Opinionista Jordan Griffiths 22 July 2020

Working from home holds health, financial and environmental benefits

The changes that have been forced on business operations during lockdown could see a better, more productive work environment in the future. The government must aggressively invest in initiatives that create the infrastructure to make this possible.

Covid-19 has significantly affected the nature of work across multiple industries; an impact that is likely to force lasting changes on how business is conducted in the future.

One need look no further than the meteoric rise of Zoom, the video conferencing software which has seen its share price skyrocket over the past few months. Zoom and other conferencing apps have allowed businesses to continue with operations, enabling employees to work collaboratively from the comfort of their homes.

Prior to the pandemic, the Netherlands was at the forefront of remote working, with about 14% of the Dutch workforce reporting that they usually work from home.

When Covid-19 forced countries to shut down normal business operations, the Netherlands had a relatively easy time of it, with 98% of homes already connected to the internet with high-speed fibre access. There, the working culture also measures an individual’s value by what is delivered by them, and not merely whether they sit at a desk for nine hours a day.

Such a scenario would require large-scale transitions in South Africa and is still years away. About 60% of the population are considered to be regular internet users, with an estimated one million households connected to fibre. The majority of internet users in SA rely on 3G networks and use mobile data.

Despite these limitations, internet access is a critical enabler of the modern economy in our country. This isn’t just in the exchange of goods and services. After the lockdown was implemented, many schools and universities were forced to take their content online in the hope of saving the academic year. However, this exposed the deep inequalities in South Africa’s schooling system as countless rural schools simply did not have the resources to make this transition, with many students ultimately missing months of education.

Given the economic disruptions caused by the Covid-19 crisis, the South African government should aggressively invest in initiatives that will facilitate a quicker rollout of fibre infrastructure across the country. Infrastructure development and enabling legislation are critical mechanisms through which the industry can expand its footprint. There are immense benefits in ensuring that communities in both urban and rural areas have access to high-quality connections.

Residents of Gauteng would know that the early morning and afternoon traffic on the N1 between Johannesburg and Pretoria has dropped off significantly since lockdown began. Cape Town has also witnessed traffic reductions. Surprisingly, with the majority of major industries opening up, it appears that the volumes of traffic have not returned. This is possibly because businesses are allowing employees to come into the office only on certain days of the week, or they have restructured things to remotely manage as many activities as possible.

With schools and universities not yet fully open, this also has a notable impact on traffic. Clearly there are some sectors and jobs where individuals will need to be physically present at their places of work, but there are numerous occupations where having an individual in the office from 9-5 rather than working from home is unlikely to make a substantial impact on overall productivity.

Reduced traffic volumes mean a decrease in both congestion and air pollution. TomTom’s traffic index has reported significant declines in congestion in major cities across the world as a result of lockdown. Although some countries have begun reopening their economies, in many cases pre-lockdown traffic loads have not yet returned.

In South Africa, this could have a notable impact on the quality of life. In the most recent report from the INRIX 2018 Global Traffic Scorecard, Johannesburg was reported as the 61st-most congested city in the world, where commuters lost 119 hours in a year due to congestion. In Cape Town, it was 162 hours, while Pretoria came in at 143 hours.

Firms that are able to sustain flexible or remote working arrangements will be able to give their employees immense value in the time saved from not sitting behind the wheel.

Clearly, a remote work model cannot apply to all sectors and industries. Some firms may need to have 100% of staff present at all times; others may be able to have 20% or 50% working from home. Businesses may introduce mixed models where employees only come into the office on set days of the week, so that there is a balance between the two working environments.

The health benefits are also considerable. Globally, air pollution dropped by 17%, with just under half of that being accredited to changes in emissions from land transportation. The impact of air pollution on our health is significant, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimating that nine out of 10 people now breathe polluted air, resulting in an estimated seven million deaths a year.

Obviously, the biggest health argument in favour of working remotely relates to protecting employees from exposure to Covid-19. Many employers will be eager to get their staff back on-site as they restart operations. However, for some individuals who are at higher risk or who live with immune deficiencies, there will have to be serious consideration on how they can return safely to work in the future.

There are also significant financial savings to be derived from remote working in that people are able to cut down on fuel and vehicle maintenance costs.

Facebook is looking to expand its employee footprint by allowing a significant number of staff to work from home, and will adjust salaries accordingly. Both the employer and employee can benefit from such arrangements. Employees will not have the costs that come with living in an expensive city like San Francisco, while Facebook derives savings on its salary bill.

Companies that are able to move more of their workforce into remote working environments will also save significantly on the costs that come with maintaining office space, particularly in respect of overhead costs, as they will likely be able to downscale their physical footprint to accommodate core operations while not jeopardising their entire business model.

Facebook is not the only tech giant pursuing more permanent remote-working solutions. Twitter announced in May that employees who choose to not return to the office can instead opt to work from home permanently. Google also announced that they intend to have the majority of its employees work from home until at least 2021.

Clearly, a remote work model cannot apply to all sectors and industries. Some firms may need to have 100% of staff present at all times; others may be able to have 20% or 50% working from home. Businesses may introduce mixed models where employees only come into the office on set days of the week, so that there is a balance between the two working environments.

As we reshape our workspaces, it is likely that the changes forced on us by the pandemic will significantly accelerate remote working arrangements – ultimately to the benefit of both employers and employees. DM

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