Work in the time of Corona

As South Africans face the reality of a 21-day lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus, working from home has become the “new normal” overnight – and if properly managed, it can be just as productive as being in the office.

Prof Renata Schoeman, head of the MBA in Healthcare Leadership programme at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) said that South African companies now join millions of businesses across the globe forced to “learn fast and on-the-job how to manage a completely remote workforce”.

At the same time, scores of employees suddenly experiencing the “freedom” of working from home may also be experiencing anxiety sparked by a lack of supervision and direction, having little time to adjust to a new way of working, fears of job losses, along with challenges of managing technology, keeping productive, staying connected and juggling family and work responsibilities.

Work in the time of Corona – remaining productive while staying home to “flatten the curve” to contain impact on a strained healthcare system – presents unprecedented challenges for workers, business and the economy as a whole.

“The spread of COVID-19 has made the adoption of technology and remote and flexible working inevitable, with a likely lasting change in the way we work,” Prof Schoeman said.

Being cooped-up with children, spouses and even extended family also poses additional challenges and requires us “to become masters of adaptability and agility overnight”, she said.

“Successful working from home is dependent on an individual’s self-sufficiency (such as time-management skills, self-discipline and motivation), communication skills, adaptability and technological skills,” Prof Schoeman said.

For those suddenly adapting to the new reality of working from home, Prof Schoeman says it is easy to fall into the trap of poor discipline – ditch your daily routine, eat junk food, take “power naps” or tackle those DIY projects that there’s never time for.

To stay on track while working from home, she advises:

  • Operate in a business-like manner. Set aside a separate, dedicated workspace, free from distractions, and customise it with the equipment and connectivity you need to be productive
  • Limit and manage disruptions and interruptions. Set down clear boundaries for family and friends and establish a routine.
  • Keep to your daily routine. Get ready for work as you would on a normal day (don’t work in your pajamas!) and don’t be too comfortable and laid back – this will negatively impact your motivation and productivity. Make a to-do list at the beginning of the day, prioritise the tasks you need to accomplish, and plan your time accordingly.
  • Stay “in the loop”. When working from home, it is very easy to miss out on the casual exchange of “passage information” and to feel isolated. Keep up the corridor chat and tea-break conversations with colleagues in a virtual way – by phone, online chat or social media – and make the effort for daily check-ins with teams and co-workers using online work platforms or just a WhatsApp group. Technology makes it possible to stay connected as though we were sitting in our office, rather than at home.
  • Stay professional and be connected. Use video-conferencing (set reminders to “show up” on time and remember to mute yourself when not talking), and make sure to be reachable and responsive during working hours.
  • Maintain your physical and emotional health. Very diligent workers are at risk for burnout as the boundaries between work and home blur, and employees may also feel the need to “prove” that they are being trustworthy and productive. Set boundaries for when your workday starts and ends.
  • Eat healthily, exercise regularly, keep to your sleeping routine, limit non-work-related screen time and connect with your family and friends, even if via phone, online chat or social media.

For employers fearing lack of productivity in employees working out of sight and without conventional supervision, Prof Schoeman said several studies had shown remote workers having greater productivity (separate studies from Stanford University found productivity levels increasing between 13 and 21%) due to less interruptions, such as colleagues popping in for a chat, and fewer inefficient meetings.

“Employees are less stressed due to avoiding traffic and commuting time (which also saves time, money and environmental impact), having the ability to stay at home with children, especially with the current shutdown of schools, and better work-life balance due to more flexibility in how they allocate their time,” she said.

Prof Schoeman said the greater independence of remote or flexible work helped employees to develop skills in self-management (self-motivation, self-discipline, focus, and concentration), communication, and the use of technology.

“Less stress, healthier eating habits and more physical activity means healthier, happier employees who take fewer sick days and don’t put others at risk when ill – especially important at this time,” she said.

“A final thought for employees working from home: always strive to be a better worker – be responsible and accountable. You are the master of your integrity.”

“And for the employers? Develop measurable goals and metrics for work to be performed during this time and make a determined effort to improve communication and technological capabilities. That will make remote working a win:win experience for all – not only in the time of a global pandemic,” Prof Schoeman said.

Useful resources:
Stellenbosch Business School
The internationally accredited Stellenbosch Business School offers MBA, Master’s, MPhil and PhD programmes as well as executive education programmes – all focused on the development of business leadership.
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