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From left, Jonathan Goldberg, CEO of Global Business Solutions, moderator Francis Herd and Cas Coovadia, CEO of Business Unity SA, during the Business Day Dialogue in partnership with the International Labour Organisation. Picture: SUPPLIED/ILO
From left, Jonathan Goldberg, CEO of Global Business Solutions, moderator Francis Herd and Cas Coovadia, CEO of Business Unity SA, during the Business Day Dialogue in partnership with the International Labour Organisation. Picture: SUPPLIED/ILO

Working from home as a result of Covid-19 has grown dramatically, though unevenly, in Africa. This uneven growth can be attributed to the digital divide on the continent. 

The International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) most recent report, The Next Normal: The Changing Workplace in Africa, put it frankly: “Perhaps no single trend has defined the pandemic era more than the shift from physical to remote work.” 

The report was discussed at the recent Business Day Dialogue in partnership with the ILO. 

African businesses in future expect most workplaces to be in-person or hybrid, not fully remote, said Deborah France-Massin, director at the ILO bureau for employers activities. 

This, along with the uneven growth of working remotely, were the top two findings of the report which details 10 trends shaping workplaces in Africa during the pandemic. 

The panel included Cynthia Samuel-Olonjuwon, the ILO’s assistant director-general and regional director for Africa, Business Unity SA CEO Cas Coovadia, and Jonathan Goldberg, CEO of Global Business Solutions.

While the trajectory of remote working is not known, said France-Massin, the nascent shift could gradually cascade from large  businesses to small and medium enterprises.

Employment contracts around remote working would have to be reconsidered. Workplace rights and safety have historically been regulated by the state. “However, as we move into a simple, agreed time-basis of how we work, remote working has changed the calculus — giving ownership of time back to workers,” she said. 

Watch the full discussion below:

How would employers assess remote workers’ productivity? An atmosphere of trust is required, with a sensible fixing of objectives — what needs to be delivered and when.

France-Massin said it was easier said than done, as a change in mindset by managers was also required to make things work. “This truly moves away from the jacket on the back of the office chair,” she said. 

Above and beyond employment and labour law, but with huge public policy implications for the environment and public health, remote working could reduce carbon emissions from peak-time travel, said France-Massin, as transport accounts for 23% of global greenhouse gases. 

The ILO report mirrors and benefits from the priorities identified for Africa in the 2019 Abidjan Declaration and by African ministers more recently, in the context of Covid-19 and the changed geopolitical environment, said Samuel-Olonjuwon. 

Among these are issues of gender equality, child labour, the informal sector, rural economies, migration, promoting skills, technology, decent working conditions, productivity and social dialogue, and responses to climate change. Africa also has to implement international labour standards.

The pandemic worsened the burden of women, who had to care for children, the sick and elderly, and were more likely to be laid off, while women also suffered more gender-based violence at home and in the workplace during the pandemic.

It’s not about how much time is spent at the office but what you deliver, and how to manage the transition.
 Cas Coovadia, CEO of Business Unity SA

Hybrid working is here to stay, said Coovadia. “It’s not about how much time is spent at the office but what you deliver, and how to manage the transition.”

He said there was a need for the policy environment to catch up with the changing world of work. 

To address the digital divide, Business Unity SA is looking to collaborate with higher education to bridge the gap and is working with the Presidency’s 4IR committee.

Goldberg highlighted three significant points in the report: better social dialogue, which there has been in SA and which correlated to productivity improvements; improved occupational health and safety standards; and the need for legislative catch-up over working from home.

Flexibility was important, as was the need to provide fast, cheap internet access. There needs to be “pushback against going back to the office”, he said.

• To download the full report, The Next Normal: The Changing Workplace in Africa — Ten Trends from the Covid-19 Pandemic that are Shaping Workplaces in Africa, visit  www.ilo.org/actemp/publications

This article was paid for by the International Labour Organisation. 

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