Working from home: the pros and cons
The lockdown has forced many companies that have been ignoring remote working options for their employees to make an overnight U-turn
For a brief spell in 2001, I went to an office and saw my colleagues every day. Other than those few months, my office has always been wherever my laptop and internet connection are, my co-workers spread across three provinces. Since 2017, no-one in my team has been in the same time zone as me. Cynics have dismissed remote workers and our use of e-mail, file-transfer apps and videoconferencing as Generation X frivolity.
With the coronavirus pandemic upending work life, these facilities have now become a lifeline for employers — particularly those in the media, technology, human resources, management, accounting, law, marketing and NGO sectors — who have finally realised that people whose work is done primarily in front of a computer can do their job from anywhere in the world.
At times, you see your family only over the top of your computer screen, as they wonder why you’re always ‘at work’. The good news is there is no 9-5 workday; the bad news is there is no 9-5 workday
Working from home has saved me time and money, liberating me from the exhausting daily commute, and insulating me from petrol price increases.
But don’t be deceived. It isn’t all about slopping around in pyjamas and working out of the comfort of your bed. Telecommuting comes with a few Catch-22 situations.
Work from anywhere, any time
I pretty much work at any given time. The freedom to run errands and do the school run (in pre-pandemic days) suits family life well, especially for those of us with young children. However, working from home with babies and toddlers is not for the fainthearted.
The absence of clearly defined working hours can lead to remote workers putting in longer hours than they would have in a traditional office setting. Working from home doesn’t always allow one to enjoy a better work-family balance. Unplugging the laptop and switching off from work is difficult, particularly when you’re tempted to put in a few extra hours to meet a tight deadline.
At times, you see your family only over the top of your computer screen, as they wonder why you’re always “at work”.
The good news is there is no 9-5 workday; the bad news is there is no 9-5 workday.
Not having to work in a toxic environment is a major advantage of telecommuting. You can easily interact with co-workers and clients via Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Zoom, Slack or FaceTime. Therein lies the problem, though.
There are 100 different communication platforms but the quality of the conversations that we have on them is sometimes dubious. A Skype meeting is sometimes not as effective as a face-to-face meeting. In the absence of personal interaction, even the simplest decisions and discussions can become complex and tedious. This is compounded when some of your team are not English first-language speakers.
For all the cutting-edge technology at my disposal, using a pen and paper, sketching a layout, scribbling instructions and sending a photo to the WhatsApp group, sometimes accompanied by a voice memo barking out instructions, has still proved to be the most effective way of getting a message across. I’ll admit it. In those rare, desperate moments I wish I could walk to the office next door and actually speak to my colleague in person.
A slave to technology
Remote working is intended to liberate workers from their desks - but all it may have done is simply lengthen our leash. There are days when I feel shackled to my cellphone and laptop. The very technologies that enable one to work anywhere on the planet are also what tie you down, at the mercy of internet service providers.
For South Africans, a toxic mix of load-shedding and Telkom fibre malfunctions can instantly kill productivity and sanity. Without LTE wireless internet, power-banks and battery backups for modems and laptops, a project can grind to a halt.
Working from home also requires broadband internet to power video conferences and file-sharing apps. Only 1.2-million out of 13.4-million households have fixed broadband in SA. According to author Allan Knott-Craig, that forces 12.2-million households to rely on costly prepaid mobile data, making it financially unfeasible to use the internet for more than a few minutes at a time.
Working from home is not an option for these residents, even if their jobs don’t require a physical presence. The remote work gap is just one way the coronavirus outbreak is underscoring inequalities in SA.
As SA’s economic downgrade and the Covid-19 pandemic decimates businesses, many will be looking to cut expenses. Some will downsize office space to save money and will continue allowing employees to work from home. Some workers will grab that opportunity. Others, who find it difficult to focus amid the distractions of home and family life, may want to return to the office.
What is certain is that the coronavirus pandemic has forced employers to explore new ways of working and has changed the future of work.
• Dadoo is a freelance writer. A version of this article first appeared in Roshgold Investment Magazine.