One of the most well-known slogans of the Covid-19 pandemic was probably ‘Stay at home’. Until this point, most South African companies fostered a ‘bums-in-seats’ culture, offering limited opportunities for employees to work remotely. Temporary lockdowns and the desire to keep people safe during various Covid-19 waves changed all that, resulting in either permanent changes or hybrid working models, where employees have flexibility in splitting their time between office and home.
One company that has made the shift is legal technology company, LexisNexis South Africa. Following the proven success of its hybrid style during the pandemic, the company stated that their now permanent hybrid model complements their company culture, which is based on trust, empowerment and innovation.
The company’s decision to adopt a blend of in-office and at-home working aligns with local trends, as reflected in a Microsoft survey of 610 leaders and employees in large enterprises in South Africa. The survey examined employees’ experiences of remote working since the beginning of the pandemic. Almost nine out of 10 leaders (88%) at large enterprises in South Africa expected to make the hybrid model permanent.
In this model, employees may work at home two to three days per week, while the remaining days in the office are used for meetings or teamwork.
With the huge technological potential that widespread 5G roll-outs will bring to South Africa – including support for artificial intelligence – it is inevitable that our working lives will become more digital. Experts are predicting that physical office space will eventually become obsolete, while emerging technologies will render remote working and interactions more sophisticated.
The interesting thing about this shift to working from home is that although most people embrace it, the loss of camaraderie and the struggles of maintaining a work routine are causing unexpected, longer-term stress. A survey by global research organisation, Ipsos, revealed that younger employees (18-29 year olds), especially, suffer from too much alone time and are experiencing unprecedented levels of mental health issues. This is not altogether surprising, given that one of the most important developmental milestones for young adults is forming a professional identity. Taking away young people’s opportunities to engage in ad-hoc and in-person meetings robs them of valuable opportunities to build that professional identity.
The Ipsos study interviewed around 750 South Africans working online, and highlights the challenges of remote working.
Women in the study indicated that they took more frequent breaks and struggled with routine and other commitments when working from home, while men complained of more frequent meetings that take place online, and a lack of effective communication making teamwork more difficult. Both men and women also complained of distractions at home that interrupt their workflow.
Participants said that it was now harder to keep teams motivated than when they were physically together, and tasks took more time to complete.
Combating these challenges may need creative answers that do not necessarily mean going back to the office on a full-time basis. Most employees in the survey indicated that despite the challenges, they enjoyed the flexibility that working remotely offers them.
Not going into the office has definite perks: not having to sit in traffic every day, saving money on petrol and work clothes, and avoiding frequent interruptions from co-workers.
It’s almost a case of ‘We’re imploding from the stress of it, but we actually do love it!’ A nuanced reaction, if ever there was one.
One solution may be South Africa’s thriving café culture. Starbucks South Africa has found ways to ride the wave of consumer ambivalence about working outside of the office; they’re opening several new branches to cater to the new remote working culture, drawing in remote workers who miss the camaraderie at the office and want to work surrounded by others.
According to Starbucks, offering free internet connectivity and a place to connect with other people while enjoying a hot drink and a snack make coffee shops the new ‘office away from the office’.
Research has also shown that the hustle and bustle at coffee shops can increase creativity and productivity.
To cater for our new ways of working, we need creative solutions that will speak to employees’ need for more flexibility along with our natural need for social and emotional support. We all need to connect, even if indirectly, by being surrounded by warm bodies, not images on a screen! The area offers huge opportunities for enterprising entrepreneurs who have the creativity and drive to come up with work-space solutions. It certainly takes clever design-thinking to come up spaces that appeal for both work and socialising.
For the rest of us – if working from home becomes lonely and mundane, relocating your home office to a coffee shop may be the perfect answer! How about seeking those out-of-the-way places run by young entrepreneurs trying to make a go of it? We have the choice in who we support. Our presence in a coffee shop can be just the boost a young entrepreneur needs, while ticking all our own boxes, too.