For many years we’ve been hearing about a future where the workforce is increasingly remote and/or mobile but, by and large, the world has continued working in offices… until the novel coronavirus forced a global change.

By Guy Whitcroft

So, what is the future of work likely to look like after we emerge from this devastating pandemic, and what will the impact on business be?

Lockdown is affecting everyone, and doing so in different ways depending partly on their jobs and partly on the way in which individuals are reacting to the strictures.

Those whose jobs depend on physical presence (manufacturing, for example) may be relishing the extra free time, while those in roles that can be handled remotely (systems development / support, call centres, etc) are often finding they’ve never been so busy or productive – assuming they can ignore the myriad distractions of home.

All, though, are worried about their futures. After all, current estimates from the Reserve Bank suggest as many as 370 000 jobs and 1 600 businesses could disappear as a result of the virus, with an overall contraction in the economy of up to 4%.

But what does all this really mean for us, once the current situation is behind us? Will we go back to doing things as we were before, or will there be fundamental shifts in the way we work?

I believe we’re facing the latter – a fundamental shift for many people as companies recognise that they can improve productivity and work-life balance (reduced commuting time, for example), while reducing costs (lower, expensive office-space requirements, for example).

As is the case now, jobs requiring physical presence – such as manufacturing, certain sales and customer-service roles – will stay unchanged to a large extent, but those that rely more on desks in an office will move very quickly to being increasingly remotely-based.

We’ve proved in the past weeks that this reduces lost time: lateness due to traffic jams; fewer, shorter meetings – mainly held via videoconferencing; less time spent chatting in the office, and so forth.

Productivity has generally improved, as has work-life balance – imagine not spending two to three hours a day during your commute each day (and the money you save as a result, too!).

Companies will be able to reduce their office-space requirements as a result, perhaps having staff teams in the office only one day every one to two weeks to better exchange ideas and keep the cohesion of the teams.

Management, too, will become more effective as staff will typically only raise more important issues with them and do so in a more time-effective way, rather than simply dropping by their manager’s desk.

Of course, management will need to change the way it measures staff – moving from presence-based to task-driven, hopefully without worrying about which apps are running when, on remote PCs provided, the work gets done.

The costs of home offices are probably already factored in with the advent of cheap, fibre-based Internet links, while staff should be able to use their existing work PCs quite easily.

Of course, companies will likely want staff to use VPNs for security and will continue to restrict the loading of applications on their PCs, but these measures are usually in place anyway.

The likely biggest negative effect will be on the commercial property market, where we can expect to see a surplus of office space as companies cut back on this expensive area – and a surplus of retail space, too, as South African consumers get more comfortable with online shopping.

Less commuting will lead to quicker transport links for those that do have to be on the road, lower fuel and maintenance costs/sales and could well result in better air quality, too, as the number of commuters is reduced. Witness the reports of clear skies in India and China during their respective lockdowns.

So, as we enter this “brave new world” what do you think will happen with your role and how do you feel about it? Feel free to let me know – contact details at the end of this column.