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COVID-19 is transforming the world of work: Can Africa adjust to the change?              

Since Britain imposed a coronavirus lockdown on 23 March, I have been confined to my home in London. Under the government’s “Stay at Home” rules, unless you were a “critical worker”, you must not leave your home except for very limited reasons, namely, to buy food or medicine; to have one form of exercise a day; or for any medical need.

The stay-at-home rules were so strict that the chief medical officer of Scotland had to resign when she flouted the rules and visited her second home. Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, whose modelling prompted the introduction of the lockdown in the first place, also had to resign as the UK government’s scientific adviser when it was revealed that he had allowed his mistress to visit him at home in breach of the rules!

So, over nearly two months, since 23 March, I have not, literally speaking, been to my workplace in central London. And, as I will explain later, I won’t be able to do so for the foreseeable future.

But when I said my “workplace”, I meant my “physical workplace” because I have never stopped working. For a start, I have all the equipment I need to work from home, with remote access to my work systems. The only things that are missing are the in-person meetings and other face-to-face engagements. Instead of those physical contacts, I hold several meetings with colleagues and other people using Zoom or Microsoft Teams. For instance, while previously I would travel to Edinburgh, Cardiff, Manchester etc, and spend one or two nights in a hotel, just to have meetings with businesses and other corporate organisations, now I hold Zoom or Teams conference calls with business leaders and senior corporate executives, sometimes with over ten people on one call.

Of course, none of these virtual encounters is the same thing as real-life ones held in physical proximity, where you can interact with people personally and feel the human essence. But these are the inevitable consequences of the lockdown and social-distancing measures triggered by COVID-19, and home-working and virtual engagements are the ways most Western-based businesses have been operating since the coronavirus lockdowns started about two months ago.

Recently, the Editor of the Financial Times, Roula Khalaf, said in an interview that the FT was being produced mostly remotely. The Deputy Editor of the London Times, Tony Gallagher, also said the same thing. All but a few core staff work from home, he said, adding that “a very small number of staff come in for the evening shift to make sure that the paper is published on all three platforms: paper, tablet and online.” Everything else is done remotely. He explained: “We do the main meetings, news conferences and leader meetings with the Editor, John Witherow, and others via Google Hangouts.” So, each time I receive my FT and my Times, the two papers I subscribe to, I know the efforts that have gone into producing them, especially knowing the challenges of working from home.

Of course, some businesses are not suited to social-distancing and some cannot afford the cost of re-designing their workplace. They will simply turn to remote-operations, if possible. One large restaurant chain said it would change its business model to home delivery.

But that brings me to where I am really going, namely, that this remote way of doing business is likely to become the “new normal”. Put simply, home-working and virtual encounters will continue for the foreseeable future, if not permanently, at least in the West. This is because until there is a permanent solution to the coronavirus, either through an effective vaccine or drug treatments, social distancing and, thus, home-working would remain the default response to managing the risk of COVID-19.

As Professor Niall Ferguson, the economic historian and senior fellow at Stanford University, wrote recently, “The coronavirus is to social life what HIV was to sexual life,” in other words, just as HIV-Aids changed attitudes to promiscuous sex, coronavirus will change attitudes to social interactions – such as shaking hands, hugging people or being in a crowd and getting close to unfamiliar people – and, of course, to business life. For instance, Bill Gates recently said that, following COVID-19, things like business trips would reduce and that virtual shareholder meetings could replace in-person ones.

Of course, all the social distancing and remote encounters would not continue if an effective vaccine could be developed to tackle COVID-19. But, as most experts have said, that’s by no means a 100 percent certainty. For instance, despite best efforts, there are, so far, no effective vaccines for malaria, tuberculosis, HIV-Aids and many other infectious diseases. Of course, this is not to rule out a breakthrough, especially given the ongoing global race to develop a coronavirus vaccine. But the cautious position is that it may take time to develop, trial, manufacture and distribute reliable treatments or vaccines for COVID-19.

As a result, Western countries are rebuilding their societies for a world with, not after, COVID-19. On the one hand, they are concerned about the huge economic and social costs of lockdowns and want to reopen their economies to restore people’s jobs and livelihoods and improve their living standards. But, on the other hand, they know that the coronavirus has not been defeated; it remains an invisible threat, a devastating enemy! So, their precautionary response is to establish completely new ways of working, of doing business, that balance protecting businesses and jobs with managing the risk of COVID-19.

Last week, the UK laid out the framework for new ways of working in a COVID-19 world. While the prime minister, Boris Johnson, announced some modest relaxation of the lockdown measures, he also set out the conditions that workplaces and public spaces must satisfy to be “COVID-19 Secure” and thus safe enough for people to work or meet in them. Specifically, the UK government published “COVID-19 Secure” guidelines for different types of work, such as construction, factories, offices, shops and restaurants. Essentially, under the guidelines, all workplaces and public spaces must be re-designed to be COVID-19 secure.

But what does it mean for a workplace to be COVID-19 secure? Well, first thing is a presumption that “everyone should work from home, unless they cannot work from home.” In other words, if a company’s employees can work from home, it should let them work from home. Second, for those who have to go to their workplace, they must maintain social distancing, i.e. keep a distance of two metres apart at work. This means that every part of a workplace must be completely re-designed to ensure that staff don’t come close to each other or even sit or work face to face! In fact, staff canteens must be closed, and other common areas, such as toilets, where queues typically form, must have clear social-distance markings.

Now, given the amount of work needed to re-design and change the layouts of my massive office building in central London to make it “COVID-19 Secure”, you can see why I will work from home for the foreseeable future. Even when the place becomes COVID-19 secure, only few people can be allowed in it at a time. So, my home-working may continue for a distant future!

Of course, some businesses are not suited to social-distancing and some cannot afford the cost of re-designing their workplace. They will simply turn to remote-operations, if possible. One large restaurant chain said it would change its business model to home delivery. I mean, how can you maintain social-distancing in restaurants, a place of conviviality? Yet, that’s the imperative of the COVID-19 world.

For Africa, all this means not just having hygiene procedures in workplaces but also ensuring social distancing at work. Alternatively, it means actively encouraging and facilitating remote working.  But can Africa, particularly Nigeria, adjust to the COVID-19 world of work? Well, if not, we must hope and pray that COVID-19 doesn’t hit Africa hard or that an effective vaccine is developed!

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