THE WORLD OF WORK RE-IMAGINED Quarter 3 2021

By IMRAAN MAHOMED AND KELEBOGILE SELEMA, Published in Employment Law - Feature

The theme song in Aladdin is a ballad sung by the characters Aladdin and Jasmine about the new world they are about to discover while riding on Aladdin's magic carpet.

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But, when the world of work, like every other facet of our lives, has to be reimagined because of a relentless pandemic that continues to ravage our everyday lives, the words "show you the world, shining, shimmering, splendid" do not ring true.

Unlike Aladdin's confidence when singing to Jasmine that "I can open your eyes, Take you wonder by wonder; Over, sideways and under, On a magic carpet ride", our "whole new world" is less romantic, safe and melodious.

Frankly, it is scary. But, as Aladdin rightly predicted:

'Unbelievable sights

Indescribable feeling

Soaring, tumbling, freewheeling

….

I can't go back to where I used to be

A whole new world

With new horizons to pursue

….

There's time to spare

Let me share this whole new world with you"

The 2020 Future of Jobs Report, published by the World Economic Forum, predicts that 85 million jobs will be displaced by automation by 2025. It also reports that in the same period, most employers will divide work roughly between humans and machines. The industrial revolution transformed economies based on agriculture and handicrafts into economies based on large-scale industry, mechanised manufacturing, and the factory system. The robot revolution is also expected to create 97 million new jobs. Emerging professions, it is predicted, will reflect the need for roles in the data and AI economy; engineering; cloud computing; and product development. We are in the throes of a new revolution, hastened by the COVID-19 outbreak.

But, is the South African economy ready? We do not believe so, for a variety of reasons.

Globally, the majority of workforces have endured multiple government lockdowns. The result of these lockdowns was remote forms of working that continue; large scale retrenchments and widespread furloughs. Some industries, like aviation and hospitality, ground to a halt.

Has the pandemic normalised remote working? Before 2020, it was unusual to work from home, but in just one year, companies came to realise that working from home worked. Do employees have go back to the office again, and if so, when and how often? What is the impact of a hybrid way of work on the way we communicate, connect and create? If offices become virtual, what do we make of our social interactions? Importantly, what happens to people who cannot work from home, or whose jobs depend on physical presence? And if the future is digital, how do we ensure that as few people as possible get left behind? According to Prodoscore, people were 47% more productive working from home than they were working in an office.

Many first world countries have made wide scale progress in their vaccination programmes and are already considering these questions for a "post-COVID-era". In these countries, employers and employees are now having to re-evaluate the world of work as we know it.

Organised labour in the United Kingdom has been calling for an expansion of flexible working hours, regardless of whether workers can do their jobs from home. Labour argued that working from home should not be forced onto workers in a way that only benefits employers. UK Trade Union, the Trade Union Congress (TUC), endorsed the position that in the post-COVID-era, UK employers need to consider flexible working hours. This consideration needs to include not only working from home, but also other nontraditional working patterns, such as fixed hours, job-share or flexitime, term-time only, annualised or compressed hours. The TUC further argues that businesses should base their assessment of employees on the quality of work done, and not necessarily where the work is done. Employers should not be permitted to discriminate against employees who choose to work from home. Interestingly, the UK's Office for National Statistics Data (from 2011 to 2020) shows that choosing to work from home can negatively affect both an employee's earning capacity and promotion opportunities. Labour correctly concluded that a one-size-fits all approach to what the future of work should be is unlikely to succeed, so employers, trade unions and the government need to work together. While the UK has not adopted a change in working regime, it is already grappling with the some of the thorny questions that arise.

Iceland is an intriguing case study. Trials of a four-day week were conducted between 2015 and 2019, long before the outbreak of COVID-19, as a trial-run to determine the future of work. The study comprised two large-scale trials of a reduced working week with no reduction in pay. Researchers found that productivity and service provision remained the same or improved across the selected trial workplaces, whilst the wellbeing of workers increased dramatically – there was less stress and burnout, and better health and work-life balance. Fast-forward to 2021 – 86% of Iceland's workplaces have shorter working hours or are gaining the right to shorten their hours.

On our shores, it is now well known that there has been a marked uptick in working professionals "semigrating" from cities to smaller coastal and inland towns since 2020 as a result of remote working. PwC recently conducted an interesting survey which concluded that the pandemic has changed work expectations in South Africa, as more employees want to work from home, even if they are able to return to the office. This is consistent with international trends. According to the study, over a third of South African workers say that in the future, their ideal work environment would be a mix of face-to-face and remote working. A quarter favoured mostly virtual working with some face-to face interaction, and 27% opted for a wholly virtual place where employees can contribute from any location. An article by the University of Stellenbosch Business School, 'Remote Work and Employee Engagement in COVID-19', provides that in future, a combination of office and home-based work could be the best route to greater employee engagement, productivity and performance, benefiting both the individual and the company. It recommends that employers consider blended and flexible working arrangements, enabling employees to work from home or remotely for two to three days a week.

However, the calls for the adoption of a remote workforce in South Africa, with all its advantages, is hindered by various factors. The pandemic has increased the inequality gap that already exists. The civil unrest witnessed in July 2021 laid bare this reality and highlighted the lack of government control over the populace. An article written by Tshabalira Lebakeng and published in the Daily Maverick in July 2021, "God left South Africa long ago", should, as the Daily Maverick says, be prescribed reading. Lebakeng tells his personal account in Soweto, of the average South African who lives hand-to-mouth, never quite knowing where the next meal will come from. As the unions often remark, these are the people who rank below "the working poor". A South African paradox.

Informal and casual workers depend on limited or erratic income, receive no social protection from government and continue to be adversely affected by the lockdown measures. Social security in the world of work (and note that I did not say "in employment") needs to be re-imagined and the net widened. But, this requires a large tax base – in a country with an ever declining fiscus. Added to this dilemma is the general lack of trust between employers and organised labour; let alone disorganised labour – a phenomenon that has grown in the workplace over a number of years, with the fragmentation of organised labour and general political instability. All of these factors impact on the workplace.

Adopting a digital workplace is not a reality for a large segment of the population. Another significant challenge in adopting a permanent 'Work from Home' regime is the lack of a stable and affordable internet connection across the country. South Africa lags behind other countries such as, for instance, Rwanda which uses satellites to bring internet connection closer to her people. The 2013 National Broadband Policy, known as "South Africa Connect", is seen as a competent guide for South Africa's digital development. The World Bank's Broadband Commission for Digital Development remarked that: "South Africa Connect provides an excellent example of a policy which focuses on both supply-side and demand-side considerations". But a number of factors have got in the way of digital transformation. We all know that one was lack of continuity in the political leadership of the national ICT portfolio.

Between 2009 and 2018, South Africa had 11 different ministers responsible for telecommunications. Again, we have been let down by politicians.

The 2018 International Telecommunication Union's Information Society Index, which measures countries' evolution towards becoming information societies, placed South Africa 104th out of 144 countries, in terms of access to fixed broadband, down from 77th in 2002. Will the responsibility for adequate internet and data usage costs lie with the employee, or will employers end up having to bear expenses for employees? What about the obligations to maintain employer confidentiality and compliance with recently introduced data privacy laws. Adding insult to injury is access to a reliable power supply. The frequent power cuts, as a result of load shedding, complicates the efforts of South Africans to work online. We have no idea when, if ever, the grid will become more stable. The only guarantee from government is rising costs and a call to use electricity sparingly. The effects of lockdowns, uncertainty in job security and work from home regimes coupled with family responsibilities have also increased mental health issues and, as Adam Grant for the New York Times called it in a piece published in early 2021: "There's a Name for the Blah You're Feeling: It's Called Languishing". The effects of a lack of motivation and focus (a sense of stagnation and emptiness, not burnout or depression) in not having professional, collegial and broader social interaction when locked away at home are a real issue – it's called languishing! The full effects of the negative mental health consequences of the pandemic on employees are yet to be seen.

Despite the unique challenges that the South African workforce faces (these are extraneous to the employment relationship), what is certain from an international analysis is that remote working is here to stay. What proactive employers need to do is find ways to help their employees adapt, and leave as few people behind as possible. What we know for sure is that, globally, the labour market was disrupted during 2020, and the post-pandemic economy is going to be vastly different from the one we knew in 2019. It is certain is that the new world of work is going to place a much greater emphasis on education. The lack of a proper educational base for the vast majority of blue-collar workers in South Africa means that transitioning these workers to a digital economy is going to be close to impossible. This means that there is an urgency for businesses and government to take steps to support additional practical training and education systems for workers. The irony is that we have had Sector Education Training Authorities in existence for almost two decades. How effective have they been? The reports of the Auditor General speak for themselves, and reading these will have you understand why "God left South Africa long ago". Globally, a number of major brands now provide work-from-home opportunities for their staff. These include Shopify, Twitter, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. Deloitte has also announced that its staff need not return to the office.

Whilst the future is unpredictable, it is certain – innovation, flexibility and 'thinking out the box' are part of the future of the workplace, and so is a collaborative work environment. Employers will need to be creative, open-minded and involve employees in considering and making decisions on how to create and develop an environment where employees can thrive in a post-pandemic economy.

It is clear is that only the strong and flexible will successfully survive the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are likely to be victors in the newly defined world of work. To end where we started, despite their adversities, Aladdin and Jasmine were correct; it's definitely: "A whole new world (a whole new world) That's where we'll be (that's where we'll be) A thrilling chase (a wondrous place) For you and me."

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Mahomed is a Director, Employment Law, and Selema a Candidate Attorney with Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr Incorporating Kietl Law LLP (Kenya)