The changing work landscape as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic: insights from remote workers life situations in South Africa

Walter Matli (Vaal University of Technology, Johannesburg, South Africa)

International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy

ISSN: 0144-333X

Article publication date: 20 November 2020

Issue publication date: 2 December 2020

13958

Abstract

Purpose

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected most organisations' workplaces and productivity. Organisations have had to make provision for staff to operate remotely following the implementation of lockdown regulations around the world, because the pandemic has led to restrictions on movement and the temporary closure of workplace premises. The purpose of this paper is to provide insights from remote workers' experiences in South Africa about immediate conversion from the normal workplace environment to working remotely from home. The structuration theory was adopted to understand the social structural challenges experienced by staff working from home.

Design/methodology/approach

Data were collected using a Web-based survey, administered when the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in movement restrictions, using the judgemental sampling technique.

Findings

The results are presented using both external and internal features that are linked to the social structures experienced by remote workers who participated in the survey. The key findings indicate that despite the positive aspects of remote working using advances in technology, there are also negative aspects and risks attached to remote working such as work overload and pressures to perform timeously. This can pose severe threats to workers' routines and lifestyle, and the lack of interaction can impinge on their health and general well-being.

Research limitations/implications

The online survey was carried out with first-time remote workers who were the target for the study. Some respondents may have had an affinity for remote working because of the novelty. The sample size may not be generalised, as the collected sample is moderately small, although the purpose of the paper was to report on a small sample size, given the rapidity of the study.

Practical implications

The paper seeks to highlight social structures that exist in South Africa, which accentuate the resource divide for remote workers. Also, the paper aims to encourage organisations (employers) to better understand challenges that workers encountered while working from their homes during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown restrictions.

Originality/value

The relevance of this paper is in its contribution to the structuration theory and remote working literature, as well as to the study of these topics in the context of South Africa.

Keywords

Citation

Matli, W. (2020), "The changing work landscape as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic: insights from remote workers life situations in South Africa", International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 40 No. 9/10, pp. 1237-1256. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSSP-08-2020-0386

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited


1. Introduction

Presently, little is yet understood about the workers' experiences who had to promptly convert from working in their usual workplaces to working from home in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is too soon to source evidence from literature about studies that have investigated how the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the work setting by gathering insights from workers who instantly became remote workers from their homes. Also, the researchers could not identify a study that intended adopting the structuration theory to research that is investigating the effect of Covid-19 on the work landscape. Therefore, this article attempts to contribute to the emerging literature on the structuration theory and around remote working during the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Covid-19 was given the interim acronym 2019-nCOV, given that coronavirus is the name for a family of similar viruses. It is mostly explained in the health sector literature that Covid-19 is a disease that is caused by a new strain of coronavirus that was first identified in China towards the end of 2019 (WHO, 2020). As was the case with the entire world, South Africa also succumbed to the Covid-19 pandemic that came with severe restrictions on movement and activity to ease the widespread increase and spread of the virus. Carroll and Conboy (2020) claim that Covid-19 is the most defining crisis the world has witnessed in the past 50 years, although one may generally argue that the pandemic is the most defining crisis the universe has witnessed since the Second World War (1939–1945) about 75 years ago.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected all entities and levels in society – from individuals to organisational operations. Covid-19 has had a drastic and sudden impact on the practices of both workplaces and within organisations (Carroll and Conboy, 2020). Covid-19 forced, if not all, then most workers globally to adjust their work patterns (Davison, 2020; Richter, 2020). It has now become public knowledge that all spheres of businesses have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. From a business context, employers had to find new ways to ensure productivity from workers working remotely from their homes. As a result, the flexibility of working from home became a new way of operating for many workers. It remains unclear if, into the future, the need for office space will decline or remain a primary workplace once the lockdown restrictions are lifted. In the broader social context, people have succumbed to suffering from anxiety, stress, depression and mental health issues as a result of being infected or affected by the Covid-19 situation. So, it is with no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has an impact on mental health in general. It is most likely that depression and anxiety levels are heightened where there have been infections and loss of life from Covid-19 within the families of remote workers.

The article intends to provide insights into how organisations capitalised on technology advances for effective remote working productivity during the Covid-19 pandemic. The deteriorating Covid-19 situation in 2020 led to the use of lockdown regulations in South Africa and elsewhere that forced organisations to adopt remote working arrangements to keep their businesses afloat. Remote working provided a level of flexibility into the working agreements between the employer and their workers demanded by such lockdown regulations. The article brings to light the lived experiences of workers in South Africa who had to instantly convert from workplace to remote or home working after the Covid-19 restrictions were introduced. The article then goes on to report the findings using both internal and external features through the lens of prevailing social structures. The article has the potential to increasing the understanding of a changing work landscape by outlining rich insights from responses and data from remote workers life situations during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. The article draws on Giddens's structuration theory because it addresses the relationship between actors (or persons) and social structures and how these social structures ultimately realign and conform to the actions of actors. As noted by Giddens (1984, 1987), the structuration theory and social systems or structures adapt to how actors change and/or conform to a particular way of living. Schnauber-Stockmann and Mangold (2020) point out that these social structures from Giddens's structuration theory assist people to navigate through everyday life.

2. Remote working

Literature suggests that one of the first terms used to refer to the remote working arrangement was telecommuting (Nilles, 1975), as it was used to define people working from their home and using technology to communicate with their colleagues at the workplace premises. However, the term has been refined over the years. Thus, Kirk and Belovics (2006) coined the term e-workers to describe remote workers who work away from the workplace premises and communicate primarily via electronic media with little face-to-face contact with other workers. Remote work has diversified, and it continues to change the working environment. Workers working remotely away from their organisation's premises is changing the traditional workplace setup of workers having to be physically on the premises to undertake their work.

The literature review highlights that though there are benefits from remote working, there are also disadvantages that managers need to monitor constantly. For example, some of the workers working remotely tend to overwork themselves by spending long hours on work than they usually do only at the office during normal working hours (Donnelly and Johns, 2020). Therefore, there is a dire need for managers to not only focus on productivity, but also on the well-being of their workers. Managers need to continuously check on their workers' performance during this challenging period of the Covid-19 lockdown. Remote workers find themselves having to demonstrate that they are productive working from home at the same time as adjusting to Covid-19 requirements and pressures.

Since the inception of more flexible remote working arrangements, there have been several concepts that have appeared in the literature. Hislop and Axtell (2009), point out that the terminology of mobile working is used interchangeably with mobile teleworking, and multi-location working is linked to working from a remote location or on the move. Homeworking consists of having the option to work from home occasionally, sometimes or mostly (Zhu, 2013). Home-based teleworking is a recent phenomenon related to the remote working domain (Wheatley, 2020). The homeworking arrangement offers both employers and workers with a variety of benefits, such as no necessity to commute to and from workstations and also work-and-life balance advantages (Wheatley, 2017, 2020; Moos and Skaburskis, 2007). However, no consensus has yet been reached regarding standardising the definitions and terminology used for remote working.

3. Work setting

Technological innovation in the workplace has led to many examples of changes in how work is organised, and of how workers perform their duties (Farrell et al., 2020). Scott (2020) highlights that it is essential to understand that there are also adverse effects of information and communications technology (ICT) in the workplace, even though the use of ICT, such as smart mobile phones, may serve as a vital link between those working remotely and their supervisors and co-workers and offer considerable benefits in terms of productivity. It is essential to note that there are both internal and external factors that may affect remote working arrangements. External factors that may affect remote working arrangements include poor ICT infrastructure at a country level, government legislation and policies and other necessary supportive measures to facilitate remote working. An enabling environment is, thus, required to make it possible for workers to obtain information and access work-related services and platforms from home or whilst on the move.

Though advances in ICT are changing the way the workforce operates across many sectors, other researchers have cautioned and shared potential disadvantages of remote work. For instance, Cooper and Lu (2019) have raised concerns about the challenges associated with remote work arrangements for organisations. Such innovation has not made provision for a smooth working transition to a completely online working environment (O'Leary, 2020). It has been generally argued that the challenge of poor ICT infrastructure rollout hinders people living in underserviced communities from actively participating in remote work opportunities. Therefore, such external factors affect not only workers already working remotely, but also the prospects of people seeking information on work opportunities using internet connection points. There must be sound and robust ICT infrastructure in place to allow people to have easy access to proper internet connections. Affordable and accessible ICT networks and support facilities allow citizens in disadvantaged communities to have a reliable internet connection.

Specific workplace software enables information to be accessible at any time and from anywhere using Web-enabled devices such as tablets or laptops that are connected to the internet (Tillyard, 2013). The presence of technology and information systems allows all workers to have access to data and information needed by users, which is either internally or externally authenticated. Remote workers can, thus, access such information systems from their homes. Sensitive organisational data require safety and security measures to be in place when the information system is accessed from outside networks. Therefore, there is a necessity to consider and implement network security on devices used by remote workers to access the organisational system.

It is apparent that there are also internal factors that may hinder adequate remote working arrangements. There are challenges that have been identified by remote workers communicating virtually with their employers. Remote workers experience several drawbacks as compared to those physically reporting for work at the workplace (Rysavy and Michalak, 2020). For example, remote workers may experience communication difficulties with their line managers, even with the use of ICT tools and services (Rysavy and Michalak, 2020). Scott (2020) points out that workers who are not workplace based are denied the opportunity to create relationships with the organisation and other workers who operate from the workplace itself. Remote workers must have an identity within the organisations they serve so that they are in the best position to make decisive business decisions for the benefit of the company (Scott, 2020). Yet, remote workers tend to have no sense of belonging to the organisations they serve as they are not most often interacting physically with other workers.

Saleem et al. (2020), in their study that investigated the impact of ICT on the strategic, social and human development aspects in an organisation, found that ICT investment has the potential to assist the organisation in attaining better output. Organisations should, thus, understand the importance of technology investments for their workers. Apart from technology investments, organisations must also invest in human capital so that they have motivated and driven remote workers. From a human resource management and development perspective, Choi (2020), in his study, identified that organisations should invest in developing self-directed workers to attain organisational success in business. It is a cause for concern that not all organisations have recognised the potential benefits of training and developing the capacity of workers in nurturing self-directed behaviour among workers (Choi, 2020). Because of changes taking place in the workforce as a result of new technology and the rapidly changing nature of the organisation, it is increasingly becoming essential to have self-directed workers. It is evident from some of the internal and external factors discussed above that it takes more than just investing in ICT resources to ensure adequate remote working arrangements.

Line managers and human resource managers, or even clients, must have an interest in tracking and managing remote workers (Donnelly and Johns, 2020; Taghavi, 2019). This is necessary because remote workers can overwork themselves. For instance, the exchange of e-mails and other forms of communication outside of regular working hours can result in stressful relations between workers and management (Chesley, 2014). Managers, thus, need to continuously check on their remote workers during this challenging period of the Covid-19 pandemic. Remote workers find themselves having to demonstrate that they are productive working from home at the same time as having to deal with the anxiety of a health-threatening disease and while adjusting to the demands of Covid-19 lockdown conditions.

There is an increase in the demand for ICT workers in the workforce, as a result of the shifting economy that is now more knowledge base-oriented and technologically driven. For example, further afield in the USA, the workforce is gradually evolving from a manufacturing and industrial focus to the creative or knowledge-based economy (Spivack and Desai, 2019). Almost all companies in America have the appropriate software in place to permit employees to work remotely. However, this is not the case in many other countries, particularly developing and underdeveloped states who have little or no resources to invest in this new economy.

4. Theoretical perspective

Giddens (1990, p. 64) asserts that “local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa”. What is happening in our local regions is influenced by what is happening in other areas and regions of the world. For example, developments in other parts of the world may influence countries or regions to change their ways of doing things and follow what is seen as more convenient or advanced and in turn improve how people interact with their social structures. In the context of this study, the access to a quality internet connection and electricity influenced how organisations viewed remote working as a viable alternative, given the lockdown restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic. As Giddens (2002) points out, the advent of electronic communications has weakened time and place restrictions. This implies that the interaction between actors amongst themselves and with prevailing social structures has been broadened by the availability and rapid growth of various electronic communications media. For all citizens to benefit from the interplay with social structures, there is a necessity to ensure that everyone (if not most) has access to enabling infrastructure. Regrettably, South Africa remains saddled with a high rate of inequality as noted both locally and internationally (Polus et al., 2020; The World Bank, 2018; National Planning Commission, 2011). The national development policy, namely the National Development Plan to 2030, is similarly concerned with the current high rate of inequality that exists in society in South Africa (National Planning Commission, 2011). Polus et al. (2020) in their study found that unequal access to wealth has a direct impact on access to what schooling system individuals can afford, for example, and therefore, prevents the majority of the population from acquiring the knowledge and skills needed by the labour market. Whereas, from the international perspective, the World Bank in their recent study suggests that to break out of the circle of high inequality, there is a necessity to provide poor South Africans with good jobs (The World Bank, 2018). Though this article resonates with the points raised by Polus et al. (2020) and The World Bank (2018) to a large extent, the article argues that access to good jobs alone will not solve the issue of inequality, without also addressing the issue of equal access to services and infrastructure. Without addressing the latter, there will always be a divide in terms of social structures that may favour a specific cohort of the population and disadvantage others. In relation to this article, some of the workers who participated in the survey are affected by the social structures that exist in the communities in which they reside because of the poor level of services provided in their areas.

According to Giddens (1979, 1984), the structuration theory is linked to all aspects of social change. The structuration theory stresses that people and social forces are the two most critical features that have an influence on the transformation of social change in society. The world is now experiencing rapid social change as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic that has resulted in movement restrictions. Most workers have had to instantly convert to becoming remote workers. Essential workers during the pandemic were permitted to go to work during the lockdown, for example, health-care workers, police services, and workers in the food and pharmaceuticals supply chain services. Most of the remaining organisations, however, were forced to consider remote working as an option so that there was no interruption to productivity and businesses could remain viable.

This article adopts the structuration theory to understand the life situation of first-time remote workers working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. The article refers to the structuration theory to explain the role of social structures in the lives of workers who instantly had to convert from workplaces to full-time remote working. Generally, there are structural divides in all societies, given that regions and countries are not equally serviced; development is uneven; some members of society are privileged, while others are not; and that society in general is composed of people who come from various family, religious and ethnic backgrounds. Social structures internationally, but particularly in South Africa, create a divide among people regarding who has easy access, and those who have little or no access, to resources. An example in South Africa is that many remote workers have no means to control power outages in their respective areas of residence, or to dictate the quality and development of ICT infrastructure in their communities.

Social structures reflect resources that facilitate action to transform, and rules that govern, a certain community. Social scientists have argued that the world we see lies in our head and is interpreted as the real world though human repeated experience. There are, thus, dynamics that must be considered related to a real physical external world that the remote worker has to operate within while working remotely from home, as compared to the internal world of the organisation where the worker operates from a particular resourced workplace. It appears there are various benefits and disadvantages related to both workplace and remote working environments and these are driven by social structures. Others may argue that it is within us (workers) to make the best of what is viable for us based on experience – given that experience is gained through practical contact with and observation of facts or events.

Alderson (2016) points out that the word structures, from Giddens's (1979) structuration theory, refers to resources and rules. Remote workers rely on several resources for them to effectively operate remotely. For instance, reliable electricity supply and the quality of internet networks are essential external resources that are required for remote workers. The assumption that the article makes is that remote working arrangements are likely to improve over time for South Africa, like other countries, but that governments need to provide enabling infrastructure that will allow remote workers to operate effectively and thereby contribute to the growing of the economy. Failure to address such infrastructure issues will have a negative impact on the economy by restricting growth, and this will in turn create uncertainty for investors. For example, the issue of reliable electricity access must be addressed together with improved internet networks so that no particular cohort of people is left behind in the new knowledge and information economy. The existence of such imbalances creates an unequal society and further exacerbates existing divides within society.

Stoecklin and Fattore (2018) draw attention to the fact that people may encounter social issues in more than one form, given that social structures have the probability to serve as enablers or provide limitations. Giddens (1984) identifies that human beings themselves, and decision makers in particular, contribute vigorously to shaping the universe people experience, and in turn, the results of that shaped world also have consequences on the lives of people. The structuration theory is informed by people's interaction with the real world they live in (Symonds et al., 2017). It is worth noting that there are many initiatives being promoted in the universe in an effort to enhance the world we live in and make peoples' lived experiences better. However, the way in which such initiatives are implemented frequently advantages a section of society and disadvantages another. The consequences create or exacerbate inequalities in societies and social structures that do not favour all people equally. In relation to this article, therefore, social structures have the potential to both support remote workers in operating from their homes, but also constrain ease of access for other remote workers.

Actors of change can be classified into two components for the purpose of this article, internal and external. Internal actors refer to people knowingly or unintentionally bringing change to social structures that have consequences for society. Most of the time, people first learn and gain related insights before adopting certain developments or technologies that influence social structures. However, at times, other developments or discoveries are adopted rapidly that also have effects on social structures in society. External actors refer to people or organisations at the receiving end who are affected by the social structures created by internal actors. Alderson (2016) points out that social structures depend on human agency to evolve or change, although actors are often of the conviction that these social structures are only restricted by their conscious conceptions and their use. The experience divide that exists in society is, thus, created by people. This explains the infrastructure divide that exists, with some regions and communities better serviced than others in society. With relation to the study, remote workers experience this divide in terms of access to resources such as a reliable power supply and access to a fibre network. Whilst acknowledging the need to adopt new technologies, actors charged with their access and distribution often unwittingly help to divide, or further divide, society.

5. Overview of the study

This article intends to contribute to the structuration theory by strengthening the understanding of remote working in response to the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, as well as the extent to which the work setting has changed because of the pandemic. Workers who usually work physically at the workplace premises had to convert to working from their homes to adhere to government regulations introduced under the Covid-19 lockdown. The study applies the structuration theory of Anthony Giddens (1979) to expose the inequalities that exist in South African society driven by the existing social structures' impact on work settings during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The purpose of this article is to provide insights from workers who had to convert and rapidly adjust to working remotely from their homes in response to the Covid-19 restrictions that included movements to and from the workplace. The specific objectives of the study were to:

  1. apply the structuration theory and highlight how social structures play an essential role in the remote working settings in South Africa;

  2. understand how social structures are experienced by remote workers working from their homes; and

  3. understand how remote workers are making provision for the work-and-life balance, interact with their colleagues and manage their workload during the lockdown that forced workers to work from home for safety reasons.

Parts of South Africa are still characterised by very uneven service delivery, infrastructure provision and general development. As a result, there are service divides, as some communities are seriously disadvantaged compared with others in the same region. Internet connection network coverages impose more peculiar challenges for remote work settings. Remote workers cannot always instantly attend to work tasks, as poor network infrastructure prevents some of the workers accessing their organisation's information systems and their ability to work in a virtual community. Social structures afford other remote workers with easy access to effectively work remotely, whilst the same social structures create barriers for others residing in disadvantaged communities.

The reviewed literature points out that working remotely from home is beneficial to an organisation in terms of productivity and cost-cutting and convenient for workers, as they do not have to commute to the workplace premises. However, employers have not provided substantial evidence yet that remote working is beneficial to the worker's well-being (Charalampous et al., 2019). Tsai (2012) also adds that not much is known about the quality of health, life and work-related stresses that are experienced by white-collar workers who are the prime group required to work remotely. Hence, this article seeks to highlight insights, thoughts and reflections from remote workers themselves. It is clear that at the time of undertaking this study, there was little evidence of research within diversely serviced communities on working from home in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. So, this article intends to help fill the identified gap by investigating how the pandemic has changed the work landscape.

6. Methodology

The fieldwork was carried out with remote workers in the Gauteng province of South Africa between the 8 July and 18 July 2020 – ten days to be precise. A questionnaire was constructed following knowledge gaps identified from the literature review on remote working. Because of a relatively small sample size, the study team was of the view that longitudinal research would be most beneficial in tracing how remote working has been received following the Covid-19 pandemic. Thus, the questionnaire was structured to be simple and readily repeatable. Each respondent had an ID assigned to them. For instance, the first respondent was given ID 1, followed by ID 2 for the second respondent until number 24. The researchers then renamed the auto-generated respondents ID – e.g. 1 was retitled to Respondent-ID-01 (RID01). Therefore, RID01 to RID24 was used to refer to each respondent. This qualitative article considered thematic analyses appropriate so as to identify common themes and patterns in the responses received. To minimise misunderstandings, the 11 open-ended questions contained in the questionnaire were structured in a short and straightforward manner so that the respondents could be comfortable and familiar with the words used in English. The wording was kept simple so that vernacular speakers could more easily participate.

The Microsoft Office 365 package contains 25 applications (at the time of the study) that include Outlook (for e-mails), Project, Teams and Forms (used to create surveys or quizzes), among others. An individual or organisation can tailor a specific package according to their needs. Each application of the 25 requires a user to be licensed before use. Therefore, the tool Forms from the Microsoft Office 365 package was used to create a link to a questionnaire with 11 open-ended questions. Among the benefits of using the Microsoft Office 365 Form application is that it affords the researcher the option to set specific dates within which the link to the questionnaire can be active.

Judgemental sampling was used to collect data, given that the aim of the research was to reduce costs and the administration work involved (Zikmund et al., 2010). In addition, in an attempt to further contain costs, and taking into consideration the Covid-19 pandemic movement restrictions, the WhatsApp method was used to invite the potential respondents to participate in the survey, who were known to the researcher and who were working remotely.

According to the data analysed and generated automatically via Microsoft Office 365 Forms, it took an average of 16 min and 05 s to complete the survey containing 11 open-ended questions.

A total of 24 remote workers were selected judgementally as a focus for administering the survey and investigating remote workers' experiences for ten days. Judgemental sampling affords the researcher the use of their judgement in choosing the best possible unit of analysis so that the study obtains the desired results that addresses the research objectives (Saunders et al., 2009). The study found judgemental sampling appropriate for this article, given the challenges of the Covid-19 restrictions and time constraints. The article employed a qualitative thematic analysis and interpretative stance to organise and analyse pertinent data from the survey.

From 24 respondents, one did not answer all the questions, culminating in a satisfactory response rate of 23 out of 24, given that the survey participation was voluntary. From the 11 open-ended questions in the survey, eight questions were answered by all 23 respondents, whereas three questions from the 11 questions were not responded to by one respondent. Therefore, useable feedback was received in excess of 96% of the survey participants.

7. Results and discussion

This article presents the findings and data from a relatively small sample, and thus, judgemental sampling was adopted. The research aimed to receive remote workers’ experiences whilst the altered working arrangements were relatively new to them as a result of the pandemic. The reason for reporting on a small sample was to try to research the suddenly changed working environment in a short period of time.

Use of the Microsoft Office 365 Forms application and WhatsApp were adopted to rapidly create the questionnaire, administer the survey and generate an easily accessible link for data collection and analysis.

7.1 Overview of the respondents' organisations

This section discusses the results obtained during data collection and analysis pertaining to the survey respondents' employers. It looks at the categories of organisation the respondents are stationed at and the number of years the organisation has been in existence.

Businesses can be classified into five categories according to their respective sizes, purpose and the number of people they employ (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2020). The OCED points out that large businesses employ 250 or more people, medium-size businesses employ between 50 and 249 workers, whereas small and micro-businesses employ fewer than 50 and ten workers, respectively.

It is worth noting that 23 from the 24 respondents replied to the question relating to the size of the organisation the respondents are working for. From the study, two out of the 23 of the respondents indicated they work for micro-enterprises, and the same number (two out of 23) work for medium-size enterprises. By contrast, three out of 23 of the respondents pointed out that they work for small enterprises, and 13 out of 23 of the respondents indicated they are currently employed in large enterprises. It is also worth noting that the researchers found it difficult to allocate respondents RID06, RID13 and RID14 to an organisational size – the respondents were either “not sure” of their employer's size or did not answer correctly. This shows the weakness of the data collection tool. Furthermore, the researchers are of the view that the question may not have been clear enough to some of the respondents as respondent RID14, instead of giving the number of workers in their organisation, provided instead the name of their employer as an answer.

Based on the data repository, 23 from the 24 respondents replied to the question relating to the number of years the organisation has been in existence. The researchers wanted to obtain an idea about this, as it may potentially be linked to their use of ICT technologies. From the results, four out of 23 of the respondents indicated that their organisation had been in existence for less than nine years, 13 out of 23 respondents reported that their organisation had been existence for between 10 and 49 years, whilst five out of 23 respondents indicated that their organisation had been in existence for over 50 years. It is worth noting that the researchers could not allocate respondents RID06, RID13 to a category as they responded, “not sure”. From the 24 respondents, two did not respond to the question about retrenchments from their organisations. Out of 22, 21 stated that their organisations had not undergone reductions, and one out of 22 pointed out that their organisations have retrenched four workers.

The results are presented using certain external and internal features that are linked to social structures experienced by remote workers who participated in the survey. Figure 1 is used to present the key findings from the study by adopting a top-down approach and using these internal and external features. External features mostly relate to a structuration that the remote worker has little control over. Further external features were established that are not causally related to the “work” itself. Still, the well-being and environment within which the remote worker operates may impact the individual.

7.2 External features

External features are intensively associated with and driven by social structures. These are factors that affect the working from home situation of respondents but are foreign to their actual work. In this section, electricity supply and the quality of internet connections are some of the external factors identified from the survey. For instance, electricity outages is an issue that is not in the power of the employer or the worker to control. Also, the quality of internet coverage and connections where the workers reside it is not within the workers' powers to control, and although employers may be able to influence this, the quality of internet coverage in the country is ultimately a balance of equity in the hands of government.

7.2.1 Electricity

Regarding electricity supply, the TimesLive Online Newspaper (2020) reports that a judgement was made by the High Court of South Africa on the 28 July 2020, following a hearing on the 24 June 2020, regarding average standard Eskom (the national electricity supplier) tariffs. The National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA) was established in terms of the National Energy Regulator Act 40 of 2004 (“the NERA”). Its mandate is to, among other things, regulate the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity within South Africa. Section 4 of the NERA, among other things, provides that NERSA must undertake the functions set out in Section 4 of the Electricity Regulation Act 4 of 2006 (“the ERA”). One of its core functions under the ERA is the regulation of electricity prices and tariffs.

The High Court of South Africa made the order on 28 July 2020, that the average standard Eskom tariffs approved by NERSA for the 2021/2022 financial year will be increased by from 116.72 to 128.24 c/kWh – instead of the 5.22% that was initially approved by NERSA following a court judgement that ruled against them. Therefore, South Africans are to experience an increase of 11.52 c/kWh from what they are currently paying for electricity. Though it looks like working remotely from home is cost-effective overall, the point raised by respondent RID14 highlights the expenses the remote workers incur in working from home. Indeed, South Africa continues to experience uncertainty regarding electricity capacity in terms of its supply (outages are common) in addition to the continuous increase in tariffs. RID14 posits that “…Use up more electricity in the household now due to (increased) electronics (electricity use)”. The TimesLive Online Newspaper (2020) further adds that municipalities who distribute electricity to residents are likely to also increase their supply tariffs. Thus, municipalities that distribute a significant part of power supplied by Eskom will simply pass on the tariff increases charged by Eskom.

According to the power utility, Eskom, electricity supply remains inconsistent at all times, especially during peak periods when there is high demand. There are a growing number of customers who need electricity services (Eskom, 2020). In addition, illegal connections compound the situation in under-serviced communities. The Covid-19 pandemic has also exacerbated the situation although general electricity demand did drop initially during the hard lockdown period. Eskom is a government-owned power utility and is virtually a monopoly generator, transmitter and distributor of electricity in South Africa. Electricity is supplied by the power utility directly or through municipalities to households (Eskom, 2020). The ongoing electricity crisis is having a negative impact on the country's economy and its economic growth. The views expressed by the survey respondents affirm that electricity outages have affected the productivity of some of the remote workers during the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions.

Load shedding is a practice that Eskom uses when electricity supply cannot meet the demand. Load reduction is a practice that Eskom uses in peak periods when electricity cannot meet demand in under-serviced communities because of illegal connections. Both load shedding and load reduction make it difficult for remote workers to perform their duties during the pandemic, especially in under-serviced communities where power cuts are more frequent. If there are power cuts in the residential areas, remote workers are then unable to work. For example, RID07 points out that: “1. Load shedding is out of our control 2. Having to deliver work as soon as possible because delays make it look like you are on a Covid19 holiday at your house…”. The view by RID07 is complemented by RID10 who states that: “…load shedding can disturb if you become offline for long hours…”.

The BusinessTech Newspaper (2020) reports that the power utility remains uncertain about when load shedding/reductions will end in the short-medium term, given that the electricity demand has increased because of the cold weather experienced during the winter season. For example, RID18 points out that their work productivity is affected when there is load shedding in their area of residence: “If there is no electricity, then there is no productivity, most of us don't have backup power”. The findings from the survey indicate that respondents have indeed been affected by load shedding while working remotely from their homes.

7.2.2 Road infrastructure: traffic commuting to and from work

The workplace continues to change in response to various societal trends that allow work to be conducted from home (Perry et al., 2018). Working from home arrangements afford both the employers and workers with a variety of benefits, such as no necessity to commute to and from workstations and also work-and-life balance advantages (Wheatley, 2017, 2020; Moos and Skaburskis, 2007). Kelliher and Anderson (2010), in their study, found that some workers started working before their regular office hours because of accessibility and convenience at home afforded by technology – e.g. the time that would have been used for commuting to the workplace is now used to work online.

Almost all the respondents mentioned the time it takes to commute to physical workstations as a barrier they no longer encounter because they are working remotely from their homes. Workers often spend considerable time on the road when commuting to towns and cities where most economic activity occurs. For example, RID21 posits that: “Do not have to wake up early and get stuck in the Johannesburg traffic”. The view by RID21 suggests that there is a significant time that workers spend commuting from their homes to their place of work. To some extent, this also points to the need to re-examine how the transportation system functions, particularly public transport systems in cities, which are not affordable or consume a large portion of income for many workers commuting to and from work.

There is, thus, a sense of relief from some of the respondents, as they have been able during the pandemic to work and take care of their families without moving outside of their households. For example, RID10 posits that: “Not being stuck in traffic. People work and are not rushing to fetch their kids at school coz everybody is at home”. The respondent (RID10) used the slang word “coz” referring to the word because. The view offered by RID10 demonstrates to the research team that the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown restrictions have resolved their normal daily challenge of travelling between their workplaces and schools.

As much as there are benefits to working from home, there are also some challenges McNaughton et al. (2014) point out that it is essential for individuals to strike a balance between work and home roles when working from home. For instance, RID03 is happier that they can do more work while working from their homes as compared to when they are at the organisations' workplace. RID03: “Employees are performing more than they did at the office, mostly because they do not waste time stuck in traffic in the morning and afternoon”. In the same vein, RID08 is also of the view that more work is done while working from home by stating: “More work gets done as there's no travel time and lunch or break times are reduced”. Perry et al. (2018) raise an important issue by pointing out that even though remote working continues to increase and gain in popularity, there are uncertainties regarding how it affects the workers’ well-being. Therefore, though remote working gives workers more time to perform their duties, it is equally important that they do not overwork themselves. Failure by the employer to understand the importance of providing social and material support may negatively compromise the well-being of the remote workers as well as their capacity to perform. This is especially true because most employers have no substantial evidence that remote working is beneficial to the workers' well-being (Charalampous et al., 2019). Remote working can be draining because of the effects on the physical and psychological context of an individual (Perry et al., 2018). The increase in stress is caused by loss of emotional support and managing work-related and non-work strains simultaneously (Perry et al., 2018).

It was discovered that many, if not all, respondents expressed relief on saving the time and cost of travelling to and from workplaces. In other words, workers did not accumulate commuting to and from workplace expenditures. For example, RID14 stated that: “We are working safely from home and saving on petrol costs. Safe from the COVID virus, we are also saving on workplace costs”. It is evident from the study that the costs attached to commuting to and from workstations is a concern for most respondents. Undoubtedly, respondents who took part in the research survey agree that working from home is cost-effective for them. There is also a sense of relief in terms of health and safety at working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, RID07 stated that: “(1) First advantage is being safe from the pandemic. (2) We don't spend time on the road to work and back home; to sum it up ‘not being in traffic’ (3) My favourite is saving on petrol costs because I travel a lot of kilometres to and from the office”.

7.2.3 Information and communications technology infrastructure

Government investment in ICT infrastructure for disadvantaged areas in South Africa, such as rural areas and townships, has afforded some of our poorer citizens with access to internet connections. However, the quality and speed of these internet connections create a new type of divide, as others in the suburbs and major cities have access to high-speed quality internet connections. Whilst some may be happy to just connect to the world of the internet, for the effectiveness of remote working, workers are required to have access to internet connections and computing devices of good quality. RID07 points out that: “…Connection challenges via network”. In the same vein, RID20 is in support of RID07 and states that: “… network imbalance which causes delays…”. Poor ICT infrastructure, thus, results in stress and discomfort for workers residing in under-serviced communities. Adequate infrastructure plays a critical role in ensuring that there is equality and efficacy in remote working arrangements.

Computer security is critical in a remote work setting. Workers deal with private information about the organisation and external partners. Perry et al. (2018) highlight the importance of computer security, given that remote workers access confidential information over the internet and, therefore, it is essential that they work in a secure environment. It is of great importance that workers, as individuals, are registered securely to have login access to the organisation. This will allow the organisation to keep track of who logs in when and accesses what services or data held by the organisation. ICT infrastructure is important for working effectively online. ICT firewalls are in the form of software programs or hardware devices, and they serve as mechanisms that are put in place to monitor a network and prevent access from untrusted sources. Such mechanisms are based on company ICT policies that are put in place. Companies use firewalls to block attacks and unwanted traffic from coming into their systems and networks.

7.3 Internal features

Internal features relate to some of the attributes that the remote worker has some level of control or power over. Besides their work, remote workers also need to make time for family and extramural activities to maintain a well-balanced lifestyle. No matter how hard-working, motivated, ambitious, enthusiastic and committed to excellent work ethics the remote worker may be, there is a necessity to balance work and life. Otherwise, one of the two will regrettably suffer. For example, remote workers can and need to set strict timelines for working and try to keep to them so that they get to have time for other things.

The section below details features that influence the remote worker but that are not causally linked to work operations. The survey demonstrated that work-and-life balance, health and wellness require the remote worker to manage their time for both household activities and work while working from home.

7.3.1 Work and family life balances

Nash and Churchill (2020), in their contribution to the literature on remote working, point out that women working remotely often find themselves multitasking as a result of their domestic and caring responsibilities. The respondents that took part in the survey for this study conveyed divergent views about work and family life balances while working from home. From the survey, respondents like RID23 support the views made by Nash and Churchill (2020) by stating that: “Working with kids being around and need to take care of them, while at the same time you need to deliver the work”. People with such family responsibilities, like assisting children with homework and other house chores, may find it challenging to cope with remote working. By contrast, other respondents from the study embraced working from home. For example, RID12 stated that: “Is good being able to be with your family while being productive”. It is evident from the experiences of remote workers partaking in the survey that respondents did not share mutual feelings regarding work and family life balances. The views by RID22 and RID17 indicate that some of the respondents experienced difficulties in concentrating as a result of working from home.

There are several distractions that respondents have highlighted when working from home. For example, RID17 states that: “Lack of concentration at home with a lot of disruptions”; similarly, RID22 posits that: “Home disturbance”. It would have been of interest if the respondents had highlighted some of the reasons for the disturbances when working from home. People with little family responsibilities and who are committed to their work may work more easily from home as compared to people with family responsibilities who may need to make provision and time for both work and family responsibilities. However, generally, people can take advantage of the benefits of working from home.

Manzo and Minello (2020) stress that one key lesson coming out of the pandemic is the consequences of a gendered division in much of the labour force. The research team acknowledges the weakness of the data collected in the rapidly administered survey. It would have been of value to ask respondents to provide their gender so that the study could acquire data about gender responsibilities related to family care in remote workers' homes. The Covid-19 pandemic has further exposed the existing, and already known, gendered division of unbalanced work and family care responsibilities (Manzo and Minello, 2020). Care work within families, especially in paternalistic societies, has never been equally distributed between women and men, regardless of ethnicity, including in highly educated families – women take on a large number of a household's caring activities (Donehower et al., 2019).

Steyn and Vawda (2014) investigated in their study the influences of job characteristics on job satisfaction, stress and depression among South African white-collar (also referred to as knowledge) workers. They found that both the organisational culture and interpersonal relations are key indicators for predicting mental health in work settings. Engels et al. (2019) suggest that there is a necessity for company policies to adapt to workplace change so as to support men and women to cope with the challenges related to work and family life. Therefore, the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that for most remote workers, organisations are required to have supportive structures in place to help workers achieve a work–life balance and adjust to working from their homes. The view conveyed by RID06 may indicate the respondent is struggling with working from home in an effective manner, and as a result, feels like he/she has more of a workload by stating: “Lack of motivation. Time management… there is more workload and more pressure”. It is for this reason that Rogers et al. (2014) suggest that workers must be assisted in managing workload demands, given that it has a direct effect on their mental health and work enthusiasm.

Parenting is a significant responsibility that requires parents who are working full time to have proper planning in place for the care of their families. Having children generally brings happiness to the family and usually increases the well-being of parents (Nelson et al., 2013). However, parenting can also be a stressful process, especially for young single parents having to care for their children whilst in the process of building a solid career for themselves. The view of RID23 suggests that the respondent is going through a stressful period by stating: “Working with kids around and the need to take care of them while at the same time you need to deliver the work”. The view expressed by RID23 indicating the challenge of juggling between work and family is consistent with the study carried out by Engels et al. (2019) in Germany where they found that in the life of most people, the development of both a family and a career takes place about the same time and the demands are inter-related.

It is worth noting that while most people are familiar with work-related stress, not all workers end up succumbing to psychological suffering such as depression (Steyn and Vawda, 2014). Others have developed their own mechanisms for dealing with work-related stress such that it does not lead them to a depressed mental state. For example, the view expressed by RID20: “Kids/family disturbance, network problems which causes delays. Lose focus easily with TV, or Radio”. The response hints at frustration and the stress of not coping and sometimes losing focus. Children also get frustrated from staying at home and having to continue learning from their homes, when they are used to free movement, meeting friends and going to schools. Parents are experiencing frustrations and are realising teaching their own children is not as easy as they thought it might be. During the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, workers who are also parents had to coordinate their children's virtual learning, yet at the same time, adjust to working from home. The findings indicate workers who are also parents experienced exhaustion, and this was consistent with the view expressed by Charalampous et al. (2019) and Tsai (2012) who caution that the stresses of working remotely and the maintenance of health and well-being are not well understood.

In the period of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, children have been at home full time and have had to adjust to learning on virtual platforms whilst still dealing with the anxiety of the pandemic. The views conveyed by RID08 who states: “Lots of interference as it is a home and not designed for work”, and RID10: “We sit down for long hours….Lack of exercise at home”, suggest that the respondents find it hard to focus on their work, and there is constant disturbance from other life responsibilities.

Below are the other results from the survey that have a direct impact on working remotely. The findings are reported using the headings of interwork, overburden and workload.

7.3.2 Remote work setting: interwork, overburden and workload

Remote workers frequently must work together with colleagues on similar tasks. Actors in an organisation often need to interact with other actors (internal and external), using other processes and systems to accomplish a particular task. For example, an organisation that focuses on systems development will require various workers to remotely interwork collectively, given that every worker involved in the system development knows their scope of work that they are expected to fulfil.

The findings from the survey suggest that even though there is a mutual and shared understanding of interworking in an online environment, there are some challenges that have been encountered. Some of the respondents are of the opinion that their productivity is sometimes derailed by their co-workers or, in some cases, external actors have a direct relationship with specific business processes in the organisation that can delay completion of a task. For instance, RID11 posits that: “Having to wait for managers to be available for one to ask questions and set-up meetings”. With the same notion, RID21 states that: “Sometimes u need something urgently and the employee is not online at that time”. Respondent RID21 uses the letter “u” for abbreviating the word (you). These are typical frustrations experienced by remote workers when working online.

With regards to maintaining working hours, the primary issue cited by various respondents seems to be not being able to stick to working the average 8 h a day that translates to 40 h per week. Workers can often overwork themselves. For instance, exchange of e-mails and other forms of communication outside of the normal working hours often leads to stress, especially when other responsibilities must still be addressed (Chesley, 2014). The findings from the survey suggest that some of the respondents felt they had more work to carry out while working remotely from home. For example, RID13 points out that: “We work more hours which results in more productivity”. However, the view of RID13 also flags potential concerns for employers in effectively managing and ensuring workers only work regular hours and do not compromise their well-being.

Organisations are under pressure to make productivity decisions through smart working and to ensure businesses survive during this Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. As a result, remote workers are often experiencing too much pressure, as work performance is critical in helping the organisation to maintain productivity. Dick et al. (2020), in their study that involved setting up radiology consultants to report remotely, found that most of them were working very long hours to keep up with their workload and maintain constant and excellent communication at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Similarly, some of the respondents in our survey gave a view that they were working more hours; e.g. RID17 posits that: “They have more work hours than keeping strict daily 8 h between 7 am and 5 pm”. In the same vein, RID20 also pointed out that: “No limit to 8 h and flexibility is very high such every employee can meet timelines”. Other respondent comments included: RID12 who stated that: “There is no break or knock off time. Our client expects us to provide exceptional service 24/7”. RID19 posits that: “Scheduling Time for Breaks, occasionally Work until late nights with no breaks in between, Continues feedback and Communication is delayed”. And, RID05 points out that: “Inconvenience of lack of productivity unresponsive to tasks and due dates”.

Several businesses have already been negatively affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, given the restrictions on movement and the enforced closure of some business activities. This has resulted in loss of employment in an already-stagnating economy in South Africa. Some organisations have had to close down, whereas other businesses retrenched some of their workers. In South Africa, the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within South Africa's borders fell by 2.0% in the first quarter of 2020 (Statistics South Africa, 2020). Shrinking workforces spell further trouble for the South African economy. RID10 posits that: “I think by going an extra mile, I had an advantage of not getting stuck in traffic… but the key thing for me was just gratitude that I still have a job so I had to push even harder”. It would seem from the survey that workers are putting in extra effort and are grateful that they are still employed in this challenging situation. The point conveyed by RID05 gives the impression that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought additional pressure on them working from their homes by stating: “It's mostly an inconvenience but pressured by circumstances of Covid19”.

In summary, the results from the survey indicate that respondents were relieved to be able to continue working from their homes and avoid the usual commuting traffic and the costs attached to this. They gave the impression that the costs of travelling to their workplaces were a burden for them. The findings also highlighted that respondents worked more at home as compared to when they were working from their workplaces. Respondents provided mixed feelings about the remote working experience, given that there are both benefits and disadvantages associated with their remote working arrangements. The findings indicate that remote working may continue to play a more active role post the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.

It is evident from this study that the work setting was severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. In this article, it was found that social structures also serve as a barrier to a productive work environment and accentuated the divide amongst remote workers in well- and under-serviced communities. The survey has managed to highlight several benefits and disadvantages to remote working during the Covid-19 pandemic. The issue of social structures and the provision of equitable infrastructure requires urgent attention from government to create an enabling environment for remote workers to operate without difficulty. For instance, the issue of an unstable electricity supply, either via load shedding or load reduction, prevents remote workers from accessing their employer's information systems so that they cannot perform their duties. Equally, the issue of network connection infrastructure must also be addressed. Some of the workers have quality internet connections in their residential areas as compared to others with poor internet infrastructure connections. Therefore, there is a necessity for government to work with network service providers to fuel development in other under-serviced and disadvantaged parts of the country.

8. Conclusions and recommendations

This article and the survey underpinning it investigated the changing work landscape in South Africa in response to the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions. Remote workers have experienced mixed feelings, some positive and some negative, as a result of their changed life situations that were driven by social structures during the pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an increase in the numbers of remote workers in the work landscape. Many people were forced to work from their homes, and this has altered the usual workplace environment than that experienced prior to the Covid-19 lockdown.

The article contributes to the growing interest and research seeking to understand the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on society. Also, the article contributes to the literature by taking a more judgemental sampling approach than has typically been applied to the structuration theory in the study of remote working situations by highlighting how social structures exacerbate the resource divide during the pandemic in a strongly unequal society such as South Africa.

The study does acknowledge that there were limitations that were encountered in administering the survey. The online survey was carried out with remote workers who may have had an affinity for remote working, given its novelty. The results may not be generalised, as the collected sample is small. However, considering the rapidity with which the survey was compiled and administered, it can be readily repeated and easily built upon to ensure sample diversity and gender balance. Because of the relatively small sample size, the research team is of the view that longitudinal research would be useful in tracing how remote working experiences unfold going forward as the Covid-19 pandemic progresses.

Future studies may investigate an assessment of the Covid-19 pandemic on the future of the work landscape and the changes brought about by Covid-19 on the world of work. Others may investigate the longer-term implications of Covid-19 on the workplace. Such studies will help identify and determine whether the market for remote working will increase in future and workplace space will decrease.

Several practical implications can also be drawn from this article. In particular, there are significant implications for South Africa, for both professional and other work environments, in a post-Covid-19 situation and for the future of work in an increasingly digital world. Technological advances have contributed to the social structural changes underway, and this in turn has influenced the rapid growth of remote working and changes in the work landscape. It is clear from the findings that emerged from this study that the evolving social structures of Giddens's structuration theory underlie efficient remote working. Social structures that exist in South Africa accentuate the resource divide for many remote workers. The practical and policy implications of the findings are that organisations (employers) must take into consideration the challenges that workers encountered while working from their homes during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown restrictions. Though the views expressed by most respondents suggest that there is a feeling of working more effectively at home than in the typical office environment, there was no concrete evidence to confirm this as yet. This may suggest that some workers are unable to manage their work time properly. However, in a case where workers are now required to work more hours than they usually do, then there is a need to manage the work–life balance. Furthermore, the findings do not write-off the possibilities that the home workplace may come with some interruptions for some workers. For example, there is evidence that domestic responsibilities can disrupt an individual from focusing on work during certain hours under lockdown situations.

Therefore, the study makes the following recommendations for future research in terms of both methodological and literature contributions. Methodologically, future studies may look at using the same data collection approach used in this study, but with a larger sample size, or by using other data collection tools to collect more in-depth and rich data. In terms of enlarging existing literature, other scholars may want to investigate using other theoretical approaches in the subject of remote working and in measuring how much the workplace landscape has transformed pre and post the Covid-19 pandemic. It is believed that the results from the study may assist other researchers or managers who intend to propose a framework on workplace organisation post-Covid-19. Lastly, other scholars can look further into the challenges experienced by remote workers during the Covid-19 epidemic to obtain additional insights.

It is hoped that this article contributes towards the understanding of the effects of social structures on the changing work landscape in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and that it sets a useful platform on which other scholars can build.

Figures

Mapping of the results from the study using internal and external structures as features

Figure 1

Mapping of the results from the study using internal and external structures as features

Appendix

The supplementary material is available online for this article.

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Acknowledgements

The researchers are thankful to the respondents who took part in the survey and anonymous reviewers from the International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy whose comments were important in finalizing the article.Declaration of interest statement: There was no external funding for this research study.

Corresponding author

Walter Matli can be contacted at: wmatli7@gmail.com

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