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Why remote working will prove to be difficult in Africa

COVID-19 has forced the concepts of “working from home” or “remote working” into the forefront of the way we work. In Africa, a small minority of jobs are desk jobs that can easily be transitioned into remote working. We currently see employers focusing on keeping employees engaged and how to measure performance and productivity.

With companies being forced to explore the work-from-home option, how do they ensure that operations keep moving?  What are the challenges managers and CEOs need to anticipate and what solutions do they have?

Enterprises are facing several challenges as they are implementing remote working:

  1. Access to Internet: The cost of Internet is quite high in Africa ranging between USD 50 to USD 150 a month.  According to the World Bank the average GDP per capita in sub Saharan Africa is less than USD 150 a month.  The cost of Internet is about 30 percent of an average employee’s salary in most cases.  Asking employees to cover their own cost of Internet is out of question unless they are generating at least 10 times the cost of the Internet.  From a company perspective giving Internet access to all employees is an unsustainable cost. According to the Internet World Stat, less than 40 percent of the African population has access to the Internet, compared to the world average which is 60 percent.
  2. Access to technology tools: One important feature about Internet access in Africa is that it is mostly accessed via smartphones.  Very few African households have desktops or laptops. While smartphones can be used to watch videos, read emails or small documents, they are extremely difficult to use for word processing or reading a large document. As companies are thinking about remote working, they need to consider ease of Internet access as well as availability of laptops or desktops.
  3. Power or Internet Outage: Power and Internet outages are a common occurrence in Africa.  Unfortunately, they can occur anytime when one is about to join a zoom conference call or send an email and can last for hours if not days! This definitely creates a hindrance to meeting deadlines, attend important meetings and maintain a high productivity.
  4.  Lack of a conducive working environment: Like everywhere else, working from home means sharing the space with family members who are potentially also working from home and children who are now forced to learn from home. In Africa the home spaces are more often than not shared with core and extended family.  This means most employees have a less than ideal environment to work from without the freedom to schedule work activities and a quiet space for conference calls.

How to address challenges faced by remote working during COVID-19

How do we address these challenges? A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Therefore, it is important for governments, the employers and the employees to evaluate what is possible and implement quick interventions.

The Government:

  1. Tax break or relief: African governments should consider offering incentives such as tax breaks to companies who offer Internet connectivity as well as computers to their employees. These are critical tools of trade that are necessary for an employee’s ability to work from home and learn.
  2. Lower internet costs and power tariff: The cost of Internet and power should be substantially reduced to support work from home programs, with specialized packages offered for those employers who are implementing work from home policies.
  3. Provide uninterrupted power and Internet access: Governments should do their best to ensure less power outages and give a priority to address the root causes of outages.

In the COVID-19 crisis, as we transition to working from home, the issues stated above need to be treated as a priority from the government, so that the impact to productivity and economic performance is addressed.

The Employers:

Employers who wish to establish a work-from-home policy need to consider the following:

  1. Tools of the trade: Employers should not assume that employees have Internet, home office or personal laptops that they can use to work and be ready to provide the necessary tools for employees to do their job from home and communicate with other employees or clients. It is important to have a discussion with an employee on what is feasible in the transition.
  2. Telecommuting Allowances: Employers should not assume that the employees will use their personal phone airtime or data for office work. Employers should provide communication allowances, where required, in order for each employee to effectively communicate with other employees or clients. 
  3. Flexible working hours: Employers should provide flexible working hours for employees working from home.  Some may only be able to work late at night, as they might have to wait for their turn to use the space or supervise their kids who are now learning at home.  The best approach would be to have a discussion with the employee to find out what is feasible.  
  4. Work-from-home guidelines and employee support: Enterprises have the possibility to establish remote workforce management tools to monitor work performance and address bottlenecks that might hinder output.  It is critical for Enterprise HR to have a candid discussion about challenges faced by employees as they work from home and find solutions.

The Employee

Employees also have a role to play to remain relevant to their organization during “Stay Home” response to COVID-19:

  1. Time Management: Working from home is not always easy.  Employees must sharpen their time management skills and balance work, children, shared resources, shopping time (with curfews in place). Employees should identify their most effective time to work and communicate it to their employer.
  2. Power and Internet data saving: Since power outage is expected, employees must make sure they have enough power on their laptop and telephone to ensure they will be available in case there is a power outage. They should also anticipate future potential outages by downloading work related videos and documents for viewing offline. In addition, since data is expensive, employees should monitor their usage and use data assigned to work, for work purposes only. 
  3. Open Communication: Communication is key while working from home. Employees must be honest when discussing challenges about working from home.  Timely informing their employer about any delays in producing output is crucial. Regular check-ins are also important to ensure the employer and employee are on the same page. 

Government, employers and employees need to work together to craft solutions so that we can come out of this crisis stronger. Let’s work collaboratively to mitigate the economic and social impact that this crisis will have on the emerging markets in Africa.

Ed.’s Note: Yusuf Reja is the founder and CEO of Africa Jobs Network, an interactive talent search platform focused on employer branding, candidate engagement and improving the recruitment experience. Africa Jobs Network was founded in Mauritius having been backed by a private equity company known as Zoscales. Yusuf is also the founder of Ethiojobs.net, Dereja.com (Ethiopia) and Kipawa (Kenya), which are all part of the Africa Jobs Network. Yusuf has an unparalleled knowledge of the African job market and the challenges facing employers and job seekers in Africa. He is well versed in business knowledge in Africa and is rightly considered one of the successful entrepreneurs in Africa. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Yusuf Reja