Increasingly, business people are trading their suits for their chinos (and even their tracksuits) as the formal office appears to give way to comfortable work spaces at home and, at times, in coffee shops. The introduction of new technology has enabled businesses to find better ways of achieving operational efficiency, including moving away from the traditional model, that requires employees to be physically present in the office, towards more alternative and flexible working arrangements. The technology era is continuously disrupting the traditional ways of doing things and, if businesses are to survive, they need to move with the times and ensure they remain commercially relevant and competitive.
Critical to achieving operational efficiency is having in place a technology infrastructure designed to assist employees to increase the speed at which they execute tasks and deliver goods and services. Motivated, skilled employees, who utilise and leverage technology successfully to create tangible value by delivering high quality work, are essential. In considering a change in traditional working arrangements, it must be appreciated that technology can generally be accessed from anywhere and is no longer limited to the office environment. With a reliable fibre connection at home, an employee can seamlessly connect into the employer’s network and execute tasks assigned to him or her remotely. These employees can still deliver tangible value without necessarily being physically present in the office. This is of course subject to confidentiality protocols being observed and the appropriate cyber security being in place to guard against unauthorised access to proprietary information.
The concept of employees working remotely can be a rather daunting proposition for an employer as it means less control over remote employees during working hours. For an employer, there is something comforting about having employees visible in the office. However, should employers place greater value on having employees in the office even if they are not productive, or should the emphasis be on better productivity from employees even if they are working remotely? This must be seriously considered so that a decision can be made about what working arrangements work best for the business. It may well be that certain businesses are suited to having some or all their employees working remotely simply because of the nature of their work. Even if this approach is not currently suitable, alternative working arrangements ought to be considered as the business grows and in light of the increased costs associated with renting office space.
The benefits of remote working are numerous and include that employers are likely to have a happier and more motivated workforce because they will feel valued and trusted, which inculcates a culture of responsibility and accountability. Further, a happier workforce generally translates into greater productivity and value creation which are the key ingredients to achieving both short and long term goals. In addition, office space can be substantially reduced and the money saved can be ploughed back into the business and used to reduce debt or to fund acquisitions in line with the business’s growth strategy.
One should also not ignore the potential risks that may be involved in formalising a policy that permits employees to work remotely. Employees may abuse the arrangement which could result in less productivity and have a negative impact on the business. The remote working arrangement must, therefore, be clearly articulated and should be legally supported by a mechanism for dealing decisively with employees who are not productive when working from home. When employees work remotely it may also have a negative effect on teamwork and stifle innovation, which is often achieved though daily interaction among employees within the formal office environment. While working remotely may be attractive for some people, others may find it alienating and lonely and it may also have the effect of undermining a sense of commitment to the company. More importantly, research has shown the importance of the need for human interaction, and when employees work in silos they have been found to be demoralised and to not have a sense of job satisfaction. A delicate balance thus needs to be achieved.
Employers can mitigate the risks successfully by carefully selecting the employees within a business whose tasks can be executed successfully in the remote working environment. Often such employees are the ones who provide professional services to the business, and these services are suitable for such an alternative working arrangement. Those employees whose tasks require them to be physically present (eg employees who are directly involved in production) would be required to work in the office or on-site. Various models should be considered to ensure that all employees are treated equitably in order to avoid any industrial relations issues.
The world is changing at a rapid pace. Businesses are increasingly being forced to innovate to develop and establish better ways of working to achieve their objectives. Today’s technology enhanced market presents great commercial benefits that can be harvested from leveraging technology, and businesses that think outside the box and continue to innovate will undoubtedly remain commercially relevant and competitive in the future.
David Lancaster was a corporate partner at Webber Wentzel for more than 30 years. For the last nine years of his career there he led the firm as senior partner. He holds BA and LLB degrees from the University of the Witwatersrand as well as a Higher Diploma in Tax Law from the same institution. He attended the Leading Professional Services Firms Executive Education Programme at Harvard Business School and has completed a short course in Executive Coaching through the University of Cape Town. He is now a consultant on law firm management and an executive and leadership coach.
Munya Gwanzura was a dispute resolution partner at Webber Wentzel and Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, and has 14 years’ experience as an attorney. He holds BA and LLB degrees from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and is a CEDR (UK) Accredited Commercial Mediator. Munya completed the Leadership Growth Programme at the Gordon Institute of Business Science and is currently the Head of Dispute Resolution at Barloworld Equipment, a division of JSE listed Barloworld South Africa (Proprietary) Limited.
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