Location liberation in the public sector: Remote work is here to stay, says Eskom

Covid-19 has forced most industries to rethink the concept of work, including the public sector. Could work as we know it continue in a virtual environment? The forced shift toward a distributed and highly virtualised model demonstrates that most people can accomplish work efficiently, effectively, and comfortably even while working remotely. More than just a short-term inconvenience, remote work may be the first step in a long-term transformation, which Covid-19 has just accelerated. Location liberation and the ability to work from anywhere are realities, and they are altering most aspects of how we work, where we work, and what we need to work effectively. In the second Deloitte webinar hosted by BizNews, moderator Tim Modise is joined by representatives from Deloitte South Africa and Eskom to discuss Location Liberation, its challenges, and what it means for employee productivity and wellness. You can watch the full webinar below. – Claire Badenhorst

Tumelo Seaketso, Director of Human Capital at Deloitte Consulting, on the benefits of hybrid work in government organisations: 

It’s about the adaptive workplace, where we have seen with Covid how all our employees had to work from home where possible. The trends that we have received have shown that government organisations globally have benefitted from this. Four basic benefits that we have seen coming out of the government trends 2021 related specifically to the adaptive workplaces in the government – benefit number one being that there has been some reduction of operating costs. The operating expenses that were being taken care of when people were in offices, they are no longer really a big part of our expenditure as governments. So the government was able to shift some of its costs to benefit society from a perspective of addressing Covid-related matters whilst having a reduction of these costs.

The second benefit is wider access to your talent pool, and we are seeing more and more where employees are looking for organisations where now they can accommodate my request to work in a hybrid model – working from home and working in the office on certain days. So that has now become an opportunity where employers can look for talent from a wider pool because people don’t have to be seated physically in your location, and the government also has the opportunity to attract that talent that they could not attract because of a physical location. We see this example, especially with your IT jobs, where I can be doing the job anywhere in the world, so it gives an opportunity also for our public sector to be able to access talent in that manner.

The third one we have seen specifically in Canada, the Canadian Treasury, where they have seen improved productivity because people are spending less time now on the roads. So where outcomes and outputs are clearly defined, people are now able to focus and just increase productivity. And like I said, the Canadian Treasury had given an example that there was about 11% improvement in productivity. The last one that I can share is around employee engagement and empowerment. So employees feel more empowered in that, as long as the outcomes are clear, I can do my work while still doing other things that I need to do from a personal perspective. As a result, there’s a sense of higher engagement and we’ve seen about 11% of their engagement levels going up because employees now feel more empowered being in their space, being trusted to deliver whilst not having to be in the physical location itself.

Elsie Pule, Group Executive of Human Resources at Eskom, on Eskom’s experience of remote work: 

I think when last year happened in March, most organisations were not ready. We’ve been talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and it seemed like that was going to be very far. But what happened was we needed to dance immediately on a shifting carpet and find ways to continue delivering on our various mandates as various government organisations.

When we were at the peak of the lockdown, we were able to enable very rapidly about 70% of our workforce to adopt a hybrid and remote work practice. At the time, we had about 12,000 staff members on the field to continue generating power and keep the lights on. But the majority of us were held back, including some of the field workers who we allowed to work from home and we had to adopt technological opportunities to dispatch them from home to go connect our customers out there.

What we also found at the time was that 43 of our key productivity and performance indicators showed a general improvement or remained steady. We also found that the productivity levels we had prior to lockdown, after the three months of operating within lockdown, had not really shifted. So one would argue that when you work remotely, productivity dropped. We have not seen that. We conducted a management survey because I believe very strongly that when you’re talking about remote work or hybrid work, the biggest threat is to managers. Managers who especially are struggling in terms of, how do you really manage people that you don’t see? What we found is that we had a 72 response rate, which indicated that the productivity or the utilisation of employees was at about 79.5% – similar to what we had prior to lockdown. So that also eradicates the doubt that when you don’t see people, they’re probably not working.

We did a survey on our employees and 91% of the respondents indicated that they preferred remote work and then about 57% said they wanted to have a hybrid model. What we were finding was that people wanted to work remotely but still have an opportunity to come and plug into, what we call the mothership, once in a while. Some employees were very concerned that we had not been contacting them – feeling sort of redundant. So psychologically, it gives you a sense that you’re still employed if you go plug into the mothership. So we did a business case and we realised that if we can move about 32% of our staff to fully work on a hybrid model, we would have meaningful outcomes and we started doing some work parallel to that. We started reviewing our real estate because we [are] also struggling financially. So this was a great opportunity for us to rationalise and optimise the use of office space, as well as transportation where we offer transportation.

Our business case of considering a hybrid work model post-Covid has been approved. Our goal is to achieve a high-performance culture and also enhance flexibility.

Tumelo Seaketso on the typical challenges associated with remote work:

It’s about the balance. I think there were a lot of people struggling with the balance of the work itself and family commitments because they became blurred. That’s number one. Then came the challenge of mental well-being. So most organisations have had to look at the employee mental well-being to make sure that with all that blurriness between work and home commitments, we help with the load of the mental strain that people have experienced.

Elsie Pule on how quickly Eskom was able to adapt to the work-from-home approach:

We didn’t have an option because we do have a mandate of keeping the lights on, so we couldn’t spend a lot of time trying to plan, so we had to find a way of dancing on a shifting carpet from day one. This was primarily facilitated by HR but all our emergency protocols kicked in. So from day one, we managed to get 70% of the people to work remotely, but then we had a commitment that 30% of our workforce, particularly your operators, your maintainers, and some of the field workers out there had to be on the site.

On the challenges experienced at Eskom with remote work:

What became a shock to the system was to use technology to run meetings, and we ended up using Teams and we didn’t have time to be trained on Teams. How do you really run the meetings based on that? But we found that a lot of our employees were getting really frustrated, especially when they felt that they were not connected to the organisation or connected to business. So from the HR perspective, we started running roundtables, and one of the roundtables I initiated around the fourth month was to basically engage the female employees, particularly young mothers, because what they were faced with was not only the work they had to do, [but] they were all of a sudden faced with homeschooling.

We created some apps where people would check-in and give us their status in terms of how they were feeling and so on. We also encouraged managers when they checked in with their employees to switch on their cameras. We also started seeing an increase in terms of substance abuse. So we then created a pack that we called an employee care kit, which we also encouraged our employees to share with their families – that also helped them in terms of mental well-being and provided a lot of numbers in terms of who to contact if you need to talk or if you are struggling with issues.

On lessons learned at Eskom:

I think for us, the biggest lesson we’ve learned was that this was not happening only because of Covid. As organisations, we were gearing ourselves for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, so I think the new world of work is here to stay. It’s not going to go away. So what we need to do as organisations is we need to brace ourselves and make sure that we start reviewing our policies and procedures to be ready for the new normal. I have seen in our research and in our surveys, there are actually more benefits to the hybrid way of working than the way we used to work prior.

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