NATIONAL NEWS - South African companies are starting to see the benefits of adopting more flexible work arrangements, especially to attract and retain individuals with skills that are in high demand.
This is due in part to the fact that technology is maturing at such a rate that many tasks and activities impossible or too expensive to complete remotely before, are now quite feasible.
Although there is no specific data on the current uptake of flexible work arrangements in South Africa, many South African Reward Association (SARA) members already have a variety of these practices in place, or are considering or piloting, some flexible work options.
People associate flexible work arrangements with “non-traditional ways” of allowing people to do their work.
The following practices have already taken hold:
- Flexible working hours where people start their day early and end early or they start late and end late;
- Flexible work locations where people are allowed to work from home, a coffee shop or any other location that is suitable to them;
- Compressed work weeks where people work longer days in order to have one weekday free or half a day free; and
- Job sharing where one person works part time in the morning and another works part time in the afternoon so that between the two employees, they complete the equivalent of a full day’s work.
When companies are considering flexible work arrangements, we always recommend that they first understand the nature of the work that an employee does. In every business there are roles that are well suited for flexible work, and others that are not.
Companies are finding that flexibility is becoming a necessity, particularly for employees that have scarce skills and are in high demand. Many are expecting some degree of flexibility from their employer. Employees who are looking for new opportunities will certainly consider the level of flexibility on offer, and this may be a way for employers to differentiate themselves.
Many South Africans have to deal with the practical reality of severe traffic congestion when commuting to and back from work, and the high cost of fuel or transportation. Many spend in excess of three or four hours commuting to their workplaces every day.
Eliminating or reducing the time, cost and stress of that commute from their lives - even it is just one or two days a week - can dramatically change their work life balance, their wellness and their engagement with the company.
Flexible work arrangements can also lead to financial savings for companies. If the entire workforce does not have to come into the office every day, less floor space, parking, desks and IT infrastructure is required to get the work done. That can translate into large cost savings for the organisation.
Many companies will need to invest in technology to enable their employees to work more flexibly. This could mean data allowances or having to invest in the necessary software that will allow greater access to business systems remotely.
Virtual meetings - such as Skype or Google Hangouts - have gained significant traction in the last few years, enabling companies to have conference, team or meeting calls with many remote participants, often with video feeds.
The widespread penetration of home internet connectivity via ADSL and fibre solutions have allowed more people to have access to data in many more places. That has changed the landscape quite dramatically.
Managing a remote workforce
Many companies are starting to grapple with issues such as the remuneration and performance management of a remote workforce. At the core of these issues is trust between employer and employee, open communication and clear expectations.
Some managers may struggle with the idea of how to manage employees who they don’t see all or every day. Practices to address these fears include setting clear expectations and giving regular feedback to employees who work remotely. These practices can generate the same or superior, performance outputs.
The potential dark side
Despite all the benefits of a more flexible workforce, there is also a potential dark side to it. People who are mainly working away from the office may tend to overcompensate for the perception that they may be slacking off a bit, and actually work longer hours.
There has to be a deliberate focus to create boundaries and balance between work and rest.
There are also concerns about the potential impact of flexible work practices on social connections in the workplace. Relationships and networks are critical to empowering people to collaborate and perform well, and many top companies are ensuring their flexible solutions enable this social connectivity for remote workers, and deliberately create opportunities for people to connect.
Trust and communication between managers and employees is absolutely critical for flexible work practices to be effective. Although it seems like a big shift for many people, if good management practices such as regular check-ins, feedback sessions, and clear expectations are in place, then a lot of these transitions will feel more natural and less jarring to the new workplace relationship.
* Rosanna Stofberg is a member of the Professionalisation Committee at the South African Reward Association (SARA).
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