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COVID-19 implications for the workplace

Article written by Philippa Chappell (Manager: Advisory Services ContinuitySA)

Today businesses are faced with a variety of possible scenarios from fires, bomb threats, strike action in surrounding areas or extended utility outages to name a few that can prevent staff from accessing their primary workplace premises. Organisations operating an office-based environment typically opt for a contingency strategy of enabling staff to work remotely, or offer a recovery site (operated by the organisation itself or contracted  through a commercial recovery provider), or some combination of the two. But what will the workplace of the future look like as we take the preliminary learnings from the current global pandemic into consideration.

The strategy of remote working or recovery sites are, typically, based on certain assumptions. Firstly, that provision is typically made for 30% of staff initially, with the option to scale up to full operations over a two-month period. Secondly, that the primary and recovery site are not affected by the same disruption. And thirdly, that after managing the initial crisis and while still in recovery mode, that organisations have time to build a suitable resumption strategy to stabilize operations over the longer term.

COVID-19 has presented some unique challenges to organisations. As the situation unfolded in South Africa, organisations had a brief lead time to mobilise their workforce. However, the disruption to operations has certainly been protracted due to the extended lockdown, and far from limited to an isolated location. As such, while some organisations had initially opted to make use of commercial recovery sites to comply with social distancing requirements and distribute the risk to their operations, many organisations, unless deemed an essential service became unable to operate from any site. Other businesses worked tirelessly to mobilise their entire workforce (not just 30% which they may have been catered for) to work remotely and found the increased demand for laptops and 3G cards created supply shortages and longer lead times.

In spite of these challenges, many companies have continued some degree of operations more or less successfully by rolling out digital solutions, and organisations who have again been able to use recovery sites to distribute operations as various economic sectors have opened up.

There is no doubt that individuals are facing personal crisis and mass uncertainty. Staff who have set up work-from-home areas are now being asked to extend those into the foreseeable future. Concerns remain around those work areas being impacted by the current need for home schooling of children with workers with young families. These circumstances also raise some interesting questions and considerations for the workspace going forward.

In light of the successes that some companies have experienced with remote working the solution may be under consideration as a longer-term strategy. However, if this solution is to be a viable one, we not only need greater investment to expand and stabilize the solution but to consider the impact removing a workspace has had on staff. While working from home may seem to increase productivity immediately, the isolation it creates can have an impact on morale and productivity over the longer term.

Perhaps the new normal will be a hybrid – where remote work capabilities could be used to enhance productivity by helping avoid the time wasted in traffic or providing the quiet space to focus on urgent tasks, supplemented by a reimagined workplace.  An office-based workplace for times when it is not possible to work from home productively (when children are on holiday or we face load shedding) and most importantly with collaboration spaces to foster interactions to drive the business strategy and ultimately support the culture of the organisation.

ContinuitySA is a proud Partner of the NSBC