Our local Internet industry can only have flourished on the move to home working. But with matatus running once more, local lockdowns lifted, and the curfew reduced, what is home working set to mean for the rest of us? For businesses, it seems, getting staff back to the office is not going to be as easy as saying, ‘ok, we’re going back to normal now’. Indeed, businesses are finding themselves in the strangest of places.
Job cuts have been at record levels the last four months, both at home and globally. Recently, business closures have also accelerated on the time lag between businesses taking a hit, like suddenly having no income, then laying off staff, and finally exhausting all funds and stretching all unpaid bills until the only option is closure. Yet, as the number of jobs and businesses continues to fall sharply, the companies still running face some of the most disengaged and reluctant staff in their history. For it is simply not true that those still in work are grateful to have been the lucky ones and are now working harder and smarter to keep themselves and their businesses afloat. In fact, home working is only one of a number of issues making productivity the next mountain for businesses. For sure, there is nothing new about people working from home. Freelancers, even farmers, have long been homeworkers. But in both cases, and in possibly the majority of cases where home working was already a norm, earnings have been based on output.
Thus, when the only boss who could see if you are in your fields or on your laptop is yourself, the need to earn the rent, food, power and phone bills was ever present. What the Covid-19 pandemic has done, by contrast, is put a lot of salaried staff back into their home to work. They don’t have to get six sacks of kale out of their ¼ acre in order to pay school fees. They don’t need to deliver 1,100 polished words to secure their Internet and phone bills. They can work eight hard hours a day, or five not-so-hard hours a day: and there are only a few things deciding which of these they will do.
The first is their personal work ethic, which is a something an individual grows up with in their approach to life. A second factor is the commitment of each individual to the business thriving.
If staff see that the business good is their own good, they will likely work harder in their private sitting room. But if it’s a ‘them and us’ situation, they will, instead, take that extra hour on their own social media.
In fact, most companies were previously afflicted with a degree of ‘them and us’, now often made worse by salary cuts or redundancies: put that division into unseen home working and that disconnect does more damage now.
But there are also other elements affecting productivity. A pattern I have seen across staff from now multiple organisations is a loss of acuity — a sort of hazey daze of thinking. I have wondered if it is the shock from too much change in 2020. But I saw a study saying children away from school for months will pay for a lifetime because they are losing the ability to learn and think. On seeing repeated examples of lower concentration and declining work quality, I wonder if the many months off full-time intensive office-space work has similarly shot some adult habits of concentration. And then there is the existential crisis that the coronavirus has triggered.
Survey results suggest up to a third of staff will never come back to work: they have been doing a lot of thinking, about their lives and their futures. So while businesses may think they did them proud maintaining salaries and posts throughout, those staff have gone, hearts first.
Thus, management challenges abound. The economies everywhere are shot. And staff don’t want to commute any more or return to a work environment that is tougher than home, or sometimes, to carry on working at all: thus, first hurdle, lose business, second hurdle, recover with disrupted teams. Our 2020.