The rise of the remote workforce: A South African perspective

With the rise of broadband technology and a global move towards the pursuit of a healthy work/life balance, the number of employees working remotely has increased exponentially over the past couple of decades. Studies have conclusively shown that this more flexible approach to enterprise has had an enormously positive impact on employee engagement, enabling greater productivity and saving costs to both businesses and their workforce.

Despite the evident success of this worldwide trend, South African enterprises have been rather slow in keeping pace, with relatively few organisations implementing structures conducive to working remotely. While it seems counterintuitive when considering international research, this cautious approach to business is understandable given the current state of connectivity in the country.

The connectivity conundrum

While Internet penetration has increased exponentially over the past few years with the emergence of 4G and LTE technology, the reality is only 5.3% of the population currently has access to fixed broadband. That presents a significant challenge for businesses looking to utilise the benefits of work-from-home capabilities.

Additionally, with the cost of bandwidth being significantly higher, relative to the income in many other western countries, the economic benefit to business isn’t yet significant enough to spark a widespread remote revolution.

While many senior managers and executives enjoy the benefits afforded by greater connectivity, there has been little done below the middle management level, with a majority of the country’s workers still relegated to on-site devices for access to the Internet.

A move to mobile

Another challenge faced by local businesses today is the relative shortage of mobile apps enabling engagement on the go. With the vast majority of South Africans using mobile devices as their primary means of connectivity, this dearth of fully functional ERP suites means that employees don’t yet have the right tools at their disposal to break ties with the traditional workplace.

While this trend is slowly beginning to change, with app developers becoming increasingly mobile-minded in light of demand from consumers and enterprise alike, we’re unlikely to see a seismic shift anytime soon, given the complexities of the mobile environment and the constant evolution of smartphone technology.

Looking ahead

With Internet access expected to grow by 44% annually between now and 2019, it is likely that mobile working will soon become more commonplace within the business landscape.

As app developers become more mobile-focused, and average broadband speeds inch steadily upwards, businesses are likely to capitalise on the many advantages afforded by remote workforces.

Recent studies suggest that this move towards on-the-go business could not only increase local GDP by 0.4%, but also reduce commuting time by up to 320 million hours – thus enormous savings in cost and time for both organisations and individuals.

Additionally, enterprises that rely on sales will be able to ensure optimal efficiency with comprehensive ERP software in place, enabling reps to secure deals and file paperwork on the go, greatly reducing the need for tedious, time-consuming logistics.


While the benefits of having the capacity to work remotely are hard to question, there are still many challenges to overcome before this becomes a standard feature of the local business landscape.

Over and above the logistical challenges presented by a fledgling mobile infrastructure, a move towards an out-of-office lifestyle will also require a significant mindset shift for both workers and leaders across the country.

Managing teams remotely relies on a skillset contrasting to that of an in-person leadership style, requiring leaders to implement a more hands-off approach to overseeing projects, while remaining informed and in control of matters at hand.

For remote working to be successful, proper management is critical, going hand-in-hand with the implementation of necessary, efficient systems to ensure both optimal productivity and sufficient downtime. Additionally, it requires a move away from a traditional ‘clock in’ mentality, pushing businesses towards a results-based approach when assessing employees – something that can be challenging for those not yet accustomed to it.

In short, it appears likely that South African sensibilities will slowly transition to a more mobile-centric mode of operation as broadband becomes increasingly efficient and accessible, along with a likely significant shift towards remote working within the next three to five years. What impact will this have on the economy? Only time will tell, but if we are to heed international success, the positive effects are projected to be substantial.

Feature image: Global X via Flickr.

Viesturs Zalaiskalns


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