Navigating labour law in the augmented workplace

Here are some tips on how to get ready from an HR perspective.

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

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.

In the wake of these inadequacies, rapidly growing online platforms have been upsetting the very nature of work as we know it, laying the foundations for the future of work into the next industrial revolution. 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; 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 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. 

The augmented workplace

Importantly, machine learning is key. It enables us to do our job faster and more efficiently. The likes Facebook, Microsoft, and few start-ups are already busy building the needed 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.

The key areas of change in a futuristic workplace will be the transformation of sectors, roles and skills packages based on fluid operating models. Companies will have to tap into required micro skills as opposed to adjusting job requirements for particular roles. This is bound to result in the rise new workplace and talent models that not only use IoT to create jobs in a digital ecosystem, but also provide learning to better enable hiring for potential, fostering lifelong learning by talent reskilling, and elebrating creativity. 

We shouldn’t forget the role that smart cities play in fostering the rapid rise in 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. Empowering people to take charge of how they earn and autonomy to decide when and where to work. 

We are witnessing a growing aspiration for more independent and flexible forms of working and this is not specific to any generation.

Is SA labour law conducive?

As platform technologies rise and augmented workplaces are at our doorsteps, there's a great 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 programs within companies, including those focussed at graduate development, diversity and inclusion, and community partnerships are typically separated from those business areas focussed on 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 protect the balance between protecting citizens without stifling businesses innovation. To do so will require the co-operation of businesses using IoT and of our government and regulators regulating it. Softer guideline documents may also be helpful. This can be organised by industry, practice codes and/or codes of conduct. In short, any sort of regulations need 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; 
  • 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. No one place has the 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 lessons can be learned.  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.

This article was authored by Sherisa Rajah, a partner at Fasken,  one of the largest business law firms in Canada,  and Emma El Karout who is the Founder of One Circle HR.