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BusinesDay: Remote working - the brain drain on steroids

South Africans are now able to work for firms in other countries, even if they are not willing or able to relocate overseas.

By Johan Steyn, 17 May 2022

In July I will join the hordes of South Africans working overseas, earning foreign currency. I have agreed to join Woxsen University in India as an adjunct professor, teaching MBA students the practical business applications of artificial intelligence and digital technologies.

The university, with its impressive 200-acre campus in Hyderabad, has grown into one of the leading educational institutions in the world. It is a pity that I may not see this campus soon, or ever, as I will be working remotely from my home in Centurion. I will compliment the 60 hours of monthly lectures with work for other universities and a few consulting engagements.

Working remotely across various geographical locations is not a new thing. Many consultants, especially in the technology space, have been doing this for years. But these opportunities were relatively rare and hard to come by. And many organisations were reluctant to employ people who would not be seen working in their offices. The pandemic changed all of this, forever.

Working remotely, or in a hybrid fashion, is the new normal of labour engagements. Over the past two years, many firms had to quickly undergo reluctant digitisation to enable their workers at home.

This new era has resulted in three trends. First, people are able to keep their jobs but move to another area or city to achieve a better lifestyle. A good friend who works for one of the large banks in Johannesburg recently moved to Ballito, while continuing in her current role.

The second trend is that South Africans are more able than ever before to work for companies in other countries and earn better money in a foreign currency, even if they are not willing or able to relocate overseas. This is great news for employees but bad news for the economy.

We have witnessed the so-called brain drain over the last years, where skilled people left our country in large numbers to build a better life elsewhere. I fear that this trend will be amplified now that it is easier to earn an income elsewhere without the headaches of visas and relocation. Many may choose to remain in the country, close to family and the familiar things that make living overseas challenging, without contributing to the local economy.

The third trend is that it is easier for local companies to recruit the skills lacking locally from other geographies. Many large organisations have for years relied on workers from India and other areas to relocate here to bolster their workforce. The thinking was that these people would come at much lower fees, but the costs around relocation, local living expenses and the headaches around visas made this option less attractive over time.

My concern is that initiatives to upskill local young people — already inadequate for future labour demand — will have to take a back seat. We will have to find innovative ways to increase the needed skills in our country and appropriate government legislation. Do we need a limit on the amount of virtual workers companies could employ?

It is important that business leaders empower their local workforce to cooperate with the increasing amount of remote workers. On top of that, we already see a rapid growth in the digital workforce where people increasingly collaborate with digital assistants and software robots.


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