Load shedding may force us back to the office, but many can’t afford the drive

Load shedding and rising fuel prices may see a clash of modern working routines. Picture: Nishant Das/Pexels

Load shedding and rising fuel prices may see a clash of modern working routines. Picture: Nishant Das/Pexels

Published Jul 12, 2022


Ongoing load shedding could see companies insisting their workers return to the office, even though rising fuel prices make commuting unaffordable for many.

As the outages continue to disrupt the productivity of the South African workforce, returning to the office becomes the obvious solution, says John Jack, chief executive of Galetti Corporate Real Estate.

“South Africa is experiencing some of its worst power outages since 2021 and we are well on our way to a record in 2022.”

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While many businesses are opting for back-up power solutions such as UPS systems and generators, others are moving off the grid completely by installing solar power.

“Despite the economic turndown, companies are investing heavily in back-up solutions and this will bode well for them in future with many tenants looking for properties with back-up power. In addition, it provides a stable environment and ensures sustained business activity,” he says.

Economists from Alexander Forbes have indicated that Stage 6 load shedding costs South Africa over R4 billion each day, and as the majority of local businesses rely heavily on electricity, the lack thereof threatens to destabilise the economy.

“It is exceptionally difficult to work from home during load shedding hours, and many businesses with hybrid workplace policies are struggling to maintain productivity as a result.”

Jack explains that corporate and small business productivity has been affected by the ongoing load shedding because of failing internet connections, missed deadlines, and disruption to supply chains. Staff also have to redo work owing to lost data, and are generally forced to take a longer period to complete their work.

Off-grid offices, however, offer uninterrupted operations.

“The drive to obtain back-up power supply has been fuelled by a need to ensure continued operations despite the unreliability of the national grid. It is now a necessity – no longer a luxury – to acquire back-up power supply at your place of work.”

As generators and other back-up power supply solutions are costly, they are often not affordable to the average homeowner. This means those working from home have to deal with continued disruptions to work productivity caused by load shedding, which has left some residents with no power for up to nine hours a day.

“Power cuts have had a severe impact on employee productivity and the health of our economy. This is why corporate spaces should not only invest in back-up power solutions but encourage a full return to the office to ensure that valuable hours are not lost to load shedding.”

While this may be all well and good, John Loos, property sector strategist at FNB Commercial Property Finance, says the ongoing fuel price hikes will see many employees unable to afford the daily commute.

“We remain of the belief that these ongoing high petrol prices militate against daily office working and favour greater working from home as employees try to curb fuel bills. This comes on top of an already elevated work-from-home level compared with prior to lockdowns, and could persuade more companies to reduce office space requirements in the near term, thus putting further upward pressure on office vacancy rates.”

Most significantly, the hikes exert upward pressure on consumer price inflation, and are, thus, in part responsible for interest rate hiking which FNB expects to continue in the remainder of this year.

“Rising interest rates are a dampener for property demand, and we expect weaker commercial property demand in the second half of 2022 as a result of a rising cost of mortgage credit.

“Insofar as fuel prices contribute indirectly to higher interest rates, they also contribute to upward pressure on longer-term interest rates, and thus indirectly exert upward pressure on property capitalisation rates and downward pressure on real property values.”

Loos says the Q2 FNB property broker survey already began to show slowing sales activity in the office property market.

Jack, however, believes that an increased employee reliance on company office space for continued power supply will encourage many companies to renew their leases and even take out more floor space to accommodate the return of their staff to the workplace.

“The bottom line is that the costs of lost productivity and reduced output are far more deadly to a business than the costs of investing in premises with an uninterrupted power supply where employees can work as normal.”

In cases where a company has given up its physical premises and allowed employees to work fully remotely, Jack is seeing a trend of employers paying for their employees to work from co-working spaces with generators or other continued power supply sources.

“This enables employees to benefit from the uninterrupted power supply they could access at an office while retaining the flexibility of their current working arrangement.”

Some companies have even purchased equipment for their work-from-home employees to ensure productivity is not negatively affected.

“My company bought everyone in our department an inverter for their home,” says a Durban-based IT specialist.

“It has been a blessing as load shedding and power outages do not interrupt my work - unless they are prolonged.”

This is what you need to keep working during load shedding:

– In the office

For smaller businesses struggling with cash flow and unable to afford the upfront costs of a generator and the cost of diesel to keep it running, Jack says a heavy-duty Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) device or an inverter may be a more affordable option.

“For many businesses, all that is required for continued operations is a strong internet supply and plug-points to charge devices and desk lamps. A UPS or an inverter can keep the internet going and power plugs until the electricity returns, and costs less to run than a generator.”

– At home

Yael Geffen, chief executive of Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty says remote workers should equip their homes with the following:

  • Surge protection plugs: With the amount of load shedding we’re now experiencing, it’s worth buying a few surge protection plugs and multi-way adapters to safeguard your electronics from power surges when the electricity comes back on.
  • Power banks: These are portable batteries designed to recharge electronic gadgets when you don’t have access to regular power. They are great for items like cellphones and tablets, and prices start at around R200.
  • Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS): Depending on how many devices and appliances you need to keep powered, these start at around R700. They also help to safeguard against power surges.
  • Inverters: Compact and easy to use, they convert energy from a battery bank and even a small one will be enough to power your WiFi, TV, and decoder. Decide which appliances are essential then check their voltages and ensure you buy an inverter that will do the job. Prices start at around R2000.
  • Generators: These are usually petrol or diesel-powered and there is now a variety of sizes from which to choose, depending on your needs. Prices range from R3 000 to R50 000.