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Press Release

Flexible working during COVID-19 harms productivity at some South African businesses, but boosts it for others

Compensation Strategy & Design|Future of Work|Talent|Total Rewards
COVID 19 Coronavirus

July 8, 2020

JOHANNESBURG, 8 July, 2020 — South African businesses have had a very mixed experience of ‘working from home’ and other new workplace measures during COVID-19, with a third (35%) saying staff productivity is worse than before the pandemic, and one in five (18%) saying that it has actually improved, according to research released today.

The survey by Willis Towers Watson (NASDAQ:WLTW), a leading global advisory, broking, and solutions company, also showed that 34% of businesses said there had been no change or only a minor negative impact to staff productivity.

South African working practices have undergone a massive change during the coronavirus pandemic. Almost half (47%) of businesses responding to the survey said that at least 75% of their workforce now works remotely, up from just 2% before the crisis. Before COVID-19, 78% of businesses said less than 10% of their staff worked from home.

Melanie Trollip, Director of Talent and Reward at Willis Towers Watson South Africa, said:

This is a long-term shift in working practices that will outlive the pandemic. Clear and engaging leadership can make a huge difference to how well employees adapt.”

Melanie Trollip,
Director of Talent and Reward, Willis Towers Watson South Africa

“Working from home was already becoming more widespread, but COVID-19 has turbocharged that trend. This is a long-term shift in working practices that will outlive the pandemic, as there are many benefits around greater staff flexibility, improved efficiency, and lower real estate costs.

“Most South African businesses are coping well with the new world of work. Many office staff have found the transition relatively smooth and some firms are reporting that productivity has actually improved during the pandemic.

“But a significant number of businesses are seeing productivity suffer. Where office staff are less productive, that could be due to unclear work goals, poor IT systems, and low engagement. People working in retail and manufacturing are less able to work flexibly and, in many cases, employers must change their scope of work or split teams to maintain social distancing. No matter what the business is, clear and engaging leadership can make a huge difference to how well employees adapt.”

The new landscape could be around for some time yet, as 72% of employers see no fixed end date for their new working policies. Furthermore, a third (35%) said that COVID-19 would have a moderate or large negative impact on their business for the next two years, and a third (32%) said they were uncertain what the impact would be over that timeframe, reflecting the anxiety and uncertainty created by the pandemic.

The survey also showed that businesses are strong at communicating with the workforce, with 94% making regular communications and 91% making good use of social channels like Teams and WhatsApp. However, far fewer of them are in listening mode, as only 30% have surveyed their staff opinions since the pandemic started.

Melanie added: “Many companies are still feeling their way through an uncertain and challenging situation. They need to listen carefully to their staff to understand what is working and what isn’t.

“The best performing businesses have highly engaged and motivated staff. As firms scramble to recover from lockdown, understanding how to lead and manage people has never been so important.

“Management styles and HR policies may need to adapt continually as we face ongoing disruption from the pandemic, and many offices stay closed or only partially open. There may be a shift in staff perks away from cars towards home broadband and telephone allowances. Having a dedicated home office can also create tax breaks for many people, so we expect that to be a factor on many wish-lists.”

About the survey

Willis Towers Watson surveyed a diverse range of employers based in South Africa for its 2020 COVID-19 Pulse Survey, which was conducted during mid-May 2020. The 212 respondents from South Africa employ about 845,000 employees globally.

An extract of the survey for journalists is available on request from the contact below.

A copy of the full survey is available to purchase. Contact deirdre.vangreunen@willistowerswatson.com

About Willis Towers Watson

Willis Towers Watson (NASDAQ: WLTW) is a leading global advisory, broking and solutions company that helps clients around the world turn risk into a path for growth. With roots dating to 1828, Willis Towers Watson has 45,000 employees serving more than 140 countries and markets.

We design and deliver solutions that manage risk, optimize benefits, cultivate talent, and expand the power of capital to protect and strengthen institutions and individuals. Our unique perspective allows us to see the critical intersections between talent, assets and ideas — the dynamic formula that drives business performance.

Together, we unlock potential.

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