Workplaces will never be the same after pandemic

Kenyan workers head into Labour Day celebrations today uncertain of how long they will retain their jobs or when painful cuts on their salaries will end. 

Thousands of workers have already lost their jobs in the wake of an economic shutdown triggered by the raging Covid-19 pandemic. 

This year’s Labour Day is being marked under starkly different circumstances from the past when the clamour for better pay and work safety were the centre of the celebrations.

With thousands working from home or sent on compulsory leave uncertain of their job security, better pay has taken a back seat in Kenya’s labour market.

Many firms have been forced back to the drawing board to stay afloat and keep operations running. 

For example, chances are high that calls to customer care desks of various firms today are being answered from customer care representatives’ bedrooms in the new realities of working from home.

In yet another transformation, a number of firms have suddenly turned into new Covid-19 related fields such as making hand sanitisers and masks.

Experts warn that the current disruption caused by the pandemic might turn out to be a tip of the iceberg that heralds something bigger for Kenya’s labour market.

Kenyan workers, they say, will have to accept radical changes in what they do and how they do it.

“Some sectors will be hit more severely than others. Some jobs may be lost for good or for a long time,” says Jacob Omollo, a senior economics lecturer at Kenyatta University.

But others are more optimistic.

Bitange Ndemo, who teaches entrepreneurship at the University of Nairobi, describes the disruptions triggered by Covid-19 in the global economy as the birth pangs of the fourth industrial revolution.

Prof Ndemo predicts that the aftermath of Covid-19 will see the creation of more jobs requiring a new, broader skill set.

“Rapid technological changes will continue to disrupt the jobs that we know and replacing them with new ones that we don’t know to the extent that to be relevant in the future of work, one must adopt lifelong learning,” says Ndemo.

Economists have shared their projections on the new normal at the workplace triggered by the pandemic.

Among the changes are unpaid or forced leave as employers seek to enforce social distancing in the workplace.

Chief among these changes is learning to work online and using the social media for more than just online banter.

Covid-19 has accelerated the uptake of technology at work while helping dissociate the workplace from the physical.

“This is likely to be “the new normal” in the workplace. For example, I am supervising my postgraduate students online, making follow-ups on the phone and sharing documents on WhatsApp and email,” says Dr Omollo.

Still, unlike his kind of job that requires minimal physical interaction, thousands of other jobs such as babysitting, cooking or hairdressing cannot be done online.

With the imposed restrictions on movements and closure of many institutions, the future of such workers now hangs in the balance.

“More people are working from home and are likely to decide to do some jobs themselves instead of hiring. Those are jobs lost right there,” said the lecturer.

Julius Kipng’etich, Jubilee Holdings’ regional executive, credits Covid-19 with fast-tracking the future of the workplace.

According to Dr Kipng’etich, the pandemic has accelerated the evolution of the workplace into a low-touch environment with less physical human interaction.

“We were eventually evolving to a low-touch economy including meeting over the internet and virtual learning,” he says.

He, however, warns that sectors in the high-touch economy, including travel, hotels and manufacturing, will be the worst hit in the inevitable restructuring triggered by coronavirus pandemic.

More commercial banks, for example, are likely to shed jobs after the Covid-19 pandemic fuelled by the uptake of online and mobile banking.

Most loan applications and appraisals are currently being done online while the uptake of mobile banking has sounded the death knell for bank tellers and ATMs.

This week, the Standard Chartered Bank announced it will be closing eight branches in Nairobi alone, citing reduced number of customers visiting the outlets in the midst of the pandemic.

Jacqueline Mugo, the executive director of Kenya Federation of Employers, says Covid-19 has profoundly changed the future of the workplace.

Ms Mugo warns that more positions in the workplace will require multiple skills, and that this will mean doing away with some staff, especially those offering manual labour.

“I think there will be more pressure on the few who will retain their jobs after Covid-19 when technology will play a bigger role,” she says. 

While contending that some menial jobs could still be retained in Kenya’s labour market, the employers federation official warns that workers will need additional skills to survive the aftermath of Covid-19 in the workplace.

“It is likely that the workforce will be pooled and shared among various firms, which are already outsourcing non-essential services such as security, cleaning and office administration,” she says.

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