The post-COVID future of work? (How African technology companies are exploring remote work and distributed work)
The way we work has changed very quickly over the last year. Before 2020, most working adults would leave their homes in the morning and commute to the office. While in the office, they would work from the same workstation and have conversations with their colleagues every day for five weekdays. But the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic significantly altered this work-life routine.
The disruptive effects of the virus were significant, and it claimed over 30,000 lives globally in March 2020, enough to spook the world. The rising death toll and the nascent nature of the virus forced everybody—individuals and corporates— to make drastic changes. Organisations swiftly embraced work continuity and transformation processes at an accelerated pace. Understandably, the short-term consequences of these adjustments have had mixed results on the workforce. As companies struggled under the economic and social weight of the pandemic, some workers were affected by lay-offs and furloughs, while the rest of the workforce pivoted to a new way to get their jobs done.
For the first time, almost as a sort of social experiment, the pandemic forced companies to adopt an idea that once struggled to gain traction: complete remote work. As employees retreated to their homes and international travel was grounded for an extended period, working from home became the norm among non-frontline workers, particularly those in the services industry. Today’s employees are constantly connected to the internet, making productivity possible from almost anywhere in the world. They can attend virtual meetings and share sensitive files securely using closed digital platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams.
Although this long-desired flexible employee work arrangement did not come as many would like or predict, it looks likely to remain a practice at many organisations even long after the global population has received the vaccine.
Now the question everyone is asking is: what is the future of work?
The answer is not entirely straightforward. In fact, it prompts more questions: Should employees work remotely full-time? Would that harm productivity in the long term? What tools would employees need to maintain their productivity? Is work output the only thing my organisation cares about? How about fostering spontaneous conversations and collaboration between employees? And importantly, if my workforce goes remote, what happens to the office which we’ve spent significant resources to develop and furnish?
These are deep questions, many of which spring forth from our long-term affiliation with the office.
Who cares about the office?
For decades, the concept of work has revolved around the office—vast corporate real estates designed to centralise employees and the work they do. Historically, the office has done many things for us, such as relationship building between employees, physical exposure to workplace culture and a chance to express professional identities through creative office designs.
Many organisations have long believed that employee productivity is better when working from a centralised position. Thus, the office is designed for corporate socialisation and productivity through the various conference rooms, breakroom, and employee workstations. One study shows that a well-designed office environment can improve job performance and contribute to a culture of learning and camaraderie.
It’s no mystery that in the last 20 years, many organisations no longer consider the office as just cubicles and paper factories but have built comfortable lounges and alternative workspaces to keep employee productivity alive.
And for decades, the social contract of employment revolved around employees showing up in person to use company resources on work premises. These resources include anything from access to scanners and printers, file storage for physical documents, unlimited internet, faster desktop computers and even quicker access to senior colleagues for ideas and solutions to work problems. For businesses with sentiments to the office, workers may struggle to access these resources if they worked elsewhere.
But the pandemic has forced a rethink. All our sentiments and attachment to the office disappeared, albeit temporarily, once the previously unknown virus made it risky to commute to work. Now, remote work is at the heart of radical corporate reorganisations.
Some companies have gone a bit further to ditch the office entirely using the concept of distributed work.
Frankly, not all companies can jump on the remote work trend. Movie theatres, logistics services, pharmaceutical companies and manufacturing companies engage in operations that require the physical presence of most staff at their various workstations.
However, remote work and distributed work are better suited for tech companies and tech-enabled businesses, where many work activities can be done from anywhere. But to pull it off, companies and their workforce need a nuanced understanding of these modes of working.
Remote Work and Distributed Work
Remote work is primarily employee-related, and it refers to a flexible working style where workers can do their jobs elsewhere without going into the office. They could work from a coffee shop, the library, a co-working space, and from their homes. The pandemic has shown that workers are very adaptable and don’t have to be on-premise to do their jobs. Some studies have also shown that workers perform better outside the office for some tasks. A McKinsey research also suggests that the virus has overcome old cultural and technological barriers that prevented remote work in the past.
Big technology companies like Facebook and Twitter have positioned themselves as forward-thinking in terms of the future of work. Despite their relatively high commitment to corporate real estate over the last decade, both companies will allow employees to work remotely for the foreseeable future, even after the world is vaccinated.
Yet, the concept of “remote” suggests there is still an affiliation to a physical office. Hence, employees who work outside a company’s office are considered remote. The office still exists, and occasionally, employees may have to report to this office for a meeting or regular work.
On the other hand, distributed work is a more radical organisational plan. Building on the gains of remote work, distributed work is designed for companies to do away with the office entirely. Some companies may maintain non-mandatory shared spaces in cities where their employees tend to cluster, but no company headquarters or offices exist. Instead, employees will work from their preferred locations with no geographical limitation whatsoever.
The distributed work model helps companies cut costs related to office maintenance, but it also gives employees more autonomy and trust to do their jobs without frequent supervision. Companies like Autommatic, InVision, Binance, and, most recently, Coinbase have adopted the distributed work model.
Distributed work has benefited significantly from the rise in global coworking spaces, which provide shared working environments for people, providing them access to many office resources in various cities across the world. By the end of 2020, there were 22,000 coworking spaces serving two million workers globally.
Both remote and distributed work require greater adoption of tools and new processes that mirror the physical work environment. For instance, with the pandemic, companies quickly embraced a cheaper and faster route to digital transformations using tools such as video conferencing technologies (Zoom, Microsoft Teams), document-sharing (Dropbox, Google Suite, Sharepoint), employee communication and collaboration tools (Slack, Airtable, Asana).
Now the nuance is clear, and the role of the office is a significant distinction between remote work and the full distributed model. What model is best for your employees?
This is a crucial question. While some companies may believe that the pandemic-influenced approach to work is temporary, employees think differently. The new workflows adopted over the last year have been both disruptive and comfortable to many employees. Workers can save money on transportation costs and reduce stress from commuting in congested African cities like Lagos and Cairo. And by working from a home environment that they are relatively comfortable with, employees could improve their work-life balance.
One Harvard Business School study expects that the option of remote work will influence the job decisions of professionals going forward. Another research suggests that only 12% of remote-based employees want to resume working from the office. Meanwhile, another 13% of global knowledge workers prefer to work from home, signifying that many people, especially women employees with children, do not like this approach to work. They favour leaving the house yet will rather not go to “the office”.
We spoke with a few of our Entrepreneurs’ companies to understand how they think about the future of work. Here’s what we found. For starters, none of our Entrepreneurs’ companies has confirmed any plans to abandon the office completely. Instead, most companies are doing a few things.
Employees can work remotely
Post-pandemic, some of our EE companies plan to allow employees to work remotely full-time. Carbon, the digital bank, says it will maintain the remote work option for employees while leaving the doors open for employees who want to work from the office. This approach will also allow it to hire talent, including people working outside Nigeria and Kenya, its operating markets.
Daystar Power, the renewable energy company with significant physical assets to its work processes, said it moved all its staff who could theoretically work from anywhere to remote work. Post-pandemic, that arrangement may remain. While the company says it will always need an office, “we don’t need an office that provides space for all staff,” it said. The office will remain open to employees who prefer to work there. Of course, health measures such as social distancing and nose-masks are mandatory on-site.
Elsewhere, before the pandemic, Migo, the digital lender and another Endeavor Nigeria company, used to operate physical offices in three countries across the world—the US, Nigeria and Poland in East Europe. Yet employees have always had the option to work remotely, especially its customer service team based in Lagos. But following the outbreak of the virus, Migo switched fully to remote work and closed its office in San Francisco, US, which housed a very small team. As a completely digital business, the company is now re-evaluating the need for physical office spaces and is considering the various work scenarios that would require a physical space.
Identifying what tasks can be done remotely
But making the trade-off between going to the office and working remotely may seem easy. A more significant challenge is deciding who or what group of employees are required to come to the office. And this concern is closely tied to conversations about what activities can be performed remotely without any loss of productivity. The critical thing to figure out here are tasks, not job titles.
While functions like software programming, bookkeeping, and product design can be done remotely, this does not apply to office repairs and in-house network server management, which require physical presence. Identifying the different tasks will help guide what sort of tools and processes are needed to manage remote or on-premise teams.
Kobo360 launched its Global Logistics Operating System (G-LOS) which provides remote access to the supply chain, where drivers can pitch for jobs with cargo owners, allowing for business continuity during the pandemic by facilitating a steady stream of trips, has a very physical operation that sometimes requires human supervision to monitor truck movement. While the company introduced a new digital platform that reduced physical supervision, that activity is crucial and must be done on-site.
Today, many other companies believe that tasks that require proximity and frequent interactions with people, including clients, colleagues or strangers, are better performed on-site.
A recent McKinsey study agrees with this approach, citing that while some tasks can be performed remotely, they are much more effectively done in the office. The study listed tasks such as coding and information gathering as things people can do remotely, while tasks like coaching, negotiations, critical thinking and company strategy sessions, an infrequent but critical work activity, are better done physically instead of over Zoom.
As more offices reopen to the new normal, companies will need to figure out what tasks require a trip to the office and decide how frequently that trip should be.
A hybrid remote model
The third trend among our Entrepreneurs’ companies is some of them are opting for the hybrid approach to remote work. Employees can work remotely for some days but may be required to work on-site two or three times a week. This is the approach Kobo360 and Daystar Power are using. Daystar Power will use the hybrid model for most employees while requiring network system operators, technicians, and warehouse workers to work on-site.
The hybrid approach has garnered widespread support among employees globally. Research conducted by Slack, the enterprise messaging service, shows 72% of global knowledge workers prefer a hybrid arrangement. And interestingly, in the US, 61% of the workforce can only work remotely less than a few hours per week or not at all, said a McKinsey research.
But whether it is hybrid or full remote working, African tech companies will need to understand their own work processes and develop new tools and policies to manage employee productivity and make the best use of company resources.
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