South Africa is not ready for virtual workers. This was the response I got when I presented at CFO South Africa’s “Get Smart” event last Thursday.

The audience was made up of some of South Africa’s leading chief financial officers and finance executives. When I proposed that the world would see a huge increase in the number of people working virtually, their response was not positive.

But when we dug a bit deeper we agreed that there were more opportunities than threats for South Africa in following this global change.

The talk addressed a growing trend in international business, the just-in-time virtual workforce model. This means employing the right labour, only at the right time, in the right quantity and in the right place where the job allows for the connection and delivery to happen online.

The benefits to business are vast, not just for cost saving but also in terms of the speed at which businesses can respond if labour is used as a variable input rather than a fixed one. The types of labour being spoken about include everything from designers, coders and call centre operators to high-level knowledge consultants and professional business service providers.

Concerns were quickly raised. South Africa’s telecoms infrastructure is already struggling; if virtual work increases, the extra load may bring the system to a grinding halt. Costs of bandwidth are too high to make it a viable option.

Yet the largest concern was around culture. South Africans like to connect physically – trust and ability are not easily proved over mediums such as Skype or e-mail. While the world moves ahead into the digital age we still want to put on a suit, sit around a table and then go home in traffic.

Some executives raised the concern that outsourcing work in the virtual space would lead to job losses, but most in the room rebutted that. In fact, the opportunities for job creation would be far larger.

If online work makes the world our market, how can South African business reach out to claim part of it? This is where South Africa needs to get on the bandwagon. Already in Cape Town – despite the apparent poor infrastructure and lack of skills – Lufthansa, Amazon and WNS have opened huge call centres to service international markets. Amazon, for example, is not here to address the concerns of local South Africans but to attend to calls from the US and Germany.

The reason they are here is that skills are higher than in India and the Philippines, and South Africans speak an English that is easily understood. Imagine how many other companies would base themselves here if we could get the infrastructure and cost incentives right.

The speaker to close the conference after me was Marie McCrea of the Centre for Innovative Leadership. She spoke about how we have been trained to solve problems with convergent thinking: moving one step at a time along a linear path to the solution.

But the world does not work in lines, it works in systems. If we are to tackle the major challenges of the future we must think in terms of divergence and identify the patterns to see the system emerging.

In the evolution of business there is a system emerging – just as with so many aspects of business, labour is also going to move towards the digital space. We can either see this as a danger and a threat or we can embrace it as a solution.


* Pierre Heistein is the convener of UCT’s Applied Economics for Smart Decision-Making course. Follow him on Twitter @PierreHeistein.