure employees have the necessary connectivity to perform their work.

– Hosting cloud servers for computational power enables the use of computationally heavy processes whilst working remotely. Techradar did a survey of the top cloud computing services for 2020 which is a good starting point to investigate what solution suits a specific company’s needs best. (Drake & Turner, 2020)

3.5 Management

– Managers need to learn to respect the quiet and allow employees time to work. Constantly checking on your team is not going to improve their productivity. This might be a bigger challenge for remote working if managers cannot physically see their employees and may be tempted to check up on them more frequently.

Continuous communication is key as a manager. Keep your team up to date on what is happening in the company and with other parts of the business so that employees are engaged and has a holistic view of the company. Having a monthly companywide teleconference to keep employees informed could be beneficial.

Know who to hire, remote working is not for everyone and therefore it is important to know who to hire and what type of person will fit into the culture of the company and effectively manage working remotely. Autonomous working capability, quick learning and good communication is some of the important skills to identify. (Atamaniuk, 2019)

– Utilize online progress management tools such as virtual KANBAN boards or progress trackers such as Jira or Redmine.

4. Remote Working – The New Normal?

The most important question businesses will be asking themselves once the COVID-19 pandemic condition improves is: What now? Amid the economic uncertainty and economic losses, most companies will face additional pressure and focus on ensuring increased productivity and cost reductions to help businesses recover.

Due to lockdowns many companies will have had the opportunity to evaluate how effectively their employees can work from home and what the impact of remote working has on their bottom line. For some companies having their employees work remotely may just be the new normal. CRN reported that 74 % of businesses in a Gartner survey indicated that at least 5 % of their employees will continue working remotely even after the COVID-19 situation has improved. A major motivation for this was the opportunity to reduce costs for the company (Kovar, 2020). It is will be important for companies embarking on this new normal to ensure systems and measurements are in place to monitor and manage this new way of working. Some measures that could be valuable are client satisfaction, timely deliverables, employee happiness, employee engagement, cost savings and performance evaluations to mention only a few.

Since working remotely is not yet well established across all companies and industries there will be many challenges and unforeseen situations to respond to – such as the unexpected security issues many faced when using Zoom for teleconferencing in recent months. As with any business practice it will require continuous innovation to find new ways to improve remote working productivity and effectiveness.

Despite the challenges, allowing employees to work remotely in larger numbers and more frequently during the course of a normal work week seems to be where the world is heading. The benefits for both a company and its employees are numerous, if the practice is implemented effectively and for many may outweigh the risks and short-term challenges.

5 References

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