Can work-at-home policy survive Covid-19?

One of the fallouts of the COVID-19 pandemic is the changing world of work as many org-nisations across the globe, including Nigeria now see work-at-home schedules as the new normal. Ibrahim Apekhade Yusuf in this report examines the prospects and challenges of working at home in this part of the world
 
One aspects of life that is surely going to change for good post COVID-19, is the work life both in theory and practice. While the change will be swift in few cases, it will come slowly but surely at the end of the day.

This is the damning verdict of experts who have been monitoring the turn of events since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic which has not only led to loss of lives across the globe but has equally disrupted all forms of human activities both social and economic life in general as a result of the lockdown imposed by the authorities to contain the spread of the virus in most countries.
Justification for work-at-home
As has been noted, the lockdown necessitated social distancing policies and banning of public gatherings effectively across the world thus leaving many with the only alternative but to adopt remote work options to keep their businesses running.
Unlike other advance economies, where working from home is not a new fad, having more companies adopt a work from home policy not only represent a major shift in Nigerian work culture but this comes with a lot of challenges.
Chief among the factors that would slow down the policy is Nigeria’s epileptic power supply. Most of the respondents who shared their experience were categorical that the inefficient power grid means electricity supply remains irregular.

The irony however, is that for many employees, offices are the one place where electricity is guaranteed and where personal devices, including power banks and rechargeable fans, are often charged. Working remotely likely means incurring additional costs of powering generators or purchasing inverters. Then there’s also the problem of internet access costs. Like the rest of the continent, Nigerians pay some of the highest internet access prices globally.

LAGOS JUMIA OFFICE
LAGOS JUMIA OFFICE

Stakeholder voices
A respondent, who simply gave her name as Joy O, said working from home is not a tea party of sorts. In a chat with our correspondent, Joy O, who is the Head of Creative Department at a media agency in Lagos, said, as a mother of two already used to going out to work rather than staying at home, has been trying hard to adjust to the new reality.
“I’m trying to fit in with the new style and still be productive amidst family needs. I also work with a team of creative people.”
According to her, “Work is faster when we are together as a team and rub minds. Now we have to do it over the phone or zoom. It is not really the same thing. It makes things slower. It is not sustainable for my kind of industry. We are just trying to find a way around it for the time.”
Echoing similar sentiments, a staff of one of the old generation banks, said most staff were asked to work from home without any added incentives or provision made for them.
“Working working from home is very challenging. Don’t think I like it one bit,” she deadpanned.
Expatiating, she said, “Too much is expected because your superiors think you are enjoying yourself at home n expect u to work till the next day.”
What more, she says, “There are so many distractions especially with the kids at home. Where you have a good seat in d office with A/C cooling you. That can’t happen at home (laughs). You are burning your data to work at this time. No provision made. The only thing is that you are with your loved ones. Well I don’t think companies should adopt this style 100%. A few can work from home or a rotation is done amongst the staff. But really I’m more stressed out working from home than working from the office.”
For Felix Umoru, a media relations and PR practitioner, “The non-existent and epileptic power supply in Nigeria makes working at home more c-mbersome and almost an impossibility.”
The major challenge for him, he says is the intractable power crisis which has led many entrepreneurs like him to continue to expend a lot to be able to generate their own power supply.
“Using our private generators is financially intensive, coupled with the restriction of movement which makes access to petrol stations difficult, at least for those living in far distance from such facilities,” he said.
“The cost of data, poor network is some locations and faulty devices are another major factor affecting the work at home thing,” he further emphasised.
He however, advised that, “In the present circ-mstance, it is expedient for employers to provide incentives that would further enhance or encourage their workers to work at home as expected with minimal hiccups.”
Also speaking with our correspondent, Babatunde Lawal, a microbiologist at one of the fast moving consumer goods compan, said the COVID-19 crisis may have thrown up a lot of issues.
According to him, “COVID: 19 has given room for HR experiment. Using my department as a case study, before lockdown, staff strength was 16 plus four interns. But all interns were asked to work from home in line with social distancing. Four staff later left to work from home leaving just 12 staff to do the entire work we were complaining was very difficult to achieve with a staff of 20.”
Raising a poser, he said, “After covid 19, I’m just wondering HR’s next step. Will work schedule change?”
Lawal’s experience also resonates with Adewale Pius (not real name) a staff of one of the electricity distribution companies (DisCos) in Lagos.
Pius, who used to work shifts but had to be reporting to work daily.
“Though our service generally is an essential one but owing to the social distancing and movement restriction order necessitated by the COVID-19, some sections at my workplace had to operate remotely from home and their number is far higher compared to the very few whose jobs are very essential in the day-to-day operations of the company.”
“More so, these very few members of staff were then shared into two groups to work on alternate days/ weeks depending on the particular department.”
Naturally, Pius said, “With just very few hands at work, my workplace environment turned from so busy to dull, quiet and somewhat boring as our normal work routine had changed drastically.”
The DisCos staff, who would rather he works from home, was however compelled by his boss to report on duty.
“Ordinarily my work-type should allow me work from home but sadly Head of our Office wants me at my table every day for the sensitivity of the job and I hate it sincerely.”
Working from home, Pius confessed, would have availed him some good opportunity to deeply bond with members of his family for as long as the lockdown lasts.
“And now here comes another 14-day lockdown for bonding experience opportunity, may I partake this time,” he noted.
Job security under threat
Expectedly, the prospect for job security may not be certain as staff braze up for the eventuality.
A staff at FrieslandCampina WAMCO Nigeria Plc, who simply gave his name as Obi, who works in the engineering section said he envisages a situation were some staff may be relieved of their appointment after COVID:19.
“From my end there are current rumours that our HR is considering the possibility of downsizing after COVID-19. About 1/10th of the current office workforce plus the factory units deliver just about the same results as compared to before the pandemic. So I feel they’ll most likely retain the golden goose and restructure from amongst the White elephants.”
Chinedu Job, another respondent who is on the same page with Obi said most companies would seek a downward review of their workforce post COVID-19 crisis. “Job cut is one thing that’s going to take place in most industries after COVID-19. The signs are indeed ominous.”
Jolly ride for techysavvyy companies
According to experts,  jobs most likely to be affected in terms of layoffs are administrative jobs and all the jobs that do not directly bring income to org-nisations will be most hit.
Lending credence to the foregoing, Louis Ntanda, a human resource and management expert based in Enugu, “The numbers will be cut down considerably to allow more employment opportunities for staff with ICT skills set. Of course, departments like marketing and sales may not be affected as much. In the long run, it’s actually going to be more employment and business for the hardware, software and those in ICT sector in general.
Jumia, the biggest e-commerce operator in Africa with over 1,000 employees in Nigeria, offers an example of how even large companies can adapt. Acknowledging the threat of the outbreak “requires some shift” in how the company operates, Juliet Anammah, chairwoman of Jumia Nigeria, says the company has moved more meetings online while parts of its staff base, including marketing and customer experience teams, are starting to work remotely. It’s a model that could soon be applied more broadly across the company: “The situation is evolving, so we’ll keep adjusting as we go along,” she told a news agency recently.
Henry Omafodezi, a PR expert who sits atop as CEO, 7Gongs Brand and Media Company echoes similar sentiments.
While sharing his experience working with clients at this period in time, he said his team didn’t have to reinvent the wheel in a manner of speaking as the company’s work ethics clearly aligns with the demands of the time.
“7Gongs is a boutique PR Agency and so our structure has always supported remote work. Accordingly, the COVID-19 pandemic and attendant regulatory precautions such as the lockdown and social distancing have not affected the operational aspects of our work,” he said matter-of-factly.
Expatiating, he said, “In a digitally connected world, you find that most of what you need can be accessed via telephone, the internet or email. So, in terms of capacity to continue to deliver to the expected quality of work, we’ve had no major drawbacks and haven’t lost valuable time or resource trying to adjust to new schedules or operational models. Interestingly, we have seen increasing attention from a new kind of clientele: businesses who want to shed themselves of the responsibility of catering for a full PR department or unit and so want an agency partner that has both the competency and nimbleness to work with them through the uncertainties and new set of expectations that the times demand.”
On the flip side, he said, he however misses some of the social aspects of the work – the physical interaction with clients and other stakeholders across the value chain, the camaraderie forged during industry events.
“Some of our clients are a lot busier now, some have little to do so this sort of balances out the work load. However, trust and friendships are mostly built over physical engagements and that is a part of the business we miss.”
Best practice
Studies indicate people in flexible work programmes are happier, healthier, and more productive than their office-bound colleagues. So, while some big-name companies eschew remote work, many more, including Amazon, Apple, Dell, Hilton, and Microsoft, are embracing it. And some fast-growing tech companies are dispensing with offices in favour of fully distributed teams, such as Automattic, Mozilla, Basecamp, GitHub, Atlassian, Zapier, Buffer, and Upwork, to name a few.

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