The world-wide corona pandemic has changed the future dramatically and virtually overnight with a new one emerging. Some people are already in this new future, although not realising it fully yet. The world of work is set for monumental change being literally thrown into the future.
The days of the buzzing office, endless meetings, ringing telephones and that typical South African “bosberaad” (bush meeting) are in all likelihood gone, to be replaced by a face on a monitor or TV screen.
Change to the traditional model of work has been hovering for quite some time. The virus, with the potential to bring the world to a standstill with apocalyptic consequences for the future, has suddenly brought this home, putting millions at a distance from where they have to work and earn a living.
But for now and the moment we’re in, South Africa’s future will be determined by the behaviour of its society on the one hand and how the coronavirus behaves on the other. The intersection of these two behaviours will be of critical importance for what lies ahead and for the world of work in the country.
Societal behaviour centres on social compliance to behaviour protocols and if agreement is of a high or low order. The behaviour of the coronavirus hinges on its virulence or how strong it is, its ability to transmit, mortality rate, and ability to mutate.
According to the Dr Morné Mostert, director of the Institute for Futures Research (IFR) at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, this behaviour is the pivot of the current Covid-19 crisis.
“The problem is that South Africa is already seen as the ‘protest capital’ of the world with civil disobedience well entrenched in its psyche. The country also has strong oppositional relationships between government, civil society, business and labour.
“With crime in the country out of control, we are not a very disciplined society. The government has nevertheless reacted extremely well to the crisis with an announcement of a national disaster and a nationwide lockdown for 21 days. We do, however, have a tradition of sound policymaking hampered by weak implementation.
“Government enforcement of disaster measures to the letter of the law is therefore somewhat questionable.
“It is also unrealistic to expect that health system responsiveness will be of world-class standards. At best, a moderate response can be expected.”
Mostert said that in a perfect world there is a “preferable” coronavirus scenario outcome of high compliance to steps taken, a virus that is not that devastating, proper government enforcement and health system resilience. This is against the worst-case scenario of total implosion of the country.
The most likely coronavirus scenario outcome for South Africa, or “probable” scenario, is one of moderate social compliance to measures taken, but not to the same extent as in China. Government enforcement is relatively successful, but not what it should be in a situation like this. At the same time, the health system is under severe pressure but somehow manages to survive the virus onslaught.
“What South Africans need to understand is that the preferred scenario is not the same as the probable scenario. The worst-case scenario, on the other hand, is also not the probable scenario, although the general public and the markets have recently behaved as if it is.
“The panic buying in the last week or so was indicative of an expectation of the worst-case scenario.”
The future is unpredictable, but what is relatively clear at this stage is that the world of work will, in all likelihood, not be the same as before.
A fundamental shift from face-to-face to digital communication can be expected with millions of people across the world forced to work from home. The technology is available and only has to be implemented by businesses.
The question for the future is, will businesses go back to the traditional way of face-to-face office-based communication with never-ending meetings, discussions, and gatherings after the dust settles?
“Businesses might just find that with some adjustment to management styles and a few innovative ways of doing things, it is cheaper for employees to work where ever they want and to communicate digitally with employers and colleagues, provided that productivity is not reduced.
“Perhaps the coronavirus has provided businesses with a good opportunity for digital experimentation and to learn from what is happing now.”
The temptation will also be for businesses to “go back to the basics” in an attempt to get a grasp on what is happing around the world. The problem is that this will take the business back to the past while competitors might be “inventing the future” with new ways of doing business.
“The coronavirus has changed the world virtually overnight. Businesses that are willing to learn from the crisis and innovate will thrive in the longer term,” Mostert said.