As South Africans face the reality of a 21-day lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus, working from home has become the “new normal” overnight, and if it is properly managed, people can be just as productive as being in the office.
So says University of Stellenbosch Business School healthcare leadership programme head Professor Renate Schoeman.
She points out that South African companies are joining the millions of businesses globally that have had to learn how to manage a completely remote workforce.
Simultaneously, she says that scores of employees that are suddenly experiencing the “freedom” of working from home may also be experiencing anxiety, sparked by a lack of supervision and direction, while having little time to adjust to a new way of working.
Additionally, these workers may fear losing their job, along with struggling with managing technology, keeping productive and juggling family responsibilities.
“Work in the time of Covid-19 presents unprecedented challenges for workers, business and the economy as a whole.”
Schoeman explains that successful working from home is dependent on an individual’s self-sufficiency, including time management skills, self-discipline and motivation, communication skills, adaptability and technological skills.
Those cooped-up with children, spouses and even extended family also have additional challenges that require them to become masters of adaptability and agility overnight.
To prohibit the fall into poor discipline and stay on track while working from home, Schoeman suggests people operate in a business-like manner: set aside a separate, dedicated workspace that is free from distraction and customise it with the equipment necessary to be productive.
She recommends that people limit and manage disruptions and interruptions by setting down clear boundaries for family and friends, while keeping to a daily routine. Schoeman says people should get ready for work as they would on a normal day and not be too comfortable.
Schoeman further suggests staying in the loop with colleagues and managers using technology, and staying responsive during working hours.
However, she warns that people must still maintain their physical and emotional health.
“Very diligent workers are at risk of burnout as the boundaries between work and home blur, and employees may also feel the need to “prove” that they are being trustworthy and productive. Set boundaries for when your workday starts and ends.”
For employers fearing a lack of productivity in employees working out of sight and without conventional supervision, Schoeman assures that several studies have shown remote workers have greater productivity.
For example, separate studies from Stanford University have found productivity levels increase by between 13% and 21% when people work from home, owing to fewer interruptions, such as colleagues popping in for a chat, and fewer inefficient meetings.
“Employees are less stressed due to avoiding traffic and commuting time, which also saves time, money and environmental impact, having the ability to stay at home with children, especially with the current shutdown of schools, and better work-life balance due to more flexibility in how they allocate their time,” Schoeman highlights.
She adds that the greater independence of remote, or flexible, work help employees to develop skills in self-management, communication and the use of technology.
“Less stress, healthier eating habits and more physical activity means healthier, happier employees who take fewer sick days and do not put others at risk when ill – which is especially important at this time,” she notes.
“And for the employers? Develop measurable goals and metrics for work to be performed during this time and make a determined effort to improve communication and technological capabilities.
“That will make remote working a winning experience for all – not only in the time of a global pandemic,” Schoeman concludes.