“Perhaps no single trend has defined the pandemic era more than the shift from physical to remote work,” says a new ILO report, “The Next Normal: The Changing Workplace in Africa”, discussed at recent Business Day Dialogue in partnership with the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
The report finds that remote or home working has grown dramatically, though unevenly, in Africa since the 2020 COVID-induced lockdowns. And African businesses expect most workplaces to be in-person or hybrid, not fully remote, in future, said to Deborah France-Massin, Director at the ILO Bureau for Employers Activities.
Those are the top two findings of the report which details 10 trends from the pandemic that are shaping workplaces in Africa.
Also on the panel were Cynthia Samuel-Olonjuwon, the ILO’s Assistant Director General and Regional Director for Africa; Cas Coovadia, CEO of Business Unity South Africa, and Jonathan Goldberg, CEO of Global Business Solutions.
While the trajectory of remote working is not known, said France-Massin, the nascent shift could gradually cascade from large formal businesses to small and medium enterprises. Employment contracts around remote working would have to be reconsidered. Where workplace rights and safety have historically been regulated by the State, “now, as we move into a simple, agreed time-basis of how we work, remote working has changed the calculus, giving ownership of time back to workers”.
How then would employers assess remote workers’ productivity? An atmosphere of trust is required, with a sensible fixing of objectives, of what needs to be delivered and by when. Easy to say, she conceded, but it also requires a change of mind set by managers. “It really moves away from the jacket on the back of the (office) chair”.
Above and beyond employment and labour law but with huge public policy implications for the environment and public health, for example, is that remote working could reduce carbon emissions from peak-time travel, said France-Massin, adding that transport accounts for 23% of global greenhouse gases.
The report mirrors and benefits from the priorities identified for Africa in the 2019 Abidjan Declaration and by African ministers more recently, in the context of Covid and the changed geopolitical environment, said Cynthia Samuel-Olonjuwon. Among these are issues of gender equality, child labour, the informal sector, rural economies, migration; promoting skills, technology, decent working conditions, productivity and social dialogue, and responses to climate change. Africa also has to implement international labour standards. The pandemic had exacerbated the burden of women, who had to care for children, the sick and elderly, were more likely to be laid off, and suffered more gender based violence at home and the workplace during the pandemic.
Hybrid working is here to stay, said Coovadia. “It’s not about how much time is spent at the office but what you deliver, and how to manage the transition.” He too spoke of the need for the policy environment to catch up with the changing world of work. Business Unity SA is looking to collaborate with higher education to bridge the digital skills gap and is working with the Presidency’s 4IR committee to this end. Goldberg highlighted three things in the report: better social dialogue, which there has been in SA and which correlated to productivity improvements; improved occupational health and safety standards; and the need for legislative catch-up over working from home. Flexibility was important, so too the need to provide fast, cheap internet access. There needs to be “pushback against going back to the office,” he said.
To download the full report The Next Normal: The changing Workplace in Africa – Ten Trends from the COVID-19 Pandemic that are Shaping Workplaces in Africa, visit www.ilo.org/actemp/publications
To watch the full discussion please click here https://arenaevents.africa/webinars/the-changing-workplace-in-africa/