Is working from home the silver bullet you think it is?

Issue 8 2020 Smart Home Automation

There’s much about COVID-19 that remains mysterious, but one thing is certain: it has changed the world, perhaps forever. One of its biggest impacts on society and business is WFH (working from home), an acronym that came out of nowhere to become a household word.

Like everybody else, I have been working from home over the past six months. As I travel a lot internationally, I am used to working remotely, but even for me, working from home proved to be something of a challenge. For one thing, my utilities bills went up dramatically, as did the number of hours worked. End-to-end meetings became the order of the day and I often felt I was trapped in my home office from 7 to 7 or even later.

Based on my own experiences, and those of clients, I wonder whether the many companies that have already decided to incorporate WFH into their ‘business as usual’ strategies have fully considered the negative impacts. Here, in no particular order, are some that organisations should consider carefully, both from their own viewpoints and those of their employees.

Willem Olivier.

• Operational Health and Safety (OHS). All offices in South Africa are governed by the OHS Act, which has to be displayed in the office. If WFH is taking place, who is liable if an employee is injured during working hours?

• Connectivity. Does the employee’s home have access to connectivity of the required standard, and how is it to be paid for? Ensuring connectivity to multiple dwellings is likely to be much more difficult (and demanding) than to just a few offices.

• Electrical power. Load shedding is an unfortunate South African reality, and will affect not only the home office but potentially also the connectivity suppliers. What contingencies have been put in place to ensure WFH employees remain productive, especially those in client-facing roles?

• Information security. Home networks are unlikely to be as secure as corporate networks, and one can only imagine the network security issues in high-density areas. Companies should ensure that WFH employees can only connect into their systems using a virtual private network (VPN).

• Technical support. Although a lot of technical support can be done remotely, it is likely that technical staff will often have to travel to home offices, or that WFH employees will have to bring their devices into the office. In either event, productivity will be affected, and more technical staff may need to be hired.

• Physical security. This is a particular problem in high-crime South Africa, and indeed high-tech equipment may make homes a more desirable target. Robust processes will have to be in place to replace stolen equipment, along with measures to ensure data can be wiped remotely. Again, productivity is going to be affected.

• Confidentiality. Other people at home may hear or even see paperwork that is deemed private and confidential, and is protected by the Protection of Personal Information Act (PoPIA). Will companies consider doing a formal inspection of the WFH staff member’s home to confirm that adequate safety procedures are in place?

• Governance, Risk & Compliance (GRC). Most organisations have to comply with certain elements of GRC as certain work is regulated, such as trading. Do companies perform audits around these roles and is it documented? Would auditors now need to visit people’s homes to do certain internal audit functions?

• Quality of service. Most call centres now have an outgoing message warning of delays because of WFH. It may be that these are teething problems, but one wonders whether the impact on customers has been properly assessed and measured. In my experience, the call quality can be patchy. Another quality impact is background noise from barking dogs, children, lawnmowers and the dreaded leaf blower.

• HR issues and employee engagement. Even when everybody was working in the same office, it was felt necessary to mount elaborate (and expensive) team-building exercises – what will be necessary now that teams are only intermittently in physical contact? This problem may be expected to worsen as new hires come on board, with no past shared working experience to fall back on.

A similar point may be made about corporate culture. Corporate culture has a significant impact on a company’s success, and yet it is hard to build and needs constant reinforcement. Building and maintaining it at a distance will be a uniquely difficult challenge.

Overall, staff morale in general will be an issue. Many people will not perform at peak when confined at home without the stimulation of interacting with colleagues. Will those who do not wish to work from home be accommodated?

Other issues under this heading include the fear that WFH employees may gradually become less visible to their employers and even miss out on promotional opportunities. A good work/life balance is particularly difficult to maintain in WFH, and depression and burnout are real possibilities. Are there systems in place to monitor the psychological impacts of WFH?

• Who pays for what? One of WFH’s big attractions for companies is the huge potential savings on office space, but they are actually transferring many of these costs to employees. Is there a clear strategy for how to apportion the costs of setting up and maintaining a home office, including connectivity costs and insurance?

This list is by no means exhaustive. The main point I want to make is that before WFH is adopted as part of the operating model, careful thought needs to be given to the risks and impacts.

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