It’s not as if hybrid work is really anything new. Ask any educated, energetic millennial – many are working two or three jobs, at least one of them online, and were doing so long before Covid. The traditional nine-to-five job has been fading for some time as technology has exploded, forcing most of us to adapt to new ways of working, and setting new expectations for the idea of the career. Now, it’s all about flexibility, adaptability, continual learning and advancing our skills as technology advances, enabling us to hop into jobs that are being created as we speak.
So some of us are accustomed to working from home, and others are rapidly acclimatising to it. What does the research say – and how does this new way of working apply to our own country – and to Africa?
First off, productivity. That has always been the key issue for employers. The unsurprising news is that if an employee was highly productive in-office, they’ll be productive at home; if an employee slacked off at the office, they’ll do the same a home. That’s according to Prodoscore, a company that monitors employee productivity. In fact their data shows that overall, there was a 5% increase in productivity during the pandemic work-from-home period.
Second, let’s look at what employees actually prefer. Global consulting group, BCG, and a recruiting company known as The Network, surveyed 209 000 respondents in 190 countries and found that although employees enjoy some remote work, going fully remote is not something we’re clamouring for. As with most things in life, the sweet spot is found somewhere in the middle. What we as employees want is a hybrid model as part of an overall set of workplace attributes, which includes friendly colleagues, ethnic and racial diversity, and a commitment to environmentally sound practices.
Their study was fascinating in many respects. Countries in Western Europe have embraced remote working far more than most countries in Africa, with South Africa being the one exception. The Netherlands tops the list for remote working – 90% worked remotely during Covid – while China is at the bottom of the list – only 37 % worked remotely during Covid. Other African countries were at the 45% – 55% mark, while in South Africa, 87% of us worked remotely. This higher percentage for South Africa may well reflect our higher proportion of the workforce working in digital or knowledge-based jobs, which lend themselves more easily to remote working than, say, manufacturing, manual work or health.
The question is, how many of these changes have become permanent? This is harder to assess. Buffer, a company with 85 employees in 15 countries, conducted a slightly smaller survey of 2118 people in 16 countries in early 2022. Overall, 72% of respondents are still working fully remotely or almost fully remotely – with the rest working according to ‘office occasional’ or ‘office first’ models. Most – 86% – state that they would prefer to work fully or almost fully remotely. Coming into the office one or two days a week seems to strike the ideal balance for most.
And in Africa?
When it comes to remote work, but there are still barriers for Africa. As a continent, we currently have a population of 1.37 billion, a figure that will double by 2050. In South Africa we’re about to hit the 60 million mark. Will we really have 120 million within 28 years? One suspects that the higher rate of increase will be in less industrialised countries where larger families are still seen as in investment. Nonetheless, there will an increase, and the challenge to find jobs for all will only intensify.
Future employment is likely to depend to a great degree on digital technology. Africa’s population is younger than most – 60% of us are under 25. It has been estimated that 75% of jobs will require advanced digital skills by 2030. In other words, to get Africa’s 250 million-and-counting unemployed youth working, we need, as a matter of urgency, to create jobs that are digital in nature and can be done remotely.
For this we need two things: a reliable power supply and access to the internet. Currently 46% of Africa still lacks access to electricity. Governments need to focus on energy infrastructure, investment in renewables and creating the market for private sustainable energy enterprises.
In 2019, 39% of Africans had access to the internet. What we need is high-bandwidth internet connectivity. For this, telecom companies play a critical role. Government communications departments ought to be creating regulatory strategies at the regional and national levels that foster quick, bureaucracy-free installation of broadband infrastructure.
These two strategies would go a long way to making remote work possible for the talented, resilient and enterprising youth of this continent. For those of us in CSI who are lucky enough to be employed, and to be working even one or two days from home, let’s get more people digitally competent – it is the only way to make a real dent on unemployment.