The remote workplace under Covid-19 Advantages of autonomy and risk of isolation

19 Jun 2020 11:48 am by Fundile Sangoni

The remote workplace under COVID-19: Advantages of autonomy vs Risks of isolation

Written by Advocate of the High Court, Fundile Sangoni, on behalf of LexisNexis South Africa.

[Durban, 19 June 2020] The COVID-19 pandemic triggered what many call a new normal across the world. In South Africa, almost overnight, most people had to stop attending work and confine themselves to their homes as the country went into a national lockdown. Some companies shut down completely, while others had to devise new models urgently, to enable their employees to resume work from wherever they were locked down.

As the lockdown has begun to ease and the economy is gradually reopening, the government has retained the injunction, in the COVID-19 regulations, that “all people who are able to work from home must do so”. The regulations direct large businesses and other institutions to minimise the number of employees at the workplace at any given time. They suggest rotations, staggered working hours, shift systems, remote working arrangements and similar measures. These measures are aimed at ensuring the least physical interaction between employees at the workplace.

The advent of remote working attempts a commendable balance between the country’s health and economic needs. A different, and more intimate question which arises however, is how the sudden remote workplace will affect the professional lives, relationships and development of individual employees and service providers.

Some concerns which arise in this regard include, for instance, how the diminished physical access to people and resources will affect professional growth and happiness in the workplace, how colleagues will interact and network outside the strictures of formal virtual meetings, how work and other opportunities will be distributed equitably in teams, departments and industries, or how companies will meaningfully pursue their transformative aspirations in these circumstances.

The rise of the remote workplace and the changes that come with it

It may be useful to contextualise my reflections by drawing from my own experiences.  I am a junior advocate. I practice from Sandton, Johannesburg, where many of the advocates from the Johannesburg Bar and PABASA hold chambers. Given the solitary nature of our profession, we get to meet and interact with colleagues in lectures and advocacy training as pupil advocates, and then in knowledge-sharing seminars, social functions and other similar events that the different groups and the Bar arrange regularly. We have an open-door policy, in terms of which members of the Bar (advocates) generally hold themselves available to assist one another with any professional and related needs.

This culture and manner of working allows us to network and build solid professional relationships. It fosters an environment in which we can gain and transfer skills, circulate work among each other and collaborate on briefs and in the various efforts to make the Bar a better institution for us all. I am told by friends and colleagues who work in banks, law firms and corporates in other industries that our experiences largely hold true for them too in many respects, except that they ordinarily work far more interdependently than advocates do.

It is undeniable that working remotely has many patent benefits. People are more autonomous in the way that they set up their work days. Those with other commitments such as home-schooling or who are just more productive at unconventional times of the day find benefit in not having to comply with strict office hours or having to travel to work every day.

However, in my view, there is equally significant value in being able to go to the office, and meet and network with colleagues in a professional and social context. It reduces the prospects of people feeling and actually becoming isolated, forsaken and overlooked; although, admittedly, many people experience these already in the ordinary working environment.

In my view, working together in one building motivates people to engage, work with and have some interest in the development of their colleagues, other than just those in their small trusted circles. It allows for colleagues to have off-beat encounters during meals at the canteen or to pop-in for a quick chat in each other’s offices, where they can discuss workplace difficulties and share experiences and ideas on professional growth. These platforms are particularly useful for those who are most vulnerable to exclusion in the workplace, including junior employees and other minority groups.

As a pupil advocate, my mentor advised me that there is no manual or magic to building a successful legal practice. Like many of my peers though, I benefitted from simply being present at chambers, networking with colleagues and availing myself to give assistance to anyone who needs it. In this way, I met new attorneys and clients, I expanded my professional network and I was fortunate to obtain work and build a practice.

When the pandemic plunged us into the isolation of our homes, many of us experienced a total shut down in our practices. Similarly, many of our colleagues in corporate were suddenly secluded from their teams and departments and have experienced difficulty sourcing new work and meeting their targets while working from home. This has threatened the ability of some of our colleagues to continue their practices and compromised others in their journeys towards promotion and other responsibilities.

Under these circumstances, as we increasingly implement the remote workplace, it is important to do so with the necessary care and intention to ensure that we not only benefit from the flexibility that it affords us, but also that we mitigate the risk of isolation that it poses for so many. We must take care to ensure that the remote workplace does not compromise the recent graduate who is trying to prove him or herself in a new department, the junior advocate or sole practitioner who is trying to build a practice and make ends meet in a volatile environment, or the single parent who is unable to participate in the mid-day virtual meetings because she is balancing work and running a household under lockdown.

How can we mitigate the risks of professional isolation?

Many companies currently have their attentions and resources devoted to ensuring the smooth running of their technical operations during this time.  This is understandable as we are traversing uncharted waters. However, it is equally important for companies and institutions to ensure that the new normal and its remote workplace establish a playing field in which all people have equal prospects of thriving.

Those who are in positions of leadership should use their agency to ensure that no person is left behind in this unfamiliar journey. International Diversity and Inclusion Leader, Sacha de Klerk presented very useful and practical suggestions in this regard in her article, Virtual Working: ultimate leveller for diversity or amplifier of exclusion.

Leaders, managers, directors, seniors, executives, etc. should assess and be conscious of the composition of their teams, groups, departments, and companies. They should, to the extent possible, actively reach out, meaningfully engage, and provide mentorship to people from the different categories that they identify, particularly those that are exposed in the current circumstances.

When they have new projects or matters, leaders should resist the impulse to share responsibilities only with their familiar circles but should make a deliberate effort to work closely with the lesser known colleague or member of the team. Even virtual meetings should ideally be facilitated in a way that acknowledges and gives all members of the team opportunities to make an input, and not only the ones that Sacha de Klerk describes as “dominating the conversation”.

The focus on technical operations should not blind employers to the reality that working from home under the present circumstances presents a substantial disruption for many employees. There ought to be open and continuous dialogue, and measures put in place to support such employees to prevent any undesirable long term effects which may flow from their inability to work continuously and at the same times and pace as their colleagues. The obvious risks include the perception that these employees are not as agile, nor as hardworking as others, which will inevitably affect them adversely when they are reviewed for bonuses and promotions.

Employers should concern themselves more with the mental health of their employees during this time. Working remotely has blurred the distinction between home and work life. Many people find themselves connected constantly, such that they are checking emails on their phones even during dinner with their families. One of the large Sandton banks has taken a progressive step by providing its employees with one day off in the month as a “self-care day”.

Employees and other service providers who are at risk of isolation, are also encouraged to be active and take advantage of the opportunities that exist in the developing new normal. They should explore ways to repurpose themselves to meet the needs of this unique environment. Some of our colleagues, for instance, are studying and teaching others on the new virtual systems that our courts are now using to hear cases. Others are researching, writing, and presenting webinars to continue sharing knowledge and introduce themselves virtually to their respective industries.

Conclusion

The so called new normal is exactly that and is thus here to stay in varying respects. We must embrace it to avoid being left behind by the rest of the world. However, as we set up the remote workplace, we must guard against hindering or undoing diversity and inclusion and creating additional vulnerable groups in the workplace.

There are untold benefits in the ability to work flexibly and remotely. We must pursue and unlock these benefits without reservations, while taking care, however, to avoid the inadvertent and undesirable consequences of professional isolation.

To access further insightful guidance around running a successful virtual working environment, visit the LexisNexis Virtual Working Resource page: https://www.lexisnexis.co.za/news-and-insights/virtual-working

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