A new ILO report, The Next Normal: The changing Workplace in Africa – Ten Trends from the COVID-19 Pandemic that are Shaping Workplaces in Africa, finds that while Africa has been hit hard by the COVID pandemic, workers and enterprises have responded to the challenges with great resilience and adaptability. However, the pandemic has fundamentally altered where and how people work, upending many long-standing norms and practices.
Enterprises and workers have made many changes, often out of necessity, though they have regularly brought unexpected improvements in productivity or working conditions.
The report, released on 12 May, identified key trends across the continent. Perhaps no single trend has defined the pandemic era more than the shift from physical to remote work. Thirty-six percent of workers in the surveyed enterprises worked remotely during the pandemic. Not surprisingly, remote work was more common amongst certain groups of workers, suggesting that a person’s job type and the sector of the economy in which they work also determine how they work – both now and in the future. Looking ahead, the future looks more hybrid rather than fully remote (with only 4 per cent of enterprises indicating that they would transition to a fully remote workplace).
Despite all the challenges of the pandemic, productivity has improved or remained constant at most enterprises – an inadvertent consequence of the pandemic for many enterprises who were pushed to find new ways of doing things. Eighty-five per cent of the enterprises surveyed for the report said that COVID-related changes resulted in either an improvement or no change to productivity. Additionally, 46 per cent of the enterprises surveyed said that changes to business processes resulted in productivity gains. Productivity gains have been driven in part by the push to find digital processes to replace analog ones. Eighty per cent of enterprises have re-examined how they measure productivity since the start of the pandemic, with enterprises increasingly focusing on outputs as their key measure of productivity. In fact, a strong majority of enterprises – 81 per cent – said they now focused on outputs as the key measure of productivity.
Another key change has been the skills needs of enterprises. Digital, communication, innovation, and teamwork skills have emerged as the top priorities for enterprises. More than 40 per cent of enterprises cited each of these skill types as a top-three need in the future. Enterprises have also changed the ways that they train, share knowledge and collaborate. One of the most prevalent changes to training and collaboration has been the growth of digital training courses, which have been adopted by over 50 per cent of enterprises surveyed for this report.
The pandemic has deepened gender inequality in the workplace. The reasons for this are many and complex but include: the burden of unpaid care work has disproportionately fallen to women, coupled with the increase in care needed due to school closures; women were more likely to hold more vulnerable temporary and part-time positions and often in sectors hardest hit by lockdowns and restrictions, such as leisure, hospitality, and retail; and the fact that there are more female workers in front-line and high-risk sectors in Africa.
Launching the report in Johannesburg, the Director of the ILO’s Bureau for Employers’ Activities Deborah France-Massin said the changes brought about by COVID will have wide-ranging implications for public policy over the coming years. The main issue is that the legal and regulatory frameworks in many countries have not kept up with the changing ways people work. Business leaders reported to us that labor market regulations were behind the curve.
Speaking at the launch, the ILO’s Assistant Director-General and Regional Director for Africa, Cynthia Samuel-Olonjuwon, noted the trends outlined in the report and the renewed emphasis on improving social protection and reducing economic informality, have major consequences for the future of the workplace. She remarked that though some changes – and their consequences – are becoming clear, there are still many unanswered questions about the scope and full effects of these changes on societies across Africa. However, it is already clear that these changes are significant. It is, therefore, vital that stakeholders start or deepen dialogue now about how to manage them, she said.