Virtual Office – are you geared for this?

We are experiencing a rapid move to online meetings, working from home and flying solo in performing our day-to-day tasks. But are we geared for this? Do we have the home setup that can support these requirements?

By now you might have been involved in at least one online meeting, being it through Zoom, Teams, or other online platforms available. You might like it or not, but this is going to be the norm for quite a while – even when you return to work, it might be months or even up to a year that some staff members might not be able to work from the office – at risk individuals due to their age or medical conditions.

In South Africa, we are already on Day 51 of lockdown. This implies that if you are able to work from home, you already had to work from a virtual / home office setting for 33 work days. So how did it go so far?

Complete these couple of questions to assess your current home office setup and where you might need to assist yourself to set it up for more effective functioning.

I Dare (you) to Dream

When we were young, we played the game – what do you want to be when you grow up… We would lie on our backs, looking at clouds, dreaming up the most amazing heroic contributions we would make to the world (around us) that will make us happy – but mostly what we think would make the people around us happy. I wanted to wear a uniform and become a police officer!

We grew up in a world were ‘world’ meant our immediate family, our street, neighborhood, town, and if you had a HUGE vision – our country… If somebody happened in our town, we might hear about it a week later in our local newspaper – IF it was important enough for us to read it. If something was not news-worthy enough according to the local newsroom, it did not make the papers.

However, if something happened in our street, the ‘street-news-letter/reporter’ made sure everybody heard about it… It is easy for us to spread the bad things that other people do – in our eyes – rather than good efforts…

Today, we know everything at the click of a (google-)button – if we are interested in it or not, if it is local or not, in context or not. “Our world” now has a global footprint. The crisis in another country becomes the blueprint of the crisis in our country, our province, our district, our town, our neighborhood, our street, our home, our hearts…

But

What if…

What if we can still dream… What if there is an alternative path guiding our experiences through this trying time…

Take a moment to watch this music video

… the time to share has come; … I dare to dream

A legacy is the story of someone’s life, the things they did, the places they went, the goals they accomplished, their failures, and more. Legacy is something that a person leaves behind to be remembered by. Legacies are pathways that guide people in decisions with what to do or what not to do.

What legacy do you want to leave? How would you like to step out from lockdown once it is lifted?

  • Would you want to be a victim or a leader?
  • Would you want to be a statistic or a change-maker?
  • Would you want to be in crisis or offering solutions?
  • Would you want to be passive or lead?

We don’t know what the future holds. We are not even clear on what we hope it would look like if we had a say in it. We are trying to balance what we hope it will look like with what we know it will not look like (ever again). We are spending so much time on surviving and hoping, that we neglect to dream and prepare.

Humankind currently needs purpose-driven leaders who remain consistent at their best performance. Purpose-driven leaders with a clear understanding – and are comfortable with it – that people now need ‘the vulnerability speech’ (it is okay to feel vulnerable in this time) rather than ‘the motivational speech’ (let us reach for success!). Purpose-driven leaders who understand that the vision and mission needs to stay the same in order to provide a sense of ‘known’ to contribute to stability, but who is brave enough to re-align operations to address current needs.

Let’s get real. It is not only the company’s needs that changed over the past couple of months. Staff needs have shifted too. People want to know what they will return to when allowed. Individuals had the time and space to re-think their purpose in life, what legacies they want to leave, the skills they have to offer, and the dreams they had for themselves growing up. It is not only company structures that need to shift into a ‘new world’. Every person’s shift into their ‘new world’ can provide solutions to companies if they were offered the opportunity to communicate this freely…

Purpose-driven leaders need to identify new skills to take the company forward – and find those skills, and make it happen. They need to

  • allow these voices to be heard – with no fear of potential consequencial dismissals
  • conduct skills audits of current staff – do you know what they really love to do, are good at and have to offer
  • find the unique contributions and skills of each staff member needed in the current context
  • and apply people’s skills in the most appropriate roles

I am proudly South African! Many voices are going up in criticism and a lot of energy is spent on social media platforms on pointing out errors or gaps, fear of being excluded from support (fears based on different reasons) , or lack of progress in our country. People I respect and follow and support sometimes add their voices to these popular discussions. Although I understand this and share the losses and frustrations and have these small debates in my head, this is not the legacy I want to leave moving into the future.

I ask myself – How do I want to lead through this crisis?

  1. Do I want to be a leader who panic – running around like a headless chicken trying anything (done that already) and criticizing anything and everything around me
  2. Do I want to be a passive leader – freeze long enough to miss the point and miss the immediate needs of people (been there) only to wake up as a follower
  3. Instead, I choose to be a purpose-driven leader – reset-regroup-relaunch en Show Up, Step Up en Give Back

I dare to dream that this is possible.

Lying on my back (pun intended), looking at the clouds and dreaming of what I want to be when I get (grow) up…

The time is now…

I Dare You to Dream…

Freelance Professionals during Lockdown – a Poll’s Results

What started out as a curiosity question, turned out to be a very insightful exercise. I wish to share the results with those who participated, but also those who are interested to know how freelancers within the skills development sector are affected during the mandatory lockdown.

This is in no way a scientific research project or intended to be one. Participation was voluntary and I would like to thank all who participated! Thank you for participating! The poll is still open for participation and you can complete it by following this link: https://forms.gle/xDomirPUHG3Hf1CaA

This poll started when I asked – in my mind – a simple question on a Facebook group dedicated to Skills Development Professionals. I asked if we know how many freelance professional Facilitators, Assessors, Moderators, and SDF (Skills Development Facilitators) we have in South Africa. Somebody I spoke to guessed there could be close to 120,000 – 150,000 of ‘us’ in this country – a number I reckon could be a good guesstimate.

A couple of responses indicated that it will be interesting to know the answer to the question. Somebody suggested I put out a poll to ask. One specific comment motivated me to put together this poll! Somebody asked:

“Who is asking?”

My immediate answer (which I kept to myself) was – we all should ask the question – so I compiled the poll.

Within the past 36 hours (current date stamp: 2 May 2020, 00:30 am), 177 responses were recorded. I hoped for a bigger response. It was published on about 5 different Facebook groups, some with more than 3,000 members, as well as distributed through a couple of private network connections. Although the uptake seems low (almost 0,14% of a potential 120,000 audience), the results are still shockingly true to my concerns.

The following statistics are in no way scientific results of a formal research inquiry, but simply the results of a curiosity concern about fellow professional freelancers affected by a hard lock down with no end in sight for the skills development and training sector soon.

Results

As of Saturday, May 2nd, 2020 at 00:30 am, 177 responses were recorded. As the poll is still running, results are still coming in. The following is based on the 177 responses recorded.

Figure 1: Freelance Professionals

Freelance professionals represented in this poll varies from a combination of Facilitators (145), Registered Assessors (140), Registered Moderators (83), Skills Development Facilitators (52), Consultants (72) and representing Skills Development Providers (37). A combination of responses was allowed per respondent on all relevant roles they fulfill.

Figure 2: Currently working full time

The reality of 108 respondents (62%) is that they are not full time employed and only earn an income through freelance contracts. The other 38% earn income from training providers or a combination of the different options indicated. No Training Provider is allowed to offer any training during lockdown (some are continuing with online and mixed-mode activities), which leave the 38% quite vulnerable.

Figure 3: Earning during lock down

The majority of the respondents (108) only earn an income as freelance professionals. A concerning high 70,6% (125) indicating that they have not earned any income since the lock down. In the previous figure, 38% indicated they are working in different combinations as freelancers, only 1 Training Provider, or multiple Providers. As mentioned above, no Training Institution is allowed training activities. Some respondents indicated that although they are working full time, they only received half or part of their salaries during the lock down period.

Figure 4. Provincial Representation

Almost half of the participating respondents represent Gauteng (84) with the Western Cape (36) and KZN (27) some of the other provinces.

Figure 5. Gender

The gender split between males (60) and females (114) indicates that two-thirds of the respondents were females. This was not a compulsory question and 3 respondents did not provide an answer.

Figure 6. Age Groups

The majority (108) of the respondents are between the ages of 31 and 50 with 41 respondents between 51 and 60. With many years of experience, the skills these respondents accumulated over the years can be very valuable during the uncertain period our country finds ourselves in. It will be a shame if these skills are not put to use to contribute to solutions in this time – and as a result, assist these professionals to earn an income to sustain their families.

Figure 7. Race

The split between Black (68) & Coloured (19) South African and White (64) South African respondents with 14 respondents who prefer not to indicate their race.

The comments combined speak of the dier reality freelance professionals funds themselves in during this lock down in South Africa. Although the number of respondents are relatively low, I fear it is an accurate reflection on the income generation realities of the majority.

Concerns

What became very clear this week during public announcements, was that Universities, TVET Colleges, and Skills Development Partners will not open their doors soon. Some people are optimistic and expect to go back to on-site training in September, but with the Health Department’s predictions that the pandemic will reach it’s peak the same month, it seems most unlikely that any doors will be opening soon.

I fear that there is not a public insight into the unique challenges freelance professionals in the Skills Development Sector faces and the impact it already shows on the possibility to recover. Any contracts agreed on before lock down might either be in danger, put on hold indefinitely, or was already canceled.

My own experience covers all three of these realities, as one SDP I just started facilitating training the week of the announcement of the lock down later that week (rightfully) decided to cancel all contracts with freelance facilitators and only utilise inhouse skills to finalize the project. I had a workshop scheduled with another client which had to be canceled due to the lock down. Part of this workshop would be dedicated to potential new projects to be implemented in partnership. The natural outcome is that this has been postponed indefinitely. Other contracts were just canceled in one-liner emails.

None of these should come as a surprise. But all of these had an immediate effect on Freelancers month-end income planning and cashflow management.

Although nobody is to blame for these realities and losses of freelance professionals, the impact was immediate, without warning, without rules of engagement and with devastating effects on the livelihoods of households.

I know I am describing two-thirds of South African self-employed population.

The one challenge I’ve had ever since the lock down and announcement of the Government’s support to SMMEs and other groups is that somehow Private Colleges (SDPs) are not fitting anywhere, including Freelance Professionals providing services to SDPs. Many of these professionals are operating as Sole Proprietors and might not even have a structured system of paying UIF. This immediately disqualifies them for support from the UIF support option.

As most of these Professionals do not employ other staff, they do not qualify for the TERS relief fund either. Micro entities within the skills development sector with only 1 or less than 5 full-time staff apply to the SMME support funds. Some of the feedback received was: “Please apply to the support provided by the Department of Education”, or, “Your entity does not qualify. As we received an enormous amount of applications, we had to make tough decisions to support SMMEs with higher staff numbers to mitigate the impact of larger numbers of potential job losses”.

The Minister of Higher Education made it very clear this week that Private Education Entities are private businesses in their own right and should cover and plan for their own losses accordingly. It might seem a relevant response in any other context, but in the bigger picture of what our country is facing, and in contrast to the spirit in which our President has been guiding the nation through this difficult time, there might have been alternative approaches to save EDUCATION in our country.

The minister of Education also made a quick comment about our President’s Skills Levy payment holiday of 4 months when he suggested that SETA Grant funding might not be allocated as planned. SETA funded projects represent a large % of SDPs training projects. If Private SDPs are not supported by the Government, and the source of Grant allocations are at risk, what effect will this have on non-governmental Skills Development?

If SDPs fold, freelancers are running short on income generation partners to fall back on after lock down. I do not have the relevant statistics, but I got the feeling over the past couple of years that Private Universities and SDPs are contributing in a huge way to skills development in our country. Many TVET Colleges rely on Private Institutions to partner with them on Government funded training offerings implementation. Do we not cripple Post-School Education?

Freelance Professionals have valuable contributions to make! My curiosity about how many ‘others like me’ there are provided some information to prioritise this defined sector equally to any other person affected by the mandatory lock down, to be supported.

Together we can influence the Coronairus curve.

Hopefully, we will not forget to mind the curve of people who’s total income generation options are wiped…

Update

Thanknyou Sylvia Hammond for this contribution on Skills-Universe https://www.skills-universe.com/groups/training-service-providers/forum/topic/dhet-call-to-private-providers-to-contribute-to-an-integrated-pset-ecosystem/

Matters raised are much needed. Big thanks to APPETD for the work they are doing to voice concerns of Private Providers.