Allow me to start this article with three quick, personal stories to set the scene:
For the past month while our offices still remain closed, one of our very efficient staff members booked a house in the Kruger Park. He worked very effectively from there, and even managed to pop out for game drives every morning and evening. His clients never noticed, and his work was as excellent as ever.
My super-efficient PA has been in Durban caring for her Dad for three months. No one noticed, and she has remained as efficient and effective as ever, while caring for her nearest and dearest.
A friend’s daughter is studying at UCT. She came “home” to Johannesburg in March, and will not be returning to Cape Town until 2021. She will finish her full academic year here in Johannesburg.
I am sure you have stories like that too – of businesses that used to rely on massive office space that are giving it all up and in essence becoming virtual, of virtual sports events, virtual music concerts and so much more.
If there is one thing that 2020 has taught us – it’s that you can do anything from anywhere.
But what does this mean? What if my colleague, instead of booking a house in the Kruger, booked a house in the South of France (don’t worry, we don’t pay that well)? Could he carry on? Could he do the job? Heck yes. But here is where the law of unintended consequences come in. If location doesn’t matter – could we not just employ someone who can do the same job from a market like India, at a possibly cheaper salary, to do his job virtually? Yes.
So, there are two sides to this sword. Whereas in the past we would only scout talent from South Africa (for the most part) – we can effectively in this new world scout talent from anywhere in the world, and not have to deal with emigration and relocation headaches. Call centres have been doing this for years. Some tech companies too. It’s now becoming a reality for more and more businesses and industries.
There is a flip side to the euphoria of working from anywhere though. As an employer I worry about staff working from home too much. Hear me out.
A big part of the reason people work at our company is because of the physical location, nice offices, lots of friends, the buzz that our media owner partners create, and the general “gees” of our company. There is something special about working late with a bunch of smart minds, slogging in a boardroom – eating pizza until the presentation is perfect. That experience is drastically watered down in a virtual world.
If your office is your desk at home, doesn’t that mean that the company you work for becomes more “vanilla” and in the long run you work for whoever pays you the most? Company owners and management will also have to work harder to keep staff “loyal” and to maintain a very specific brand identity for their workforce.
I do believe we can however become a more caring people over time. Like my PA who is looking after her Dad, companies can and should, enable staff to not lose touch with family while working. A new Dad employee recently commented about how lockdown was such a blessing because he could experience so much more with their new bundle of joy without sitting in traffic. So, there is that as an upside.
The educational sector is an interesting one for me. Universities for example as educational institutions have been around for very many years, but let’s start micro. My friend’s daughter had to rent a flat in Cape Town and move to the Mother City to study at UCT. Is that still the case for new students? Maybe not. Maybe the future is virtual lectures, and a study from anywhere norm. Does that mean universities can now take on more students? Yes surely. Your numbers are no longer limited to a physical location’s capacity.
But don’t forget the double-edged sword.
Let’s for argument’s sake say that we all decide that we want to do our law degree at Harvard Law School in the future. No more moving to Boston, dealing with freezing winters, paying through your ears for everything in dollars. This can be achieved from the comfort of your bedroom in sunny South Africa.
But if everyone decides to study via Harvard (because they are supposedly the best) – does that not mean that fewer people will study in South Africa? Could we see major educational institutions offering world class degrees to anyone around the world, and in so doing, kill off local educational institutions? Well, maybe yes.
Apply this philosophy to retail – if location matters less – would you shop at a different store? Maybe in your suburb the Pick n Pay is 3km away from your home, and Checkers 10km away. So, you always shop at Pick n Pay. But if you move to online delivery shopping – purchases only happen via the PnP App or the Checkers Sixty/60 App – then you might go to the retailer with the better prices or the better online experience.
For us as South Africans we should use this as an opportunity to offer mass services across the globe at a competitive price. We have mass unemployment at 30% so the “anything from anywhere” trend can potentially open our workforce up to the globe, and not just to a stuttering South African economy.
Our weak Rand could help with competitive pricing.
COVID 19 handed us all some lemons, but hey, free lemons so let’s go out of our way to turn them into some much-needed Lemonade