Dr Christina Swart Opperman, Senior Lecturer, Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership, Graduate School of Business, UCT
Lack of face-to-face contact will be a definite feature of the future world of work as virtual contact and working become the norm. But this is not entirely new. Many of our students are not based in Cape Town and the modular MBA students have day jobs, so our mentoring has always taken place virtually with some students. I haven’t noticed a particular decline in efficiencies, most of us adjusted rapidly. However, such experiences remain highly individual and some students as well as faculty prefer, and are more comfortable, interacting face-to-face. For many it has simply been a continuation of the way they have always done things. By working online, you can reach more people in a day than you would have if everyone was expected to travel for face-to-face meetings. Also, the type of coaching we offer for the MBA thesis is more structured and the outputs are clearly defined. The benefit of face-to-face coaching is that when you have the resources or applicable textbook at hand, you can share this with the student and add richness to the discussion. However, online mentoring and teaching put more responsibility on the student so they play a more active role in their learning process. But people have different learning styles and ways of assimilating knowledge and information. When you’re face-to-face with someone, you get a better sense of what the student prefers. With online, you often assume people will resort to the same self-directed learning at the same pace. They may not have their cameras on so you can’t see their facial expressions and emotions to determine how they are feeling. But one must be careful to assume that all will react in the same way. There are such individual differences, and people as a group cannot be stereotyped. Many people have thrived in the new normal and I think that online has, on the whole, been extremely positive.
Even with learning and development opportunities there are noticeable positives. It’s possible that learning and development budgets will actually be retained given that companies no longer have to spend on travel and hotel accommodation. It now becomes affordable for a person to attend a conference online, and for companies to send more delegates to a conference. Training opportunities, especially international ones, have opened up tremendously and I think organisations in South Africa particularly, are very agile and innovative and will come up with more and different solutions. Also, some service providers are lowering their professional fees so as to reach a larger target audience. Online we can reach more people, create new and different learning experiences, and become more innovative in our delivery, so the positives really do outweigh the negatives. There will of course be people who battle with internet access and equipment, but it’s the company’s responsibility to provide the environment and equipment in which their employees can flourish. It’s a developing field and I don’t have all the answers, but the rules of engagement have changed, and I believe it can be for the better.
Ella Scheepers, PhD Candidate, Graduate School of Business, UCT
As a person who works with entrepreneurs, and as a facilitator and organisational wellbeing practitioner with social justice and human rights organisations, I have obviously seen a fundamental shift in ways of working in 2020.
For entrepreneurs - where “the pitch” has become essential to attract investors and customers alike - wooing in person with your charisma and uniqueness is so much harder without face-to-face. There are certain careers and places where you can do your job more effectively online. I have worked with those who are based in first world countries with first world internet and they are thriving, going virtual to save costs on office space and increasing their capacity to reach a variety of audiences. But there are certain careers and contexts where it’s difficult, even impossible. As a facilitator the lack of face-to-face has fundamentally changed my practice; it takes 3 times longer to design for online and it is a lot more difficult to reach people in a country (and continent) with little or no Wi-Fi access.
Activists and human rights advocates have also been negatively impacted because face-to-face interactions are the core part of their work; the “corridor moments” seed necessary connections and relationships that are used to make positive change. Moreover, managing people, especially in social justice organisations, is about cultivating a culture of wellbeing; in a grossly unequal country where many people have experienced trauma, it’s hard to create a culture of care and compassion without face-to-face connections and support.
What can be done? Don’t take everything online just because it’s cheaper and faster. Managers, funders, investors and organisations need to think consciously and carefully about how and when to go virtual, focusing on creating community and connection, as much as action and impact. This might mean that you deliberately curate spaces where it is possible to be face-to-face, but with the precautions and care and effort necessary to keep people safe. Moreover, if organisations and businesses choose to move more work online, there needs to be comprehensive support for employees to do this sustainably. This includes adequate data to cover good Wi-Fi costs, hardware to work efficiently and effectively, and wellbeing plans so that their work is not negatively impacted. Community and care increase our collective capacity and personal ability to contribute to our work and in turn a better world.