The augmented workplace – Tips on how to get ready from a labour law and HR perspective

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A smart city is defined as “an urban area that uses different types of electronic Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to collect data and then use insights gained from that data to manage assets, resources and services efficiently. This includes data collected from citizens, devices, and assets that is processed and analysed to monitor and manage traffic and transportation systems, power plants, utilities, water supply networks, waste management, crime detection, information systems, schools, libraries, hospitals and other community services”. 

London and New York are the world’s “smartest” cities, according to the 2019 Cities in Motion Index, issued by the IESE Business School, University of Navarra. Singapore has made enormous progress through its Smart Nation Project that has zoned in on areas of urban living, health, digital government services, strategic national projects, transport, start-ups and services. The aim of this is to provide a better life experience for its people. 

Our very own President Cyril Ramaphosa recently announced his vision of a smart city in South Africa, but critics were quick to caution that this is no more than a hi-tech utopia when we have bigger problems such as load shedding, youth unemployment, rampant poverty and crime. 

The multinational companies we represent are immersed in the IoT arising from smart city initiatives to improve their business strategies and that are ultimately relevant for their workplace strategies. So the question for us as employment lawyers is how we advise companies using IoT and smart city initiatives in an environment that may not be conducive to them. We have to look realistically at what our present, potential and future clients are doing, and how best we can grapple with their business sensitivities to service them properly.

New technologies have revolutionised each and every sector of the economy. 

The financial sector has evolved into Fintech, real estate into Proptech and insurance into Insurtech. Even HR is no exception, and companies are now able to hire talent on-demand and virtually. Let’s start here, and leave the buzzwords at the door: the efforts of companies have evolved well past 4IR, automation and the like. 


Finding talent became somewhat more sophisticated as we moved from regular recruitment to headhunting and agency hiring, then using networks to recruit, and now entire online ecosystems to hunt for talent. “Talent marketplace” was the term used to describe these digital swamps, where everyone was a creative strategist or innovation champion. But they were just online routes to speed up an already-broken model that was hopelessly inadequate for the demands of a new herd of talent, and the needs of newly forged enterprises focused on the future.

Rapidly growing online platforms are upsetting the nature of work as we know it. The chief assets of these platforms are interactions and information, together with being the source of the value created and their competitive advantage. Platforms are changing the game in the following ways: From controlling resources to orchestrating them; from optimising internal processes to externalising them; and from increasing customer value to maximising the value of the entire ecosystem.

We are now at the stage of looking at the augmented workplace. In this workplace, new technologies (AI and robotics) will evidently transform the future of work, enabling humans to hand over repetitive tasks to machines and free such persons up to focus on high value, strategic creative work. 

As we have come to understand it, an augmented workplace blends human skills and technology on the same tasks to streamline processes and achieve efficiencies.  Importantly, machine learning is key. 

It enables us to do our job faster and more efficiently. Facebook, Microsoft, and a few start-ups are already busy building the required hardware and software to support an augmented workplace. Soon the virtual office will be the new norm: meetings become multiplayer games and interoffice memos are digital stick notes on everyone’s virtual desk. 

Ironically, collaboration might even improve in this new setup, as this will be the only way to get work done and might even be more efficient than emails and personal meetings.

There are key areas of change in a futuristic workplace, being: 

• transformation of sectors, roles and skills packages based on fluid operating models;

• companies tap into required microskills, as opposed to restricting their needs fulfilment to how best can one person deliver these;  

• use of IoT to create jobs in a digital ecosystem, built on a demand for digital skills;

• rise of new workplace and talent models; and

• safe learning for those working in hazardous workplaces and industries, providing the ability to zone in on the person and not just an employee, by hiring for potential, fostering lifelong learning by talent reskilling and celebrating creativity. 

A recent article by Deloitte reported that 41% of companies have fully implemented or have made significant progress in adopting cognitive and AI technologies within their workforce. The notion that AI strategies are futuristic contemplations is simply not true — it is already being implemented in workplaces globally — 34% of companies are in the midst of pilot programs. Only 17% of global companies report they are ready to manage a workplace with people, robots, and AI working side-by-side: the lowest readiness level for a trend in the five years of the Global Human Capital Trends survey.

We shouldn’t forget the role that smart cities play in fostering the rapid rise of on-demand talent through digital platforms. New ways of working enable new income opportunities through digital platforms, thus flipping the employment model upside down. As we move from earning a salary to a much more dynamic economic activity, these work methods are rooted in empowerment and autonomy, enabling people to decide when and where they want to work. 

We are witnessing a growing aspiration for more independent and flexible forms of working, and this is not specific to any generation. According to a McKinsey study, there are more than 160 million freelancers in Europe and the US combined, representing a fifth of the working-age population. Fifteen percent of these freelancers have reportedly already used a digital platform to find work. The decision to freelance is increasingly catching fire in cities, as it’s more efficient way to find a client through a platform than reporting to a boss in a full-time job role.

As platform technologies rise and augmented workplaces are at our doorsteps, there’s huge potential for this digitally enabled opportunity to re-balance gender representation in the economy. Gender diversity is an economic growth imperative that needs no substantiation.

There is great vibrancy of corporate social contribution in South Africa as a result of businesses seeking B-BBEE compliance. Unfortunately, the management of underlying programmes within companies, are typically separated from those business areas focussed on the future of work and digital transformation themes.

Layering over the filter of digital transformation on corporate social investment means harnessing opportunities that technology and the gig economy present. These include the impact on women as active economic contributors. In cases where societal norms or the risk of violence limit women’s mobility, technology and gig work can connect women to online education and job opportunities from the security of their homes. For this to thrive in South Africa, it is important to understand how existing laws apply and whether additional or new regulations are needed. We need to find and then maintain the balance between protecting citizens without stifling businesses innovation. To do so will require the co-operation of businesses using IoT and of the government and regulators regulating it. Softer guideline documents may also be helpful. These can be organised by industry, practice codes and/or codes of conduct. In short, any sort of regulation needs to be adaptive. 

Key areas of change we can already drive are as follows: adjusting policies and procedures to respond to the changing nature of work; and enabling and facilitating collaboration between government and corporates or even private citizens, looking to public-private partnerships.

As we come to defend employment claims in tribunals, we need to normalise atypical employment models. 

There is no one right formula for South Africa given its uniqueness, but why not consider the best aspects from various places where similar experiments have already occurred, and learn from their lessons?   

As lawyers, we have a role to play in creating this sort of ecosystem for change. So let’s roll up our sleeves and be remembered!

Sherisa Rajah is a partner in Fasken and Emma El Karout is the founder of One Circle HR

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