The COVID-19 pandemic took many industries in Africa by surprise, but for players like MTN, it was like walking into an already laid plan.
Prior to the pandemic, the telecom operator in West Africa was contemplating a pilot of a telecommuting policy in 2019 that would ensure that the majority of its employees work from home while some would juggle between home and office. The policy was intended to meet up with the new realities of the workplace in which most millennial talents prefer flexible working conditions that enable them to take advantage of other opportunities.
Companies have been finding it difficult to retain top talents because of high competition and the tendency of the millennial demography, which dominates the labour market, to hop from one to another, does not help the situation. MTN was therefore thinking ahead with its plans to introduce a hybrid long-term remote work strategy. The hybrid system also requires employees to work from a number of sites close to their homes.
COVID-19 pandemic happened and the rest of the world faced a lockdown as part of measures to contain the spread of the virus. While MTN’s strategy has not changed much, Esther Akinnukawe, chief human resources officer, tells BusinessDay that the approach is to have about 80 percent of employees working remotely while those designated as essential staff – whose roles must be done on location, are required to be at the office.
But this approach means the company had to intentionally foster collaboration between those working from home and the workers on site.
“In addition, we continue to deploy leadership engagement road-shows, mentoring, team building activities, and frequent performance check-ins to keep employees informed, energised, and inspired to deliver outstanding results,” Akinnukawe says.
A new study by the Danne Institute for Research found that employees say they are more productive working from home (WFH). The study notes that huge savings in commute time (4 to 6 hours daily) means they have more time to sleep, exercise, and eat well. The workers also felt rested and creative and could work more productively from home.
There were distractions, however, like during the lockdown when parents and their children had to stay home. Supervising the children, for example to school online meant the parent had less time to commit to work. But the Danne Institute notes that since school resumed and the children have to leave home and attend classes, there are fewer distractions working from home.
MTN also experienced some of these distractions that affected “extreme productivity” as Akinnukawe puts it. Although the remote work strategy had been pre-planned ahead of the lockdown, the novelty of a large-scale work from home regime meant that employees were unable to create a healthy balance between work and life. On the other extreme was occasionally not being able to meet work demands due to various distractions at home, especially children’s online schooling.
Another challenge the telco experienced was the psychological impact social isolation would have on the lifestyle of employees, which was intensified by the lockdown declaration.
“With WFH, it became more difficult to enforce breaks and lunch hours. To address these challenges, we instituted initiatives such as frequent Line Manager check-ins, fitness sessions, virtual team building events, leadership engagements, and several other wellness interventions and employee assistance programmes, which helped employees make the curve into the new work model,” Akinnukawe says.
Franca Ovadje, founder of Danne Institute, tells BusinessDay that most times these challenges are exacerbated by companies who do not intentionally make available adequate working tools for their employees working from home, setting them up to fail from the beginning.
Akinnukawe notes that this was not the case with MTN. At the onset of the WFH policy, the telco provided all employees with specialised computers fitted with effective cameras and audio equipment to support video conferencing all through.
It scaled up remote access and cloud technology tools to ensure easy access to all applications, documents, and information required to perform daily tasks as though they were in the office. The workers also had access to virtual communication and collaboration tools including video conferencing.
In addition to virtual work tools, MTN also developed electronic WFH playbooks that provided guidelines for employee and line manager interactions. Information such as email etiquette, respect for work boundaries, running effective meetings, and respectful interactions were documented in the playbooks.
To cushion the effects of the new work model, MTN also increased the value of data allocated to employees and have continued to offer free individual and group counselling/therapy services (employee assistance programmes – EAP) to support employee well-being and mental health. Employees were also encouraged to set up their home office by allowing pick up of their ergonomic chairs from the office for use at home for as long as WFH subsists.
Furthermore, in the thick of the pandemic, COVID-19 relief vouchers were given to employees at certain levels to procure Personal Protective Equipment.
Armed with the right technological support and a conducive virtual atmosphere, employees were positioned to stay safe at home while delivering outstanding results in line with organisational goals.
The company’s performance has been sustained by the ability to support the needs of customers through the deployment of high-quality data and digital services, Akinnukawe notes. MTN’s audited financial results for 2020 showed that profit after tax grew by 0.9 percent.
“In the coming months, we have plans to review our remote-work approach in line with emerging realities and our business model, with a view to achieving an optimal hybrid work strategy that will help us deliver the benefits of modern connected life to our customers,” Akinnukawe says.
She adds that companies will enjoy an increased potential to attract diverse and scarce talent pools towards meeting their workforce and diversity goals, especially with the implementation of anywhere (borderless) work. Cloud-based HR technologies will receive massive adoption as companies aim to provide a seamless experience for all their remote working employees, keeping them engaged, connected, and productive.