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COVID -19, remote working and talent retention

The world of work as we know it is changing forever. As you read this article, it is quite likely that like many of us, you are working from home. While we must grit our teeth and go through COVID19, it’s also important to prepare for a post-COVID 19 world. The crisis has forced many organisations previously unwilling to formally accept working from home as normal business practice, to retrace their steps. I believe having now stepped into this new room, many will decide to spend quite a bit more time here, even after the crisis is over. Indeed, they may have no choice. Employees will be more demanding of their employers about the need for a work/life balance. This is just one of the ways in which the world will change when this crisis is over. Organisations have to plan and prepare for the new normal and, just as importantly, adapt to it.

Giving staff the flexibility of working remotely is a crucial part of the work/life balance strategies employers can adopt. If done correctly, it can boost staff morale, welfare, and performance. For many staff, the strain of commuting to and from work every day is monumental. Added to the strain, in the city of Lagos where I live, the hours lost sitting in traffic are a massive drain on productivity. A study done in South Africa showed remote working could boost the South African economy by $0.9 billion annually. Given the relative size of the Nigerian economy, that figure would be even higher here. From data collated in studies by Stanford University, Gallup, Harvard University and Global Workplace Analytics, people working remotely are 35 – 40% more productive than office-based counterparts and employers experience 41 % less absenteeism amongst remote working staff.

Virtual meetings via video conferencing using tools like Zoom and the like have become the order of the day in recent times. According to Reuters, the number of Zoom’s daily users ballooned to more than 200 million in March, from a previous maximum of 10 million as at December 2019. Other alternatives to Zoom include Skype, WebEx, and GoToMeeting. One can guess that they too, have seen their usage rise exponentially since the crisis began. The use of collaboration tools and software such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, which allow multi-location collaboration has also skyrocketed. Due to the COVID 19 virus and the resulting increase in remote working, Microsoft Teams usage has grown to 44 million daily users from 12 million in one week alone.

Here in Nigeria, the power situation might be a challenge for some people working from home. However, the use of inverters and solar energy devices could be the solution. Some companies are already deploying these devices to their staff to enable them work more seamlessly from home. Technology companies certainly seem to be beneficiaries of circumstances unpalatable to most, but technology is supposed to solve problems and act as an enabler. The bottom line is that technology is available to support effective remote working.

For women, in particular, the flexibility afforded by remote working cannot be quantified. It makes juggling the demands of work, family, and home so much easier. It allows them spend more time with the kids and at the same time, fulfil their work obligations. For instance, being able to work from home in order to keep an eye on a child who is unwell and therefore off school, would be a huge relief for any mother.

According to McKinsey, by increasing the participation of women in economic activities, African countries could add $316 billion to their collective GDP by 2025. Other research by the Catalyst found that companies with more women on their boards and executive committees perform better financially. With a more gender-balanced leadership team comes better decision making and reduced ‘group think’. It introduces new perspectives and is a wider representation of the company’s stakeholders including customers. This ultimately leads to improved corporate governance and shareholder value. McKinsey who have conducted research in this area for close to fifteen years, also found that African companies with at least 25% female representation on their boards, had a 20 % higher than industry average earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) margin. Gender parity is clearly good economics, yet many companies are either not getting the message, or are perhaps struggling with getting more women to the table.
Attrition rates for women at work globally are much higher than they are for men, particularly as women hit mid-career. This resulting ‘missing middle’ is well documented. A study by the UK’s Chartered Management Institute (CMI) found that while women occupy 73% of entry-level roles, this drops to just over 40% by the time they get to middle management.

According to additional research, 43% of highly qualified women with children opt to leave their jobs at some point. There are several reasons for this, but one reason is that they simply get fatigued and burnt out from the stress of trying to juggle work and home. Some women quit when they have babies. Others stay on only to quit later when the children get to school age, because they struggle to fit parenting activities into their schedules. What this means is that the pipeline of women available to make it into executive and board-level roles is reduced because of the missing middle. Furthermore, organisations are losing out on qualified and competent talent who can significantly contribute to increasing the bottom line. They also lose out on returns on their investment in training and developing this talent pool. A study by KPMG found that globally, the cost to businesses of replacing and training new employees to replace women who quit, is in the region of $47 billion. This is a huge drain on scarce resources, particularly now the world is staring an unparalleled recession in the face. Something has to change.

Amongst other options, one way to tackle the problem is by organisations embracing remote working, if they have not already done so. This new world will require some cultural and structural organisational adjustments to make it effective. Some of these adjustments could include changes to communication and performance management systems, but the benefits will far outweigh the pain of change. Aside from improving resourcing efficiencies, by embracing remote working, businesses stand to see higher operating margins, higher return on equity and a significant increase in shareholder value. COVID 19 has proven that working from home can work if we want to make it work. No pun intended.

Ivana Osagie is a corporate strategist focused on building female leadership capacity and advancing gender balance and inclusion in the workplace. She is the Founder/Convener of the Professional Women Roundtable which advocates for advancing female leadership and gender balance. She develops programs and advises individual women and companies on these goals.

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