Why your boss won’t let you work from home in South Africa

Flexible working arrangements are the new normal in some South African companies, but managers are still reluctant to embrace the change.

Linda Trim, director of workplace design consultancy Giant Leap, said offices are still returning to pre-Covid occupancy levels and smaller towns are having new residents seizing the opportunity to avoid the daily commute – making remote work and hybrid work a staple of South African businesses makes life.

Trim said that while the “work from anywhere” experiment could arguably be successful for experienced employees in defined roles with trusted colleagues, for many employees and certain goals, remote working “remains a big problem that needs to be solved.”

“First is remote work worse for new employees‘ said Trimm. “Many inexperienced employees who join a remote virtual company find that they haven’t joined much of a company at all. They have joined little more than a group video chat.”

Many of the benefits of flexible working — like managing your own time — can work against younger workers in companies that embed mentorship programs.

“This is partly true in South Africa, where we have such skill shortages and an urgent need to pass skills on to younger workers,” said Trim.

Second, remote or hybrid work is a lot worse for building new teams to take on new tasks.

A 2021 Microsoft survey of researchers at California’s Berkley University examining 60,000 anonymous messages and chats from employees found that the number of messages within teams increased significantly as employees tried to keep up with their peers – but the exchange of information actually declined.

By working remotely, people would be more likely to connect with their pre-existing teams and be far less likely to engage in conversations that could lead to knowledge sharing, Trim said.

“The study showed that while people can still do the hard work of emailing and creating spreadsheets from anywhere, the most important part of the office is the ‘soft work’ – the chat and the informal ones Interactions that build long-term trust and are fundamental to business innovation.”

Other studies come to similar conclusions.

Earlier this year, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and UCLA took geolocation data from smartphones and matched it to patent citations for individual companies, Trim said.

“They concluded that the first one with the most face-to-face interactions also had the most patent citations, clearly showing that innovation happens in person.

Third, and closely related, remote work is a lot worse for generating new ideas.

A study from Columbia Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Management examined 1,500 engineers to analyze whether virtual teams could brainstorm as creatively as in-person teams.

“Engineers who worked virtually produced fewer overall ideas, and external reviewers rated their ideas as significantly less creative than those of in-person teams,” said Trim.

“Successful collaboration requires trust and a kind of intimacy that’s hard to build on a Zoom call,” noted Trim.

“The debate about remote work is deeply polarizing between those who see it as a necessity beyond criticism and those who see it as a culture and innovation killer. But it’s certainly worth noting what the research says.”

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