OPINION | Coronavirus let the genie out of the bottle for office workers. They won't go back in


As we watch the progress and tragedy of Covid-19, it’s clear that it will permanently re-order our world as the economic and social reality of the virus bites. What that looks like is still unknown, but what is already quite clear is that it brings a much more widespread flexible work economy.

Until now, only the most forward-thinking companies have fully bought into a distributed workforce. The rest paid lip service to the idea while clinging to the belief that their people were only really working if they could see them at their desks. But as the highly contagious nature of Covid-19 has made itself felt, this has had to be put aside, and quickly.

Almost overnight most companies have had no choice but to embrace flexi working. To their surprise, they’re discovering what those early adopters already know: technology connects us all, all the time; you can trust your staff to do their jobs from home, and flexi working offers many unforeseen benefits. These are the main factors that will entrench a new world of work, the flexible work economy.

One of the fastest-growing software companies in the US, the musically named Aha!, is a great illustration of the benefits of this economy. The company has never had an office. Not since 2013 when it started. Every one of its employees works remotely. Brian de Haaff, co-founder and CEO, says his company proves that it doesn’t matter where people are based, as long as they’re able to focus and are prepared to work diligently.

According to him, the primary reasons remote workers outperform office workers are:

Productivity. Working alone allows each person to achieve their maximum productivity level because they have none of the normal office distractions and are able to bring greater focus to their work. Effectively, they have the freedom to get more done.

Teamwork. De Haaff believes that remote workers make great teammates precisely because of the distance between them. It may seem counterintuitive, but their separation from each other requires excellent communication, which he says leads to stronger collaboration and camaraderie. And 92% of workers claim that video collaboration improves their teamwork.

Presence. Again, this is counterintuitive, but flexi workers are more present than office workers because they don’t take time off – not for illness or errands, to get to appointments or any number of other reasons.

Instead, they design their days to meet both work and personal commitments, so they’re always available when they say they will be. The flexible work environment is an environment of no excuses.

Once business feels these benefits, it will be difficult to return to a more traditional working environment, which is why flexible working is going to develop into the new economy. Welcome to the virtual world.

It’s not that workers will never go back to offices – some will, even if not full-time – it’s that they will be freer to work from a place that suits them better. This may not necessarily be home; it is just as likely to be a co-working space which offers all the benefits of both worlds.

Covid-19 has released the genie from the bottle - or the worker from the office - and there is no putting them back in.

Andrew Robinson is co-founder and executive director of SiSebenza. Views expressed are his own. 

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