Eight Key Trends Shaping the New Normal for Work in South Africa

South Africa is experiencing a fundamental shift in the way we work. Over the past year, remote working and virtual interactions have become the norm. Machines are replacing functions previously performed by humans and this is changing the skills that organisations are looking for.

Cape Town, South Africa. Editorial Credit: Alexcpt_photography, Shutterstock.
Cape Town, South Africa. Editorial Credit: Alexcpt_photography, Shutterstock.
By Mosidi Modise
8 minute read

Earlier this year, Masana Petroleum Solutions, a mid-sized oil and gas company in South Africa, requested an in-depth study to analyze how they could adapt their human capital strategy to reflect a more agile work environment as a result of the changes Covid-19 brought to the way people worked within the organisation. This is a conversation happening all over the world, but particularly in South Africa, and it inspired us to dig a little deeper on how relevant and far-reaching will these trends be within other organisations.

What emerged is that the country is experiencing a fundamental shift in the way we work. Over the past year, remote working and virtual interactions have become the norm. Machines are replacing functions previously performed by humans and this is changing the skills that organisations are looking for.

How do organisations adequately prepare for the future when there are so many unknowns? These are the eight key considerations to keep in mind when designing a workforce for the future:

1. Remote working will be here to stay.

Having been forced to work remotely for months, leaders are learning that remote working can be just as effective as working from a physical office. With the global rise in the use of communication technologies such as Microsoft Teams, Skype, and Zoom, teams are able to work collaboratively without being in each other’s physical company. Research emerging from the Shaping the Future of Work Report (2020) indicates that 55% of millennials believe that we will all work remotely with greater flexibility in the years to come. Companies that can offer this will have an unfair advantage in the war for talent.

“There is no doubt that more flexible ways of working are here to stay,” said Lillian Barnard, the Managing Director of Microsoft South Africa, in conversation with The Org. “This is evidenced by results from our Work Reworked Study, with nine out of ten leaders (88 percent) at large enterprises in South Africa expecting to adopt a more hybrid way of working permanently. In order to accommodate this change, there are both technology and leadership shifts that are underway.

“The leadership shift is about finding the balance between driving the strategic objectives of the business and finding ways to meet the needs of employees - keeping them engaged, productive, and fulfilled.“

Research also indicates that employees feel happier in their jobs when they have a say in their working arrangements - having the choice to work flexibly has been associated with higher reports of job satisfaction and productivity. With remote working likely not going anywhere, leaders will need to develop a subset of policies that govern how people should work remotely, without negatively impacting output.

2. There will be a greater need to build skills-based, rather than job-based, careers.

The time for having one job that spanned an entire career is over. With advances in technology, functions that were previously performed by humans are now done better and faster by machines. The key questions in interviews will be focusing on the skills a person will bring vs. previous job experiences.

It will become increasingly important to develop critical skills to stay ahead of the curve; focusing less on specialising in a specific function and more on honing the skills that enable you to do the work. Skills such as creativity, empathy, analytical thinking, problem solving, and emotional intelligence will be essential.

3. Maintaining less travel to reduce a firm’s carbon footprint will frequently come up at board meetings.

With resource scarcity and climate change on the agenda, considering the environment when making business decisions is no longer a nice to have. Covid-19 has proven that leaders don´t need to do as much of the jetsetting they may have done in the past to make key decisions.

Environmentally speaking, remote working means that fewer people have to commute to work. With South Africa being amongst one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to traffic congestion, according to the 2017 Global Traffic Scorecard, it is no surprise that remote working will have a positive impact on our carbon footprint. The need for firms to develop a carbon neutral strategy will continue to be a high priority. Factors like a reduced need for office space and therefore less construction, and being able to work remotely and interact virtually, clearly enables organisations to reduce their carbon footprint.

4. Reskilling and upskilling will be written into role descriptions.

Fostering a culture of lifelong learning and developing programs to reskill and upskill employees will help organisations react more effectively to change. The current challenge many companies face, however, is figuring out how to strike the fine balance for employees to spend time working while allocating some of it towards reskilling and upskilling programs they may have in place. It makes sense for companies to include the need for people to reskill and upskill themselves within role descriptions going forward, in order to normalize a culture of learning on the job.

5. Designing individual needs assessments for staff working virtually will be key.

Many companies resorted to doing ongoing check-in surveys when stricter lockdown regulations were required to combat the spread of Covid-19 and it became increasingly important to get feedback on the well-being of staff. Drawing insights from important employee metrics, such as employee productivity, wellness, and job satisfaction surveys will be tricky in organisations where the working environments differ from person to person. Organisations will need to think creatively about how to adequately assess feedback from staff, as well as how to solve for issues that crop up.

6. Plugging into revolutionised remote wellness solutions will be necessary to combat burnout.

Burnout and work-life imbalance might become a challenge in this hyper-connected world of work. When your home environment becomes your workspace and vice versa, it becomes difficult to switch off. On the other side of the coin, many employees struggle with motivation, finding it harder to put in the effort when they are not required to get dressed for work.

Leaders need to reimagine wellness solutions that are suitable for socially-distanced audiences. Providing staff with access to wellness tools, such as meditation apps, online fitness classes, or virtual team builds are just some of the ways to promote connectedness and wellness while being apart.

South African-born entrepreneur Tarin Carlmayer founded Remote Team Wellness, the world's first live-taught virtual wellness solution for companies, to leverage this trend and to pivot her business model as a result of Covid-19.

7. Insourcing certain skills from the gig economy will become the norm.

We may find that employees in the organisation will not have all the skills required in the changing world of work, specifically the technical ones. Taking advantage of the gig economy by hiring temporary workers for short-term contracts may be more sustainable in an unpredictable environment. While this may prove to be a benefit for companies to hire the best software developers in the market that may be based in another country, they should look into designing skills-transfer programs for permanent employees to learn from the short-term employees, providing equitable opportunities for people internally to develop their skills and careers.

8. Leadership and talent development will change as staffs work remotely indefinitely.

Taking into account onboarding programmes, how does an organisation successfully induct new starters in their first 90 days of work? How does one develop and maintain a company culture when the core beliefs and assumptions that were visibly apparent in a traditional work setting are now missing? Previous models for leading and managing staff will not necessarily lend well to a virtual world. Similarly, certain leadership styles may not work as well in a digital format. Organisations must consider how to transform their leadership and development processes while at the same time leveraging off technologies.

What was previously a gradual evolution to a more digitally enhanced world has transformed into an accelerated adoption of new technologies in the space of a few short months. Charles Savage, the founder of a market disruptor in investment management in South Africa called EasyEquities, recently said on a podcast, “The thing that is positive that’s come out of Covid is that the future of work and the future of investing will never be the same again.”

He’s right - the pandemic has expedited change and most of it is here to stay. Companies will need to rapidly adapt.


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