Fourth Industrial Revolution: Remote and flexible working

Opportunities abound

11 August 2019 | Business

The African workforce is mushrooming and by 2035, its numbers will have increased by more than the rest of the world's regions combined.

According to World Bank analysts, this expanded working-age population could lead to a growth in GDP of up to 15% – equivalent to doubling the current rate of growth in the region. “This could dramatically raise labour productivity and per capita incomes, diversify [the] economy, and become an engine for stable economic growth, high-skilled talent and job creation for decades to come,” says Richard Samans and Saadia Zahidi, authors of The Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa.

But of course, it's not quite that simple. Despite the creation of 37 million new and stable wage-paying jobs over the past decade, only 28% of Africa's labour force hold such positions, according to a McKinsey Global Institute report. Instead, some 63% engage in some form of self-employment or “vulnerable employment”, such as subsistence farming or urban street hawking.

Add to this the logistical difficulties for the stable wage-paying workers in actually getting to Africa's urban centres. Millions in the continent's congested cities endure long, difficult commutes. Kenya, Algeria and Central African Republic are notorious for their long commute times, while tech start-up WhereIsMytransport estimates that poor transport could cost South Africa's economy a huge US$104 billion a year. The result is stagnation and emigration. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest emigration rate globally (1.5% against a global average of around 1%, according to UN population statistics), due to a lack of decent work opportunities.



On the cusp

of change

Yet change is coming. According to the World Economic Forum, Africa stands to benefit in a big way from the Fourth Industrial Revolution, when technologies such as AI, robotics, the Internet of Things, biotechnology and quantum computing will fuse.

Africa has already seen significant technological investment in its major cities, including increased access to mobile broadband, fibre-optic cable connections to households, and power-supply expansion. This, combined with the rapid spread of low-cost smartphones and tablets, has enabled millions of Africans to connect for the first time.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution unfolds, Africa is poised to develop new patterns of working.

In the same way that mobile phones have allowed some regions to bypass landline development and personal computers altogether, Africa may be uniquely positioned to jump straight past the adopted working model in other countries to a more liberated future of remote and flexible working.

International flexible workspace provider IWG plc - operating under the Regus brand in Africa - is currently franchised in 21 countries in Africa and is looking at expanding into the rest of Africa through a unique franchising ­model. This is the first time that a proven national serviced office proposition has ever entered the African franchise market.

The IWG franchise ­model offers landlords, private equity firms, multi-­brand franchise operators and high-net-worth individuals with the opportunity to buy into the flexible working market at attractive returns.

Flexible workspace is also proving to be a solution to filling the many inner-city buildings that remain empty in current markets and prospective investors are afforded the opportunity to build a property portfolio while buying into the flexible working market.

Their reason? “The flexible workspace market is cleaner, simpler and less volatile than other, traditional franchise opportunities. Coupled with the opportunities we see for growth in the African market, we see it as a lucrative opportunity for early adopters,” says Mo Nanabhay, Franchise Director (Africa) for IWG plc.



New way of ­working

In many ways, flexible working is the perfect fit for a continent with a geographically diverse, work-ready population and a strong mobile communications network, which lacks the infrastructure to support urban working patterns. Why insist on big hub offices and long commutes when there's a way to harness talent from across the continent? Instead, the solution could be a distributed, virtual workforce, with companies that integrate virtual freelance workers.

A report on trending professions in Africa in the last five years shows that the number of entrepreneurs has grown by 20%. Also, online platform work is on the rise, allowing many of these entrepreneurs to launch innovative start-ups that solve real-world problems and create jobs.

Big global businesses are already starting to recognise the untapped potential of Africa for their tech needs, in the same way that companies did with India 25 years ago. In the new world of work, remote employees don't even have to be on the same continent – let alone the same office as their employers.

As African cities such as Nairobi, Lagos and Kigali become major tech hubs with a wealth of well-trained tech experts at hand, global job opportunities abound. And, because of techno­logy, individuals can work from their home countries rather than move to the countries where big multinationals reside, thus contributing to local economic growth.



An office away

from the ­office

Flexible workspaces are becoming an essential part of a modern country's business infrastructure.

“For us, a high degree of interest has come from local and international businesses willing to establish a footprint in Angola, as well as from companies that need to rationalise and downsize unused resources, namely office space,” says Rui Duque, Regus Country Manager for Angola.

African businesses are using flexible working as a way to attract talent. In a recent survey by Regus, senior executives and business owners confirmed that flexible working could be used to avoid employee churn (and the consequent expense of recruitment agencies), with 71% of respondents pointing to flexible working as a perk that attracts top talent.

Flexible workspace is also a preferred option for workers: 77% of African workers said they'd choose one job over another similar one if it offered flexible working, while 56 per cent would actually turn down a job that ruled out flexible working.

According to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report, the most competitive countries in the world are those that nurture innovation and talent in ways that align with the changing nature of work.

If the trends of the past decade continue, Africa will have created 54 million new, stable wage-­paying jobs by 2022. It seems clear that remote and flexible working will be a huge part of this growth and the next step for the franchise market.