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Technology is a double-edged sword

Technology has become an innovative enabler in our work environment. However, in stark contrast, the rapid advancement of technology has exposed digital inequalities, which remains pronounced, particularly in South Africa. 

Inequality, in a broader sense, has long been a challenge. Quite simply put, our “home” environments remain unequal. In fact, one could find technology and inequality standing against each other. 

If you are in the dark right now, it might be because of   load-shedding. Just hang on!  

A new workplace paradigm 

While the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) presents opportunities, it requires that technology platforms be utilised and maximised for their inherent potential. As the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in South Africa, those who could move promptly to the comfort of technology platforms were able to adapt quicker and better to our new context. Some even found the approach to be more productive and more conducive. 

We use these words with care, given the levels of inequality we face – anything else can make a mockery of the contexts. If allowed to pursue its course, the technological revolution is like a double-edged sword, having the latent potential to address our inequities and yet at the same time deepen inequality. 

In our daily activities as academics and leaders at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), for instance, we engage in a wide spectrum of online activities more than ever before. We have witnessed those who are highly connected, those who are barely coping, and those who still struggle with connectivity and technology. 

On the flip side, there has been a resistance to the necessary shifts to these technological platforms among some professionals. Technology can be intrusive making it difficult to define work boundaries and create the overwhelming pressure to be connected and responsive constantly.  

The evolving world of work

4IR has accelerated with Covid-19 (whether this is fortunate is a matter of perception). This technological tectonic shift is occurring at a global level which one could argue requires a paradigm shift in the workplace. As exciting as this may sound, we are trailing behind in adapting to this context. Many global multinational firms, such as Apple, Google, Facebook and others, have already adopted this approach. 

When we send our graduates out into the world, they must be enabled to succeed in this future world of work. It is increasingly evident that some jobs will disappear, some will be changed by technology and new jobs will emerge. This will result in a paradigm shift and we need to ensure that we are ready to contend with these. 

Developing a paradigm shift

We must acknowledge:

  • the importance of person-to-person group interconnectedness and the psychosocial necessity of this amid what could otherwise be seen in isolation;
  • that 4IR will accelerate;
  • that while it may not seem ideal, socioeconomic prosperity requires the bringing together both points above to the best extent possible. 

Admittedly, there is no perfect scenario. Our view is that the approach is not top-down nor bottom-up but a combination of the two. In other words, conversations must be held on how to best learn from the experiences of the Covid-19 situation in the workplace. The thinking here is “inside-out” which must be considered at a personal level. Universities need to research this area actively.  

A mind-shift 

Universities will have to consider new workplace scenarios. Currently, most universities have “conditions of service” dictating where you should work. Before Covid-19, the requirement was to work on site. Even though tech platforms were available, we chose not to use them optimally – in part because the technology was simply seen as an add-on. 

Perhaps another reason was trust. Do we trust our employees to do their best when working remotely? How, in turn, do we earn their trust?  

We propose three workstreams: 

(i) those who work from the workplace (brick and mortar), 

(ii) those who work in a blended fashion, and 

(iii) those who work remotely. 

An allowance should be made for employees to oscillate between these workstreams to enable assimilation while taking individual preferences, readiness and situations into account. 

A positive outcome is that working remotely further enables greater access for disabled people. Many South Africans are already working remotely and across borders. This phenomenon can be boosted by the 4IR, which creates opportunities in Africa. Africa has the fastest growing population of youth who are naturally more inclined towards technological adoption. There is even merit in exploring cross-border virtual opportunities. 

Remote work

At a university level, we recognise that the international mix, more than ever before, will champion our cause from abroad; that there is an opportunity to bring international academics, particularly from our continent, into the fold of remote workers. 

Their long-term cost-to-company will be lower as their office will be in cyberspace and securely connected through a virtual private network (VPN). This has the potential for a greater intergenerational mix. We believe that diversity enables that appropriate blend, enabling contestation of ideas, thereby contributing to excellence.  

As we begin to ponder where the post-Covid-19 world or Covid-19 coexistence will lead us, we must acknowledge that technology forms were always there. The 4IR has brought to the fore humanity’s quest to adapt, which will be the guiding principle of yet another paradigm shift. 

Our workplaces will never be the same again. Without discarding the inherent value of human interactions and face-to-face engagements, new modes of working can be recalibrated. Flipping our traditional models of work holds the promise for enhanced collaboration, more inclusive environments and a more humanist approach. The future of work can be bright and exciting if we pause to reimagine and reinvent while ensuring that there is a balance between ensuring that work continues optimally and with renewed energy, and the needs of individuals.  

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Saurabh Sinha
Professor Saurabh Sinha is an electronic engineer and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation at the University of Johannesburg
Angina Parekh
Professor Angina Parekh is a clinical psychologist and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic at the University of Johannesburg
Tshilidzi Marwala
ProfessorTshilidzi Marwala is the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg and deputy chairperson of the PC4IR.

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