Why I think Coronavirus Might Be Good For Business In A Fourth Industrial World

In June last year, we at CSRNEWSSA decided we were going to go the ‘work from home’ route.  For years, colleagues had been saying we were ideally suited to this arrangement, and I finally agreed. We’d tried other options – we even went for the shared office space route, similar to WeWork.  But it was not ideal for us, and involved unnecessary costs.

I am an old-school office manager, and working from home took some getting used to. In effect, I was stuck in the Industrial Revolution. My desk had to be here, and my staff had to be there, and we all had to check in and leave at certain times, not a minute later or earlier! My mindset had to change

An outdated system
During the Industrial Revolution, a few key businessmen – JP Morgan, Rockefeller, Ford and others – realised they could not run their businesses themselves, and that they needed two power engines – the factory workers and the managers. The workers did the work and the managers monitored and incentivised them, regularly reporting on results. It was very structured, very numbers driven.  

The entire education system of the time was geared to this system, producing willing workers who would, above all, fit in and do what was expected. The education we have today is a descendent of that system, and it is largely out of touch with the way today’s businesses actually operate. Steve Jobs, chatting with President Barack Obama some years ago,  said the US needed something like 10 000 new computer engineers a year. An impossible figure. So what did companies do?  They outsourced engineering tasks to skilled people in other countries, bringing them into value chain without anyone having to leave home.

In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, this is now becoming the norm. It is fast becoming unnecessary to report to an office in order to get work done. I can do everything I once did at the office at home with my smartphone and a WiFi connection. What counts is the results, not the place nor the hours.

Think about Ludwick Marishane, who invented DryBath, a body gel that cleans without the need for soap and water. He wrote his entire proposal on his not-so smart phone, and today is amongst the top ten richest kids in South Africa.

So – in keeping with the new, freer and more streamlined 4IR approach, we made the swap to working from home in July last year and have never looked back. Yes, there were teething problems. I’d send an email and get no response within the appropriate time – I’d follow up with a WhatsApp – no response – then an sms and a Skype message. While waiting, I got on with other tasks. Eventually, the team member would notice all the attempts and call back.  It was not easy at first, but it got easier.

Once we found a routine that worked for us all, this is what happened:

  1. As you can imagine we saved on office costs – rental and all the rest. 
  2. We got the team onto Skype. Now everyone chats on Skype for anything we need.
  3. Staff who used to travel two hours a day and get to work at 8 were now sleeping in until about 9. This was fine. When they did wake up,  they worked longer hours, often till midnight. And the work got done!
  4. At first it was annoying to call someone at 9 am and hear that they were barely awake. But this was more than made up for by the emails I’d get late at night, showing me that people were on the ball and working. The point was, they worked better because they worked in ways that suited them.
  5. What was more liberating was that I saw my own workload and creativity soar.
    1. I no longer had to rush to open an office – I could work through a thought and contact the team when ready.
    1. I did not have to manage other people’s time. What a relief!  
    1. I did not have to practise the discipline of getting to bed early in order to be up on time. I’m a night owl, and can now work through the night on occasion  When this happens, emails I send at midnight with instructions will be received and implemented by staff by the time I surface at 11 am.

What has also been fascinating is that most clients prefer not to have to deal with me immediately upon entering the office. I no longer bother them at 9 am. I can send them an email at 2 in the morning if I want to, and by the time I call at midday or so, they’ve had time to ponder its contents and give a more considered response. There has been an amazing burst of creativity in being so free to work the hours that suit me – and I believe the same has been true for all my staff.  

So! Where does Coronavirus fit in?

Corporate South Africa has put a hold on travel and meetings and more and more people are having to work from home, whether or not this was part of the initial plan.  How do you, possibly an old school manager as I was, cope with managing your teams from home?

First, make sure that the staff have everything they need to meet their objectives;  chiefly, internet and a reliable desktop or laptop. At CSRNEWSS,  we subscribe to an internet provider and provide laptops and cell phones to our executive team.  

In our case, to offset the costs of internet and cell phones, we chose to lower all salaries by ZAR500. Some could not see the value in that, even though they were free to use the cell phones and laptops to pursue other interests. This may not be an appropriate option during this time, given the uncertainty of how long the Coronavirus outbreak might last, but it is something to consider if working from home becomes a long-term prospect. 

We may well find that after this period of crisis, more and more service-oriented businesses transform into the work-from-home model, allowing huge savings in time and money for both employees and the business. There may be huge unseen benefits as more people keep off the roads and fly less, meeting on platforms such as Skype and others.  

Let us at least consider the benefits of a system that has long made sense in view of rising costs, traffic congestion and stress levels. While the crisis rages, we should be making plans for how to adapt to a changing world scenario. None of us knows how long the outbreak will last, but we already know plenty about the changing needs of business.

Our ability to adapt, to be flexible and to innovate are what will see us thriving rather than merely surviving these rapidly changing times. Coronavirus or no Coronavirus, the work- from-home model just makes sense.

Corporate Social Responsibility News (CSRNEWS) is South Africa’s leading Corporate Social Responsibility news, media and publishing firm. We create content on social responsibility, helping government, corporates, consultants, NPOs and NGOs to reach their target markets through appropriate, targeted development news.

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