During one of my daily routine walks today, I came across an eerily deserted Virgin Active parking lot not far from my residence.
I had walked past this same parking lot on many of my walks over the years, and specifically over the past 5 months, without much thought until today.
The picture below inspired this eNsight.
It suddenly dawned on me as I was walking past the lonesome parking lot in the picture above that CIVID-19 lockdowns are going to become a factor of life for many businesses for an extended period of time, as nations continue to battle to keep this pandemic under control and are contending with the prospect of a second wave of infections.
QUESTION: Is working from home the solution?
As companies are adjusting to the new way of doing business in this era of social distancing and self-isolation, working from home is considered as the preferred stopgap, where relevant, to keeping operations humming during COVID-19.
How does South Africa rank when it comes to preference for working from home?
The Global Digital Statshot Report that came out in July 2020 included a stat on preference for working from home after COVID-19.
As the graph below shows, participants were Internet users who are 16-64 years.
Based on global rankings for preference for working from home even after COVID-19 alone, there is a discernible appetite in South Africa.
However, we all know that this singular stat does not tell the whole story.
Other stats must include the country’s Internet penetration (60%), the size of the 16-64 year category, employment rate, the size of the type of employees who can work from home, and the number of companies that can enable their employees to work from home.
Is working from home ideal?
Let me apply the once popular phrase that I last used many moons ago – ceteris paribus.
If all things were equal, for and across all employees who qualify to work from home, then this would be ideal. Even after COVID-19.
But things are not equal.
Let me share 3 personal experiences.
eNitiate is a fully digitalised business, so you would expect that working from home is ideal for all the employees, right?
Not quite the case, at least for some of them, as the following 3 pre-COVID examples will show.
I once had an employee who would rather come to the office early and on weekends, and leave late, if she had pressing deadlines.
Another employee would never pick up my calls and messages outside working hours, despite the fact that he was in a critical role that warranted his availability at odd hours.
I was once asked by an employee not to send Whatsapp messages on the company group at night – the actual time when I am able to pull my thoughts together and plan, which has always been accompanied by sending messages out so I won’t have to remember to do so during the day when I am tending to business operations, attending meetings, checking on customers, pitching for new business and networking – all necessary evils for every startup.
What can be learned from the 3 instances above?
For many employees, work life and home life are kept separate.
And they prefer to keep it that way.
For many employees, work is stressful.
They do not want to bring the stress home – the place they regard as a stress-free zone.
For many employees, home life is stressful.
Going to work is a way of escaping the stress that could be caused by family circumstances such as home-bound children whose distraction cannot be avoided, strained relationships, or sheer lack of resources at home but that are available at work.
The 3 lessons above are not necessarily mutually exclusive, there may be causality and/or correlation between any 2 or all of them.
Don't forget the added stress of COVID-19 infections
As I publish this eNsight, South Africa’s COVID-19 infections stand at close to 560,000.
A little less than 1% of South Africans have been infected by this pandemic to date, with a sharp increase since June.
At the current infection rate, there is the added stress experienced by some of the workers about the prospect of being infected, or knowing of someone close who is infected or died from the pandemic, or a spouse who may have lost employment because their employer went bust as a direct result of the pandemic.
The cumulative effect of the stress levels on the affected workers can reach breaking point.
What does this all mean?
When employers punt working from home as the answer to lockdowns, it is worth remembering that this solution may have unintended consequences for mental wellbeing of some of the employees.
So what to do?
Employers must conduct employee surveys to establish if working from home is doable, and do regular temperature checks.
You may be surprised by the findings, including the possibility that working from home is not the silver bullet that will sustainably keep your business operations going during this pandemic.
The last thought
Where possible, companies must provide mental wellness support to the employees who are working from home and who may need this service as a coping mechanism.
There has been an explosion of the mental wellness apps recently – a sign of increased market demand.