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To go (back to the office) or not to go – that is the question!

A few months (which feels like years) ago, almost the entire global workforce was dispatched lock stock and barrel to their homes, relatively overnight, as Covid-19 lockdowns kicked in. Technology infrastructure was sorted out pretty swiftly across the board, so that people would have the devices, data and apps that ensured business continuity with as little disruption as possible.

What many executive teams and chief risk officers had previously spent countless hours grappling with – what if a disaster should strike and we need to hunker down somewhere outside of our offices? – became relatively simple to sort out, all things considered.

Send the people home, give them laptops and data, and if they need to be there for a while, make sure that they have an ergonomic chair to sit on in front of their dressing table in their bedrooms.

All in all, vacating the offices and shifting to work from home was done with relative degrees of precision, and most companies found a groove with work-from-home and ensuring productivity of their teams within weeks of the exodus.

In some cases, WFH ‘policies’ were put into place, but many companies took the route of trying to enable people to be as productive as possible taking into account respective personal circumstances (some of which were actually very arduous, in particular for parents with young children), without being too prescriptive in the policy department.

Now, in many countries where things have ‘opened up’, albeit with health and safety guidelines and regulations, a much more challenging situation is arising: deciding on who, how, when and where people should go back to the office.

According to Gerrie Fourie, Capitec Bank CEO, sending everyone home was actually a breeze in comparison to the challenges the company now faces with figuring out a policy to bring people back, safely.

In interviewing Gerrie, as well as several other CEOs in the banking and digital payments sectors throughout Africa for my upcoming book, ‘The Living Room Leader’, there seems to be a broad ‘menu’ of back to office approaches that companies will be trying out.

They include:

  • Shared workspaces: For multi-site companies with offices in many locations, some are offering a ‘hot-desk’ or shared workspace setup which allows staff to work at an office closest to their homes. Alternatively, staff can work from a shared workspace (not owned by the company) close to home, to help those who have unsuitable WFH setups to be more productive.
  • Fruit-salad: Staff can decide which days they’d like to be in office, randomly and according to what works best for them and the company.
  • Set days in and out: Teams get to decide when the whole team will be in the office for ‘collaboration days’. These include days for strategy sessions and other group work that teams find easier to do in person.
  • Four in, one home: Some companies are expecting their people to be in the office 4 out of 5 days a week (including Reed Hastings at Netflix), as a concession to those who have enjoyed the WFH flexibility.
  • All in, eventually: There are some companies who have been absolutely crystal clear that they eventually expect everyone to go back to the office full time, as and when it is safe to do so. Already, many companies have called on all employees to return to the office. While others are not pressurising people to go back just yet, they have managed their teams’ expectations around the future – as in, NO work from home at all. At least this provides some certainty, for those who were considering moving house to a less urban (less expensive) area.
  • And then there are those who have fully embraced WFH, and are getting rid of their office space entirely!
Author Info: Debbie Goodman-Bhyat

Debbie is the founder and CEO of Jack Hammer.

For more than 20 years, she has partnered with some of the region’s top corporations, as well as global private equity investors in Africa – helping them find great leaders for executive and board appointments. She is currently in the US, extending Jack Hammer’s footprint to California.

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