Remote work is on the rise in South Africa and the world. Why is remote work becoming popular, and how can organisations manage the transition?
Remote work is the ability to produce work output while away from the regular workstation, warehouse, store, or office. It’s also known as telecommuting, teleworking, mobile work, or working from home. Remote work has always been hindered by the reliance on technology that tethered workers to their office or servers with desktops and cables. Fortunately, communication technology has advanced enough to enable a worker to access all company resources from any place, especially if it has a network.
Types of remote workers
Working away from a centralised workplace is becoming very common. The profile of workers who choose to work remotely can be classified as;
- Remote employees: who can work from anywhere and do not necessarily have to be in the office to get things done. Even though they may be out of office, remote employees usually have a fixed schedule determined by the company.
- A freelancer: who is hired by clients for services. Freelancers usually have their own schedule but they have deadlines set by the client.
- Business owners: can also run their operations from any location. This is particularly true for small online businesses. It also applies to traditional businesses like accounting and investment services. Business owners will also most likely expand their operations by hiring remote workers.
The pros of remote working in a communication age
- Increased productivity: since workers are not tied to workstations or server locations, they can access the company’s digital assets from anywhere. Rather than rely on employee presence in the office to get work done, organisations can now expect employees to work while in transit, between meetings, at home, or on holiday. 74% of South African business people believe that productivity increases with flexible work.
- Faster decision making: making decisions needs information on hand, collaboration platforms can give decision makers all the information and tools they need to decide on an action from anywhere. The decision maker could be on the factory floor, underground, on a construction site, or stuck in traffic and they can still make a definitive, informed decision.
- Lowers office work pressure: if an employee needs access to a company's servers and digital resources to complete a task, then there can be a lot of pressure to complete everything right there and then in the office. With remote working, the employee can still access resources out of office which reduces the pressure to complete tasks in the office.
- Work-life balance: since the workers are no longer tied to a stringent work schedule, they have more time for family and friends. Two income homes are now becoming more common and sadly that has resulted in less parental attention and time for children. Remote work enables the worker to shift their work schedule to be a present parent and have a social life. 77% of people say that working from home has improved their overall health and wellbeing.
- No commuting: a lot of time is spent in traffic, commuting to and from work along with carrying out work tasks and going for work meetings. If the employee decides to work from home, the time commuting can be productively spent on work and, should there be a need, on personal matters. Time is genuinely limited and a precious resource, and remote working frees up the time that would have been spent on commuting. This is particularly a problem in Gauteng where 46.4% of workers reported that commuting to work takes more than 30 minutes.
- It's healthier: remote work has real health benefits, particularly when it comes to a worker's diet. No longer limited to restaurant options near their workplace, remote workers can indulge in personalised meals in their own kitchen. No more grabbing quick questionable meals on the run, everything is within reach in the home's fridge or pantry. The work-life balance mentioned before also helps lower the stress levels of remote workers. Having a schedule that allows the worker to take breaks whenever necessary reduces burnout and leads to a generally happier worker. A study ranked Johannesburg as one of the top 20 cities in the world for work burnout.
- Saves money: without having to commute, use a car, buy office wear, eat out at restaurants for lunch etc, the remote employee ends up saving money. Commuting is a recurring expense and for some workers it takes a large part of their income. Eliminating or reducing the need to commute can have a significant impact on savings, particularly for low-income workers. 23.5% of South African households reported that they spend between 11% and 20% of their income on public transport.
- Increased talent pool: having a remote staff enables an organisation to recruit beyond its physical location. The world is literally at its disposal. It also enables the organisation to recruit talent without requiring them to move, which can be an issue particularly when it comes to workers with family commitments.
- Better productive scheduling: when workers can make their own schedule, they can dedicate their most productive times to work. This may not be the traditional 9 to 5, as some are morning, afternoon or evening people. Also keep in mind that Eskom isn't producing power reliably, so if load shedding happens during a regimented schedule, then productive hours are lost.
- Lower office costs: having remote staff means that the organisation needs less office space and equipment to operate. The organisation can also be located anywhere, including in low rent or tax areas rather than a centralised expensive office in the city.
How remote workers connect to the organisation's resources is simply through any internet network. Once connected, remote workers have full access to the organisation's resources. Collaboration platforms, like Microsoft Teams or Unify Circuit, allow employees to access and connect to their work devices (cellphones, laptops, tablets, desktops) to securely access colleagues, files, virtual meeting spaces, schedules, and more. Their absence from a physical office will not be a hindrance at all. Collaboration solutions come with third party integrations that add capabilities and make the experience more customisable. The organisation can use collaboration app APIs to build their own capabilities or enhance their apps and websites.
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The cons of remote working in a communication age
- Increased risk of theft or loss of devices: remote work is carried out on mobile devices like laptops, tablets, and smartphones. All of these mobile devices are easier to steal or lose than a stationary, bulky desktop. It’s recommended that each device be fitted with a tracker and fully insured to reduce risks and losses.
- Data loss or theft: remote work devices (laptop, tablet, phone etc) operate outside of the physical premises of the organisation. This exposes the device to physical theft along with hacking. The data stored in the devices can become compromised. There are practical and technological precautions that can protect both the devices and the data.
- Exposure to unprotected networks: remote work requires that the device connects to the internet using a network that is not known by the organisation's IT administration. These could be internet cafes or hotel WiFi networks. Installing firewalls and endpoint security in all mobile devices will protect them against network malware.
- The human element: humans are social creatures so we value physical interaction and contact. Remote working lacks these qualities, as co-workers are not in the same location. Communication and understanding is built on physical cues which are not present in emails and IMs. Having clear, concise, and transparent communication among co-worker can reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings. Employing video and conference call tools (like Microsoft Teams) is vital as it makes communication feel closer and add the physical communication cues workers need to connect with each other.
- Lack of discipline: an office environment can motivate employees to push themselves harder, particularly because they feel they are being observed by others and they don't want to be seen as slacking. This environment isn't present in remote work where the worker is left to their own devices, so if they do not have self-discipline, no work will be done. Collaboration tools are an excellent way to solve this problem. Work can be broken down into tasks that are tracked, so that remote workers can feel some level of expectation to perform.
- Equipment failure: if equipment fails in an office space, everyone owns the problem and a worker might even be able to use other equipment in stock. If this happens out of the office then the remote worker is on their own and this can affect the entire team's output. According to this report, just under 33% of respondents named slow or unreliable internet as the biggest obstacle to working from home.
South Africa is embracing remote work
The need and use of remote workers is growing in South Africa. Entrepreneurial millennials are forming their own businesses which run on collaboration technology to communicate, schedule tasks, and share information.
Cloud-based collaboration technology enables these entrepreneurs to pool skills from multiple locations at a fraction of the cost. According to Stats SA, the contribution of small businesses to total business turnover was 29% in 2019. Approximately 60% of business people work at least 2.5 days outside of the office every week. As the 4th Industrial Revolution takes place, these small businesses will rely on small, nimble, collaborative teams to get things done.
Workers are also relying less on formal employment to earn a living. Whether as an extra income or full-on profession, workers are taking up freelance work. Freelance work in the internet age allows workers to work across borders easily and to access resources from remote locations. The Southern African Freelancers’ Association (SAFREA), through its 2018/2019 SA Media Freelance Industry and Rates Report , noted that more than a third of freelancers earn less than R10 000 per month, while over 40% of respondents earn between R11 000 and R30 000 a month. Thanks to collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, freelancing across locations and borders from the comfort of your own home is a viable career option.
As South African offices become less bound by their location, they’ll need collaboration technology to bind and guide teams, they’ll also need to make sure they keep this technology up-to-date. With the right tools, both the employee and employer can create a digital workspace that is less costly, more productive, and move into a more flexible working environment.
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