How COVID-19 and 2020 Proved Remote Work Works: Even for Refugees?

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In December 2017, I published an article on the World Economic Forum titled “How remote work could help refugees”. At that time, remote work was niche, with many companies not believing that it could be possible for their employees, and certainly not for refugees.

Then came COVID-19, causing disruption to the world’s economies and societies, and changing the way that we view work. It has tested companies’ ability to quickly adapt and reconceptualise the way they work. As many have been forced to work from home, the potential for work to be done remotely, via technology has become evident to companies who had never considered this an option.

While there had been a core network of companies that have been fully or partially remote before COVID-19, now, many more companies realise the potential of remote work. Their employees can work anywhere; from home, from a café, or even from a refugee camp!

The initial reluctance for companies to hire remotely has now dissipated. With many large US companies like Twitter and Facebook announcing that their employees can now work from home, permanently, this may create a movement and encourage many others to follow. This has presented an opportunity for refugees.

It is recognised that there is an urgent need for a scalable, sustainable, and replicable model for job creation for refugees, and technology has the potential to provide this. Yet, this potential has not been fully realised.

The urgent need for employment, and thus access to dignified livelihoods for refugees is apparent. As obstacles to employment in local labour markets are evident, remote work for refugees provides an option that could have a significant impact on the lives of refugees and other vulnerable populations.

Remote employment for refugees could be a formalised adaptation of existing systems and platforms, taking into consideration refugees’ specific needs and circumstances. As remote work can be project-based and is location-independent, this accommodates for refugees’ further displacement, repatriation or resettlement. Work could initially begin with paid internships so that companies become familiar with this new workforce whilst refugees expand their knowledge of the space. Payment can be made via a secure online system that accommodates for refugees’ lack of financial formality, using a solution that utilises mobile applications and digital wallets, while adhering to international cybersecurity protocols. In line with the practices followed by many distributed companies, salaries would be based on the local cost of living and in line with experience, skill-level, and role in the company. Refugees would be encouraged to digitally record projects that would be validated by employers so they can build their profile and credibility, and thereby creating a virtual curriculum vitae. This would ensure future potential employers that refugees that they seek to hire have the required skills.

There would also be an established, verified, and trustworthy education ecosystem that links with the skills required by the private sector, both technical and soft. Targeted education that links to employment has been the subject of many development interventions. Yet, they have not had a significant impact on helping refugees access the labour market. This is one place that private sector partnerships could be hugely beneficial. Cooperation between the private sector and education programmes where potential employers provide specific details of their workplace requirements and individuals are trained according to these specifications, with the eventual guarantee of employment, initially as interns and then more permanently.

Education interventions also need to equip refugees with the ability to access future learning independently in order to adapt to the changing needs of the economy. Most importantly, refugees need to learn how to be remote workers. This means teaching skills such as autonomy, time management, and work etiquette, as well as how to use technological tools that support working remotely. Refugees would need to understand how to work within a global workforce and maneuver the different work cultures they would encounter while working remotely. Note that the majority of global workers also require these skills to be prepared for the new way of working.

As a provider of employment, private sector commitment would be crucial. Engagement would be carefully negotiated, as for many companies, hiring refugees may be perceived as part of their corporate social responsibility activities. Yet, this may not be a strong incentive to hire refugees. Instead, a business case for hiring refugee remote workers would be made, as opposed to corporate responsibility from the perspective of the refugee crisis, as skill set, and deliverables are what matter.

Covid-19 has broken one perception; that employees need physical presence to work. Remote work allows for the democratisation of work; companies are able to achieve true diversity in their workforce, hiring much-needed talent from outside their national borders that is not available locally. Remote work provides an opportunity to bring jobs to refugees. It has the potential to change the narrative of employment for the displaced.

Written by

Co-Founder and Executive Director of Na’amal, facilitating remote work for refugees. Research Associate, Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge

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