There are many benefits to working physically in the office. A few reasons include stable electricity, internet access and office gist during breaks. In Lagos, these perks lure workers to the office daily, even if it takes hours to get to work. But the experience from the lockdown forced a rethink.
The lockdown made companies experiment with remote work. Lessons from this experience from Lagos-based managers and its consequences forms the bulk of a recent survey, Remote work: Lessons from the lockdown, conducted by Danne Institute for Research.
The research finds that working from home is no longer strange to companies and society. They are accepting this new norm gradually; but there are challenges. In a society that prizes social gatherings, several respondents said they missed the networking, bonding and human interactions that come with working in the office.
Corporate and cultural barriers overcome
In Nigeria the cultural belief is that work is where one goes, not what one does. The research notes that, “The lockdown showed that work can be done from home and that it is OK to work from home. It challenged the cultural belief that if you have a job, you go to the office to do that job.”
The sway of this belief is so strong that those who occasionally worked from home have to explain to their spouses why they were not at work and were considered a bad example to their children. The lockdown changed that widely held view.
For most companies before the lockdown the norm was to be physically present in the office. Most distrusted working from home, and if they allowed it, it was the rare exception. Besides, everything necessary to work productively – electricity, internet service, communication equipment and software, tools, documents, support etc – is available in the office.
A respondent said: “I see more of [a] cultural issue here. People believe that when you come to the office then the work is done.” Even more, supervising employees, to ensure they meet their targets, is easier when they are in the office.
But not everyone can work from home. The survey finds that it’s easier for some staff, mainly managers, to work from home whereas frontline staff, factory floor workers etc, can’t.
Others, non-managers, who find the office a haven, are likely to adapt slowly. During the lockdown many missed the “complete and comfortable workspace, uninterrupted air conditioning, ease of communication with co-workers, access to physical records that had to be left in the office.” These are benefits they are unlikely to give up eagerly.
It is likely that companies will try to stick to business as usual. They will argue that employees without personal mastery, adequate workspace and no distractions from the family can’t work from home. These factors, the survey finds, aren’t intractable.
What companies did for their employees during the lockdown shows how the barriers to working from home can be overcome. It also highlights what to consider when adopting a work-from-home policy.
Making work-from-home work: Trust, tools, rules and support
With support from their organisation employees can work productively, whether physically or remotely. In addition to a policy and clearly defined objectives for each staff, organisations must trust, support and train their employees.
Few companies with a work-from-home policy (or had a plan in place) were prepared for the pandemic. They provided laptops, internet subscriptions, a stipend for fuel and software for collaborating remotely.
Apart from giving their staff tools, these organisations trained them to use the technologies and manage their time. To calm their employees worries, some paid salaries in advance, arranged for mental health advice and held online get-togethers on Fridays. They also set clear targets and used technology to monitor performance.
While the support from the organisation made the novelty of working from home easier, challenges such as access to colleagues, ease of collaboration and social interaction, remained. For instance, a respondent said online collaboration tools made it “hard to feel people’s emotions etc. and this reduces empathy.”
But working from home blurs the distinction between work and personal life. Supervisors called their subordinates frequently on weekends during the lockdown; work encroached into employees’ personal lives. Millennials in particular didn’t like this. For them the separation of work from personal life is important. They don’t want to be defined by their work life like their parents.
The survey concludes that working from home is a novel experience, it will take time to understand the implications for companies, individuals and cities, and experiences in other cities in Nigeria likely differ from that of Lagos.
This publication is based on a survey by Danne Institute for Research. Danne Institute for Research conducts studies on strengthening institutions, developing leaders & sustaining change in Africa.