3 min read
09 May


The Covid-19 pandemic introduced employees the world over to the concept and practice of working from home. Some four years after the start of the pandemic certain industries and countries are, rather surprisingly, still struggling with finding a place of comfort for all with the various operational and other questions raised by the work-from-home (WFH) debate. The global debate has been aired extensively, and I do not intend traversing all of the debates pro and con the concept, but to rather assume a general level of understanding and familiarity with the debate from the reader, and briefly discuss the current position, progress made, remaining areas of conflict, and a few suggested strategies. 

The concept of WFH is, for understandable reasons, rather popular with meaningfully large numbers of employees, and equally understandably, rather unpopular in certain industries and with certain employers. This continues to create various levels of workplace conflict, dissatisfaction, trust deficiencies, procedural cynicism and all of the downstream negative consequences to be expected from cyclical, unresolved workplace conflicts. 

The legal position 

Certain jurisdictions, notably Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands and Argentina, have set in place legislation dealing with, or trying to deal with, this complex workplace situation. These early efforts range from operational guidelines to the recognition of the legal right to disconnect and related WFH concerns. Here in South Africa there is a popular consensus to argue that we do not really have appropriate WFH legislation in place as yet, a position that I would disagree with, as many of our legislative frameworks, bolstered by case law and its interpretation, industry practices and other sources of persuasion already guides both employer and employee sufficiently in order to navigate these sometimes difficult waters. As always though, workplace conflict should only rarely be approached as a legal problem. 

The WFH debate as conflict cause and a few suggested strategies 

My own national work with this debate show a range of very preventable management errors that, in its turn, cause often imperceptible but practically very harmful conflict causes in a workplace. Poor or absent communication, real or imagined favouritism, vague instructions and haphazard application of arbitrary workplace rules on WFH all add to an already complex situation, with very real risk of harm resulting for both employer and employee. The prudent employer will, as a point of departure, remove all or most uncertainty around this topic with a professionally drawn, consulted on and implemented dynamic workplace WFH policy, a policy that understands the debate not as one belonging to traditional HR or even legal competencies, but as one requiring an understanding of this as a complex workplace conflict situation. 

Much of the current workplace conflict and unhappiness (and here we should remember that workplace conflict, properly understood, does not only include formal events such as strikes or CCMA applications, but also gossip, lack of productivity or loyalty, team under-performance and so on), stems from uncertainty as to the parameters of the WFH situation at a given workplace, and the resultant distrust, perceptions of victimization or favouritism and so on. Employees are entitled to have clarity on these important career and operational concerns. Uncertainty, poor communication and cyclical, unresolved workplace conflicts very soon, and very easily, become conflict drivers in themselves, with direct and indirect consequences that are at times hard to identify, and even harder to eradicate once they have become entrenched. 

Such a dynamic workplace conflict policy on WFH should ideally be a standalone policy, using a modular approach to specific areas of possible workplace conflict. Related policies, such as disciplinary codes, workplace harassment policies and so on may certainly refer to, and be congruent with, such a WFH policy, but a separate, well-consulted policy becomes a welcome and valued cornerstone in the modern workplace, also serving to act as an example of the manner in which workplace conflict between the parties should be approached and resolved. Such a policy should ideally, once consulted on and implemented, effectively deal with aspects of the definition of WFH in this specific workplace, procedural issues, and levels of sanction for any transgressions. It should, ideally, include a level of workplace mediation (as an internal or external process, as best suited) to deal with disputed operational or definition issues. 

Such a policy, both insofar as its drafting and its day-to-day implementation is concerned, should be built on a range of operational dynamics, relevant to that industry and that specific workplace (beware the Google one-size-fits-all template) which should include the due application of the nature of the work being done (detailed right down to the specific team or individual employee), changing market conditions, client or compliance expectations, employee travel and connectivity concerns, whether remote monitoring is necessary or feasible, reporting structures, support, deadlines, methods of communication and so on. Here experience will teach that these answers are often not static solutions, and that changing conditions, requirements and the employer’s business goals may change rapidly, and often. 

The effective workplace WFH policy will anticipate and deal with all such contingencies, including processes dealing with changing needs and goals. Such a policy and its practice should also bear in mind that WFH may be deemed to be a benefit, and that those employees operationally deemed to be excluded from such benefit may, either for legal or at least for conflict management reasons, need to be managed carefully so as to avoid complaints of unfair or inconsistent treatment. Conflict studies and practice remind us that even a well-drafted policy poorly implemented and rolled out can lead to complex workplace conflicts. Such a practical modern policy can be rounded off with a once-off and brief training program for selected personnel that may be involved in the future running of such a policy, such as HR personnel, team leaders, senior management and so on, and an information campaign for all employees. Once established, such a policy will need only minimal external contributions, if at all. 


The WFH debate is an important one, far too easily dismissed or accepted without much planning or application, often with eventual adverse and very unnecessary consequences for all involved. Management needs to do away with overly suspicious and needlessly strict control philosophies (the “what are they doing when they are at home” syndrome), and explore with their employees the genuine, measurable benefits that both employer and employee can achieve through the skilful engineering and applying of such a policy. This clarity and several related benefits can serve as a point of departure for an entire workplace culture of healthy, productive conflicts, processes and outcomes. We need not wait for further legislative interventions, the solutions are available already, for the benefit of the entire workplace. 


1. “Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa” by Andre Vlok (2022), published by Paradigm Media 

2. Various articles on the Conflict Conversations blog, which can be accessed free of charge at www.conflict-conversations.co.za 

  • Full references, further reading material, courses, coaching and study material are available on request. This is the first in a four-part series on modern conflict strategies designed for use in the workplace.

(Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for any further information

(c) Andre Vlok 

May 2024

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