As lockdown eases, corporate Nigeria rethinks going back to office

Blessing Eugene, a wife and mother of one, has worked with her firm for three years as the Head of Practice, and in those years never missed a day at work.

Then COVID-19 happened in 2020 and the Federal Government had to shut down everything including businesses for months. Companies did not just shut down and left, many of them asked their workers to work from home. As a contingency plan, companies used the opportunity to cut overhead by letting go of their workers. A few workers were furloughed – an unpaid leave of absence.

Ngozi’s office did not lay off the three lawyers it had. They were rather asked to work from home. At first, it felt like punishment for a lawyer with 10 years of Law School behind her and working in and out of law courts almost five times a week. But months after the lockdown was lifted and the government gave approval for companies to call back their workers, Ngozi, who is now expecting a second baby, is reluctant.

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“I told my boss, I would rather resign than return to work in the office,” she said. In Ngozi’s case, her boss was gracious enough to allow her to continue from home and earn her salary like when she was coming to work at the office in Lekki.

However, Abigail Egbu, a nursing mother working for another law firm, said discussing remote work with her employer was not a possibility. Instead, she chose to resign after the mandatory three months maternity leave expired.

“My body hasn’t fully recovered from the childbearing and I don’t want anything interfering with my nursing my baby for at least six months,” she said.

Abigail’s baby food vendor tells her she is not the only one expressing reluctance to resume fully at work. Many mothers the vendor calls clients are also choosing to work from home most of the days in the week or start their own businesses from home.

Mfon Bassey, an analyst whose wife recently put to bed, said resuming in the office was not something he looked forward to. He and other colleagues were asked to work from home during the lockdown. But easing the lockdown, the company asked the workers to come to work three times a week, which allowed Bassey to be with his wife in the last days of her pregnancy. With the child born and the company asking for full resumption, Bassey feels he is not getting the chance to be there for her and the new baby.

Until the lockdown, remote work was considered a technology fad, a cool thing that most millennials could not get enough of. Most companies only allowed it as a strategy to attract and keep millennial talents. The lockdown transited remote work into a survival strategy. It was never supposed to be a company-wide policy at least that is what most thought until Twitter, Facebook and Andela did otherwise.

Andela, a global talent network designed to help companies build remote engineering teams, founded by six millennials, including two Nigerians, announced in May 2020 that it was going all remote. Before then, the company had started winding down its physical operations and relocated its workers home.

Since Andela became the first company with operations in Nigeria to go completely remote, many companies are beginning to rethink it from a mere strategy to survive a pandemic, but as an integral part of the company’s future. However, most of these companies are in the tech ecosystem. TalentQL, a talent outsourcing and incubator company, like Andela, prefers a remote-first approach to talent management.

Godspowere Eseurhobo, a remote work advocate, told BusinessDay that companies like Andela and TalentQL build confidence in others to start taking remote work seriously.

“I’ve been able to talk with diverse talents from various parts of Africa. The initial response you get during a lockdown would definitely be the desire to leave the house as remote work came in as a forced experiment due to the restrictions on outdoor movement, then everyone couldn’t wait to go back to the office.

“This response has changed drastically over the last few months as workers now see the real benefit of working remotely outside a global pandemic or national lockdown. A lot of professionals stick to working remotely or at least hybrid as they can get work done from cafes, co-working spaces, nomad villages, or even from their houses,” Eseurhobo said.

While they did not declare complete remote work, MTN, Paystack, Flutterwave, and a few other companies proactively proceeded on a full-scale work from home (WFH) model well ahead of the lockdown directive from the government.

According to Esther Akinnukawe, chief human resources officer at MTN Nigeria, said to transit to a full WFH model, managers and teams at MTN were equipped with work tools. An example of the tool is an employee and manager telecommuting (WFH) playbook, which provided guidelines on leading virtually. MTN also provided guidelines on leading virtually; ways of dealing with COVID-19 and external and internal helpline; etiquette and collaboration tools; keeping information confidential and ensuring adequate protection of confidential information, and a host of frequently asked questions.

According to Akinnukawe, remote work provides MTN a strong business case worth exploring. The advantages include creating a better work-life balance as workers have flexible schedules; workers can start and end their day as they choose, as long as their work is complete and meets required expectations. Remote work promotes increased productivity and performance as there are fewer interruptions and less commute required – eliminating to a large extent the corresponding stress from this – offering the opportunity to channel the time gained to other productive uses.

The health of workers is also improved in a variety of ways: there is more time to engage in exercise and physical activities, get extra sleep, and the opportunity to eat healthier resulting in better overall wellbeing. An added benefit is employees can focus and spend more time on family bonding as most family members are at home for extended periods of time. MTN says it is definitely looking at remote work as a long-term option to consider beyond COVID-19.

Most companies are being held back from adopting remote-first work or a hybrid due to low trust and poor information on how to effectively lead remote teams, noted Eseurhobo.

Many companies worry about whether their workers are actually working at the time they are supposed to be doing so. But Eserurhobo argues that being busy is not the same thing as being productive. Companies should rather allow the talents to enjoy freedom and flexibility as long as the outcome is guaranteed.

A second challenge is inadequate infrastructure. Poor internet at home, no good mobile device or laptops to work with, access to software, and unstable electricity are some of the infrastructural problems.

“A lot of companies don’t value the investment in providing the right infrastructure for talents to get work done, forgetting that even much cost can be incurred in yearly commutes and all other expenses that comeswith being in an office. Remote work would rather save these companies time and resources so this shouldn’t be considered a challenge,” Eseurhobo said.