It has been about a month since President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered a national lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 – a decision that earned him plaudits far and wide, even from his political opponents. Only the Democratic Alliance attempted to rubbish the national response to the pandemic, though in a subtle way. But the party ended with egg on the face as, on the day that it unveiled its supposedly smart alternative, government hosted a comprehensive presentation on its anti-coronavirus plan that, I believe, bowled over even the most strident critic.
A consequence of Ramaphosa’s declaration was that many businesses that were not deemed to be essential services and could therefore not operate from their premises made arrangements for their staff to work from home. Whether or not employees should be allowed to work from home has become a major talking point in recent times, with proponents contending that this affords employees a measure of flexibility. Those in favour also point out that people who work from home are spared the early morning and early evening commutes, which can be a nightmare in places like the Gauteng city region, where freeways are increasingly becoming congested.
So, the argument goes, employees who enjoy the sound work-life balance that flexibility affords and do not have to sit in slow-moving traffic for long periods on their way to and from the office are bound to ‘reward’ their employers with dedication and loyalty.
The productivity of such employees is supposed to be at stratospheric levels. But a new study has debunked that. Conducted between March 28 and 31 in Kenya – which, like South Africa, has instituted a lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 and where many employees are working remotely – it canvassed 1 083 people who no longer work from the office.
A whopping 81% of the respondents told researchers, from an outfit called Consumer Insight Africa, that they felt their productivity levels had plummeted since the day they were required to work away from the office. The remainder said their productivity levels had either remained the same or increased.
Forty-one per cent of those who felt they were less productive at home than at the office admitted to spending more time watching television than actually working, while 34% reported a material increase in their entertainment expenditure.
Besides the decreased productivity, having employees working from their homes disadvantages companies in other ways as well. For one thing, many have had to invest in equipment such as computers, besides others, to make it possible for everyone to continue functioning in a way that ensures the survival of the company. For another, those in the know say computers and other gadgets become more susceptible to hacking when they are in multiple locations.
Even those who have extolled the virtues of working from home for years, such as Nicholas Bloom, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, in the US, concede that working from home under Covid-19- related lockdown conditions poses several challenges, perhaps the greatest of which is the closure of schools, which has forced many workers with school-going children to take on the additional responsibility of teaching children on a well-nigh full-time basis. He said in a recent newspaper interview: “Working from home with your children is a productivity disaster. My four-year-old regularly bursts into the room, hoping to find me in a playful mood and shouting ‘Doodoo’ – her nickname for me – in the middle of a conference.”
For him, a key requirement for a successful work-from-home programme is that children be in school or day-care.
Bloom said his research has established that in-person collaboration is necessary for creativity and innovation. “I fear this collapse in office face time will lead to a slump in innovation. The new ideas we are losing today could show up as fewer new products in 2021 and beyond.”