Our bi-yearly Future of Work report is here. The Report explores the emerging themes in the workplace in 2023, key risks and also includes five recommendations for employers.

The research was gathered after interviewing 500 respondents, all of whom occupy senior management positions and who are part of the strategic leadership team or wider management team of their companies that make decisions in relation to workforce activism – employees advocating or speaking up about workplace issues – and crisis management. The research covered all sectors and regions across the globe.

The key global findings include:

  1. Economic headwinds have dampened activism, but this is not expected to last:
    1. 81% of employers believe that the economic downturn has reduced the possibility of activism in the last 18 months.
    2. However, 59% of employers expect a rise of activism in the future, with the cost-of-living crisis being the most likely trigger.
  2. Employers are growing skeptical of activism and exerting more control:
    1. 20% of employers consider activism to be a positive force.
    2. 97% of employers have “moderate” to “high” restrictions on activism.
  3. Certain employee flexibility and freedoms arising following the pandemic are being rolled back:
    1. 70% of employers expect more work to be done from the office, rather than from the home in the next two years.
    2. 47% expect the right to work remotely to become a reward for loyalty rather than an automatic right.
  4. Employers may underestimate the risk of future disputes arising as a result of the use of Artificial Intelligence:
    1. 60% of employers expect artificial intelligence to impact both the size and constitution of the workforce.
    2. However, only 34% expect artificial intelligence to trigger employee activism.
  5. Employees value their wellbeing and employers are happy to promote this:
    1. Since the pandemic, 75% of employees have insisted on more support for their wellbeing.
    2. 54% of employers believe that wellbeing will inform their workplace policies over the next three years.

What this means for South African employers

It is well known that changes in employment law policies and practices in larger jurisdictions such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and the European Union (EU) impact on those of smaller jurisdictions like South Africa. A good example of this is the EU’s Pay Transparency Directive and Australia’s Fair Work Act. Similar legislation was recently enacted in South Africa in the form of the Companies Amendment Bill, which is designed to achieve better disclosure of senior executive remuneration and reasonable remuneration.

This legislation, whether it is applicable in the EU or in South Africa indicates that employers appreciate that remuneration and pay gaps (which are prevalent in South Africa and certainly contribute to South Africa having the largest gini coefficient globally) trigger activism. The cost-of-living crisis is affecting people across the globe, and whilst employees may believe that activism (whether macro or micro) would place them at risk of losing their employment, the day-to-day challenges that employees will continue to face will no doubt result in the return of employee activism in the near future.

Following the pandemic and elimination of all restrictions relating to movement and interaction, employers began to grapple with whether they were permitted to require employees to return to the office and whether they wanted employees to return to the office.

In the South African context, there are several factors which need to be considered when determining whether remote, flexible or hybrid working is appropriate. The nature of the job (whether it can be performed from home), safeguarding company culture, collaboration between employees, performance and productivity and, of course, loadshedding.

It is apparent that the number of positions now being advertised as remote, flexible, or hybrid is reducing in South Africa and it is only specific industries where those positions continue to be available. Whilst South African employees are resisting the call to return to the office due, primarily, to increased costs of travel and the lack of flexibility particularly for working mothers, not being able to operate from home due to loadshedding, which negatively impacts productivity, means that a return to the office is necessary.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the workplace is a highly relevant disruptor which may in the South African context, bridge the inequality gap or widen it, depending on its accessibility and availability. It is clear that AI is in its infancy stages and its presence in the workplace will increase exponentially in the coming years. Whilst this is unavoidable, it will be critical for employers to take a measured approach to AI and its introduction in the workforce. Once introduced, employers should assist their employees to become familiar with AI which will allow them to transition into new roles, which mean that they are able to work alongside the new technology, thereby securing their positions in the workforce. This will also ensure that activism in this particular sphere is limited as employees feel empowered to move into the future.

Monitoring and surveillance of employees in the workplace is common across the globe. In South Africa, it is permitted, provided any personal information obtained is processed in accordance with the Protection of Personal Information Act.

Mental and physical wellbeing has been a focus for all since the pandemic. It is well known now that employee productivity and efficiency is negatively impacted when employees are consistently or continuously unwell. Employers recognise that this affects profits and are now taking steps to ensure that health and wellbeing (both mental and physical) are a focus of workplace policies and procedures.

The Report also notes that wellbeing at the societal level (social and environmental issues) is important to employees and we have recently seen, in the South African context, the introduction by many corporate entities of sustainability policies, thereby indicating to employees that they are taking steps to minimise their impact on the environment. The recent passing into law of the Climate Change Act in South Africa should be used by South African employers to forge ahead with sustainability initiatives.

Recommendations for employers

The Report concludes with five recommendations for employers to ensure that the risks which are either imminent or will arise further into the future are mitigated as far as possible. These are:

  1. Meaningful engagement with employees should be a top priority
  2. Pilot AI projects prior to implementing them in order to track their impact on the workforce
  3. Consider the impact on company culture before implementing a policy (such as returning to work). Studies have shown that remote working has significant benefits for women who are traditionally the primary caregivers in their families
  4. Focus your CSR initiatives, thereby ensuring a meaningful impact on both the recipient and your employees
  5. Ensure that you understand the regulatory environment in which you operate.

Click here to view the full Future of Work Report