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Loadshedding accelerates the return of face-to-face meetings

 It’s December, which means 2023 workplace trend reports are being released and, unsurprisingly, hybrid workplaces coupled with an increasingly mobile workforce continue to dominate the global conversation. Thanks to rapid advancements in AI-enhanced tech, cloud computing and collaboration tools, staff can work from anywhere – physically attending meetings through virtual platforms, and able to interact with teams of people around the world.

There’s just one problem. Yes, South African companies can organise hybrid events, online meetings and virtual webinars, but it’s not the technology that fails us – it’s the power supply.

In October, Eskom’s Chief Operating Officer Jan Oberholzer warned that the country will be dealing with persistent load shedding for the next 18 months before new generating capacity can be added to the grid. In Oberholzer’s words, “We are going to go through a tough time over the next year and a half.”

Obviously, mining and manufacturing concerns are all dealing with massive production issues as a result, but staff across the spectrum are struggling. For Bonnie Smith, GM FCM, it means we’re likely to see a return to the office – and to more face-to-face meetings in 2023.

“The reality is that backup power solutions are not only expensive, but in short supply,” says Smith. “Companies have had to invest heavily in generators or inverter systems to keep their offices up and running – and keeping staff online at home comes with additional costs. Factor in UPS solutions for your team’s home Internet and Wi-Fi connection, new laptop batteries and surge protectors and you can appreciate how pricey the exercise becomes.”

Another challenge? Depending on their suburb or location, staff are going to be affected by loadshedding at different times of the day, making it unlikely that you’ll have a full cohort online – and productive – at the same. And if you’re in Johannesburg during Stage 6 loadshedding, power outages can extend for hours at a time.

It’s safe to say the patience of employers is fast running out, both with Eskom and with employees who can’t, through no fault of their own, get online. It makes sense then, that South Africa, unlike the rest of the world, might actually see a more permanent return to the office in 2023.

More significantly, for Smith, is the rapid return to face-to-face meetings and events.

“If you look at the international MICE space, hybrid events are continuing to grow in popularity. There are number of reasons for this, including global accessibility and the current cost of travel – both in terms of airline prices and environmental impact. But for South African events, can you imagine investing in the latest virtual conferencing tools – only to be scuppered by Stage 6 loadshedding?”

Just one example, this year’s WTM London (November 2022) is running as a hybrid event with the virtual event taking place directly after the physical event in London. WTM Africa, which takes place at the CTICC in Cape Town in April 2023, has opted for an in-person event only – bringing industry leaders, buyers, operators and exhibitors from around the world to South Africa’s Mother City.

“Although hybrid and technology remain important, the 2023 Africa Travel Week show will be a live show. We are purposefully moving away from a hybrid offering as the main takeaway from 2022 has been that nothing can replace face-to-face interactions,” says Megan De Jager, RX Africa Portfolio Director: Travel, Tourism & Marketing.

Loadshedding aside, face-to-face meetings are incredibly important – especially for companies who are looking for growth after a tough few years.

According to Carl Winston, founder and director of the L. Robert Payne School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at San Diego State University, writing for Skift, “relationships grow as a result of life experiences that happen face-to-face. You can’t grow a relationship electronically.

You can maintain it, but you can’t grow it.” He goes on to say that companies that resume face-to-face meetings and offsite events more quickly can gain a competitive edge over those that don’t.”

Smith agrees, saying that while virtual meetings are extremely convenient – until loadshedding hits – they can never replace face-to-face interactions.

“Often organisations react to a business downturn with an immediate company-wide travel freeze as a way to cut costs, but it can be short-sighted. Business travel should be seen as an important investment, a key part of your business strategy, and instrumental to your long-term growth.”

For Smith, face-to-face meetings are invaluable when it comes to:

  • Building meaningful relationships with clients and suppliers
  • Fostering company culture
  • Facilitating knowledge sharing, skills development and training
  • Increasing engagement and participation in meetings
  • Addressing sensitive or confidential issues.

“Of course, the days of weekly business trips are over,” says Smith. “Although it’s tempting to pop down to Cape Town as often of possible – especially as the City of Cape Town is able to protect its customers from the worst of the load shedding – in reality, most businesses are prioritising ‘quality over quantity’ in their travel programmes. This means planning travel strategically, ensuring you can ‘batch’ your commitments, catch up with everyone you need to, and get real bang for buck when it comes to business travel.”

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