Covid-19 and WFH Webinar


This webinar was hosted by the Mail & Guardian and Microsoft. It featured Colin Erasmus, who heads up the Modern Workplace Business Group at Microsoft South Africa; Bronwyn Williams, a financial expert who collaborates with Flux Trends; and Melody Xaba, a member of the MICT-SETA 4IR Committee.

Working from Home (WFH) is not a new concept, but it has never been done before at this scale. It is beneficial for employees, who no longer have to sit in rush-hour traffic, and enables people to integrate family and work life. It is problematic for those with small children, who can be very distracting. For employers, they can cut back on their rent and footprint, and their employees don’t waste their time on chatting at work.

There are both advantages and disadvantages regarding virtual meetings; some issues are best addressed face-to-face. Trust is a big factor when the workforce is working remotely; employees don’t like being spied on by their employers; and individual responsibility plays a big part when working from home.

Colin Erasmus heads up the Modern Workplace Business Group at Microsoft South Africa

People do seem to be working far longer hours now that they are WFH. Many people feel they are not meeting their productivity targets, and are not taking proper breaks, so they are overworking, and are therefore not actually being that productive. They have to set boundaries that used to be there, such as getting a break while driving to work. Many employers are investing in mental health programmes to keep their workforce healthy.

Technology is fulfilling the function of mid-management and micro-management, doing away with the need for those who police others. Most adults don’t need someone breathing down their necks, and will actually produce more if left to their own devices. Employers are encouraging their workers to take breaks and have “coffee chats” so that they don’t overwork themselves and burn themselves out.

Microsoft’s enablers for remote work:

  • Enable people to meet and collaborate from home
  • Inform and engage employees and customers
  • Make productivity apps available on any device: work desktop at home
  • Work confidently with devices: phones, computers, headphones, etcetera
  • Secure remote access to applications: cyber crimes have risen recently
  • Secure managed and unmanaged devices
  • Deliver the best virtual desktop

Are millennials flying at home, and the older generations struggling to work at home? Older people are finding the new technology somewhat daunting, and are being forced to catch up. Many millennials were working freelance already, and are used to working remotely, but there are mental health issues for everyone working at home, as people are not used to working alone. But, when change is necessary, people do change very fast.

Some people who have never had development experience in the past are now being fuelled by new technology, such as Microsoft’s Power Applications, which allows them to create applications without writing a single line of code. These “citizen developers” are becoming very useful for their companies. There are technologies available that make WFH much easier, and there has been two years’ worth of digital transformation in the last three months. Examples are technologies that allow people to collaborate on working on a document; others connect many people at once in virtual events.

Melody Xaba is a member of the MICT-SETA 4IR Committee

Security has become a big issue because people are no longer just connecting with desktops at work, but with all sorts of other devices and in different venues. Phishing attacks are now called “spear-phishing” attacks because they are so well targeted at individuals. Identities must be safeguarded very closely, particularly for kids. The risk landscape is moving very quickly; passwords and virus protection apps are still being used but may become outdated quite soon. Information that leaves the workplace must be protected, and you have to protect yourself within the various clouds as well. Some people are even hacking into the WiFi of their neighbours! Most attacks are financially motivated, and they are becoming very sophisticated, although some are motivated by sheer boredom.

Jobs that do not add value to the business are at risk, but peoples’ skills can be redeployed. Many people have to reconsider and reinvent their roles, especially in businesses that have been disrupted by new technologies; both companies and people have to be proactive in this regard in order to survive. Smaller organisations are finding it easier to invest in their employees, but trust is a big issue if you are investing in training, as your employees may move on. But training programmes have to continue when people work remotely.

Performance management

Many people are afraid that performance management systems may not be fair. Some people are developing new skills, and reward will be based more on output — “passenger” employees will be more easily identified. A lot of smoke and mirrors will be taken away, or seen through; with remote working, you can’t get away with just having a bubbly personality. Some companies are encouraging virtual coffee breaks to allow for innovation and networking to occur. It’s vital to keep the human relationships intact, both inside and outside the company.

The business culture of the organisation is important to nurture; at Microsoft it is based on growth and learning, where employees are rated on how they are able to learn from others, and how they help others. This has helped Microsoft in the remote working environment: how does someone reach out and help their fellow employee?

One has to have clear intentions about your business culture, or it may end up being something you don’t like. Despite all the new technologies, it’s all about the people in the end. Workplace analytics examines how employees work: how many hours are spent on emails, phoning, etcetera, but it’s not for “spying” purposes: it is there to advance how people work, and advance the culture of the organisation. 

Closing remarks: Get out there, reinvent yourself, the world has changed, but make sure you are secure when you work from home. Ensure that you are adaptable, and that you participate, or you will be left behind. Technology can be used to increase or decrease trust, or efficiency; it can be used to democratise information flows and flatten hierarchies, or to entrench them; so, we have to decide how to use it — our intentions must be crystal clear.

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