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January 20, 2019

G-Spot: Has the time come to say goodbye to the office gossip and to work from home instead?

Journalists cover an event
Journalists cover an event

There is an interesting case from the world of work playing out in South Africa at the moment, and after it caught my attention, I thought I’d share it with you, to see where your thoughts lie on the matter.

There’s a South African university professor employed at Unisa, which is basically Africa’s greatest dedicated open distance education institution. This means all of the work with students is done via the Internet, teleconferencing, etc.

The professor wants to work from home — a fairly ordinary situation in this day and age — but the university insists she be on campus at least once a week. On the face of it, this situation shouldn’t be a major problem, except for the fact that the professor lives in the US, where her disabled child attends a special needs school for children with cerebral palsy.

The professor says she had told her employer of her unique situation when she landed the job, and Unisa had said they’d consider her situation, but eight months later the professor found her salary suspended over “absenteeism”. The matter went to the labour court, where the lecturer lost, but she continues to pursue her right to work from home.

I am with the professor on this one, and not just because as a freelance journalist, I work from home. In this day and age, with all the technical resources literally at our fingertips, there is no need for many of us to physically go to an office to get our work done. Obviously there are some jobs where it is still necessary, but increasingly it should be a choice people have if they want to work remotely.

I feel that alongside flexi-hours in those many jobs where it doesn’t matter whether one works from 7am to 3pm or from noon to 8pm, employers — especially in cities such as Nairobi, where traffic is a total nightmare — should consider introducing working from home for employees. This of all the time saved from traffic and money saved on renting office space.

I remember getting into a heated boardroom debate over a decade ago on this very same topic. Those of us who were in favour of being allowed to occasionally work from home argued technology (mobile telephones, laptop computers, Wi-Fi, Skype calls, etc.) was well developed enough to let newspaper journalists work from home. Those against basically countered that it would be too easy for people working remotely to take advantage of the lack of supervision to use the company’s time to do their own things.

While with my “line manager” hat on, I could see their point. However, wearing my “we are all responsible adults hat,” I thought that this was a problem that could easily be solved by laying ground rules and making remote working a privilege for those who could be trusted. If workers proved they couldn’t be trusted, then they would simply lose the privilege.

Of course such a situation would also mean the end of office gossip, but resourceful people will always find a way.

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