Home offices the future of work?

As South Africans retreated to their homes amid the lockdown, businesses had to adapt to a new world of work with home offices as the place of business

While there are few silver linings amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, remote work is definitely one. The nationwide lockdown forced many businesses to suddenly enable their workforce to work from home or remotely. Although it has been around for some time, the concept wasn’t widely adopted in South Africa.

Suddenly, a nation was keeping the economy afloat from the comfort of a study, living or bedroom. For some it was easier than others, but regardless, businesses had no choice but to adopt this new practice.

Why should you care? Well, for two reasons. First, the world of work will surely look very different post lockdown – at least for some time until the safety of employees can be assured. Many businesses might choose to permanently adopt the concept of remote work as it will mean employees don’t need to travel and businesses can operate from smaller offices.

Second, people with disabilities could also experience the benefits of this concept. Post lockdown, they can approach their employer about a more permanent arrangement, or they can consider a career that allows them to work from home. The benefits are truly endless, especially for employees with disabilities and the businesses that wish to employ them.

Maureen Bvuma shares how she benefited from remote work during lockdown. “The company I work for made me a priority to work from home prior to the lockdown to ensure my safety and that everything is set up and working properly,” she explains. “The positive it is that I am comfortable and don’t have to worry about the pressures of getting ready for and to work or the stress of traffic.

“So, I could definitely work from home post lockdown as I see that it has also increased my productivity. The downside is that I miss the interactions with my colleagues and friends,” she concludes.

Avoiding the dirty work

Possibly the most significant benefit for businesses is that they can take advantage of the BBBEE points that come with employing a person with a disability without having to change the office structure.

While all businesses should strive to be universally accessible, the reality is that many don’t. Whether it is because of financial constraints or an active choice, an inaccessible workplace makes it simply impossible for a person with a disability to be employed.

If the person with a disability works remotely, the business doesn’t need to accommodate all their specific requirement. Instead, the employee can be provided with all the necessary equipment and work from their homes, which is most likely already accessible.

For those who don’t have the capability to work from home, businesses can arrange an alternative remote office. For example, non-profit organisations with accessible facilities can be contacted to host remote employees on behalf of the business.

True comfort

Aside from avoiding a long commute and all its challenges, remote work ensures true comfort for the person with a disability. Each person is different with specific requirements to ensure a workspace is truly accessible. Maybe the bathroom at the company is too far from the person with a disability’s desk or the cupboards are too high.

Maureen Bvuma found working from home during the lockdown very convenient.

Working from home will ensure that the person has everything they need – a completely adapted environment. But it goes beyond that. Many people with disabilities – as clearly highlighted amid the COVID-19 pandemic – are more at risk of falling gravely ill. For those with underlying illnesses or compromised immune systems, remote work can also improve their health with less risk of catching a contagious illness.

Getting set up

Businesses and employees have a joint responsibility to ensure that the home office is adequately equipped. The employer, for example, can provide a laptop or computer for the employee, which would remain the property of the company. The employee, on the other hand, can ensure that they have a strong internet connection should they need to join a video meeting on programs such as Skype, Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

The employee should also make sure that the environment at the home allows them to be productive. To check up on productivity, there is software available that the businesses can upload to the laptop. All of this, of course, needs to be aligned with the Protection of Personal Information (POPI) Act to ensure all personal information is protected.

Open lines of communication

The most important aspect of remote work is communication between the employee and employer. There needs to be frequent feedback provided with the employer checking in regularly. For example, a weekly meeting can be arranged to discuss important projects and progress. Alternatively, the employee can provide a to-do list with feedback on progress.

Similarly, if there are any obstacles or challenges, it is important for the employee to notify their employer. It is only natural to have an off day. By being vocal, the team can work together to improve productivity. If not, the results might be visible in the employee’s work and lead to distrust in their capabilities.

The business has a responsibility to ensure that the employee with a disability is included in team-building exercises – especially if they are required to work closely with others. An employer should encourage team building or schedule regular meetings at an accessible location to accommodate the person with a disability.

A job that fits

It is important to note that although most, if not all employees, were accommodated at home during lockdown, this might not be the case going forward. Employees working in finance or with sensitive company information might be required to return to a traditional office setting to protect the organisation.

However, there are many jobs that can be done remotely. People with disabilities who would like to work from home can choose a career that can accommodate remote work or can be done on a freelance basis. There are many to consider, for example, website design, graphic design, social media management and copywriting.

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