Why Africa can’t fully jump on the remote bandwagon just yet

Stella Ngugi
May 14, 2020 · 9 min read

With cities on total lockdown all over the world because of CoronaVirus, it’s no surprise that after months of working from home to reduce the rate of infections, companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook & just this week Twitter have fully adopted work from home models for all their staff. It’s also no lie that the pandemic has catapulted most companies to this new shift in work processes but it has come with its challenges. We’ve all seen the funny Zoom mishaps all over the internet as workers adjust to the new normal until a vaccine is found or curfews lifted. However, remote work isn’t a new phenomenon for the companies who’ve been gearing up for the future of work. Like we mentioned before, predicting floods doesn’t count, building arks does. But before you turn to this new talk of town permanently like Twitter let’s look at some pros & cons of remote work, why the office still wins and why this particular trend doesn’t do much for the majority of Africa’s workforce.

Flexible work schedules provide great benefits to employees especially for millennials & Gen Z who value their work-life balance as the Buffer 2019 report observed.

“Having a flexible schedule allows employees to juggle between work, hobbies, and time with friends, resulting in a positive work-life balance and also reducing workplace stress,” Szapar says.

While most people thought of remote work as an opportunity to sip cocktails and binge-watch their favorite movies, statistics show that while this may be the reality for some, remote work has brought more stress to most workers who struggle with bosses emailing at 3 am in the night or switching off & taking breaks. It is definitely harder for many without the office set up to unplug and maintain a productive 8–5 output as they would pre-COVID.

“We need to acknowledge that isolation, anxiety, and depression are significant problems when working remotely, and we must figure out ways and systems to resolve these complex problems.”

Remote workers struggle with unplugging

The physical space also provides numerous psychosocial benefits to the employee as noted here, and here.

The ritual of going to the office — yes, even that commute we think we hate — can create comforting predictability and rhythm. The cognitive dissonance many of us experience when working from home — the conflicting signals of having to be professional in an environment in which we’re usually relaxing — can be exhausting.

There’s also a bigger social protection agenda to be considered as we explore what these different types of labor mean. As Anthropologist Mary Gray explains here, these types of workers have needs such as;

  • Benefits, base pay, a record of employment
  • No way to collectively represent their interests
  • Lack of shared professional identity that can build solidarity as it has been built in traditional labor movements.

Apart from these issues, the following also make it harder for staff to transition to remote successfully here in Africa, especially now;

  • Companies don’t pay additional costs associated with WFH.- Just like Buffer noted, remote work comes with additional costs to the worker that most employers don’t support. If you’re lucky you get to work for a good employer like Twitter who gives employees increased allowances to buy home office supplies including desks and desk chairs. Going full remote increases what an employee would normally spend on electricity, water, food, and especially the internet. With the current depressing state of nations as they grapple to find a cure to this virus, additional bills don’t really make it easier for your staff to be productive as they would on a normal day. This brings us to the next important factor;
  • Most HR & leadership teams have not upskilled themselves- Despite the crisis, there are companies who have built their operations & cultures in a way that makes it easy to adapt to new changes fast. Apart from those who had already heeded the clarion call early & had started making steady changes to a 21st-century workplace, there’s a large category of leaders who think of challenges as unnecessary & not an opportunity to become better. Such are the ones who are forcing staff to calculate their WFH time as leave time or even in one case a boss who was forcing their staff to turn on their webcams so he could see ‘if they are working’. The biggest impediment to building future-ready companies is always leadership & hence the saying ‘The fish rots from the head’. The opposite of this is also seen by leaders who’ve gone above & beyond for their staff to facilitate these harsh changes to how we work & live. From counseling sessions to basic things like providing training tutorials for new tech tools, how you switch can go a long way in making it easier for everyone to succeed. But for us to lead companies to the promised land, it’s important to let go of outdated mindsets & people practices.
  • This isn’t normal remote- Do not take your remote working lessons during this COVID period, including being discouraged to make the shift or judging your staff too harshly. A lot of things aren’t normal now. Schools are closed worldwide leaving a lot of parents to homeschool & care for their kids full-time. People’s physical freedoms are very limited by Governments so people cant go to usual hangouts like malls, coffee shops, restaurants, or coworking spaces where they get to replenish their energy & interact with others. Cash is also low, staff & their loved ones have suffered or know those who’ve succumbed to the disease putting a strain on their mental health and there’s a fear of looming job losses across states as company after another let go of staff including here in Kenya where so far over 1.2M have been sacked. It’s no wonder divorce cases and domestic violence numbers have risen in the past few months like in Italy.

Take this observation on Twitter from Laszlo Bock former SVP of People at Google: “No CEO should be surprised that the early productivity gains companies witnessed as remote work took hold have peaked & leveled off because workers left offices in March armed with laptops and a sense of doom...fear-driven productivity is not sustainable.” https://t.co/DcAbGwPcEA

To which Jason Fried Founder of Basecamp which has been operating remote teams globally for years added, “The problem isn’t remote work, the problem is companies trying to port office work to remote work. Remote work is a different way of working, not the same way just across distance. Of course a dozen zooms a day is going to suck! That’s the wrong way to work remotely.”

The best companies making the transition smoothly are those like Twitter who already had distributed teams globally & had their company decentralized. Understand that remote work isn’t simply about doing at home what we were doing in the office. It’s about doing work in a completely different way. And this brings us to the last important observation of Africa’s labor force composition.

  • Informal work accounts for most jobs in Africa- Most of the future work trends aren’t directly applicable to Africa for many reasons. It’s also noteworthy that most of these reports hardly conduct any research in the African continent or emerging economies. So what do the numbers really say and is the world’s future of work our future?;

According to MercyCorps report on the Gig economy in Kenya

15–34 year-olds account for 84% of the unemployed in Kenya.

The informal sector accounts for 83.6 per cent of the working population, employing 14.9 million workers.

The total size of the online Kenyan gig economy, as at 2019 is $109 million and employing a total of 36,573 gig workers.

According to the Nation report;

78,400 new jobs were created in the formal sector, just 9% of overall new employment

1 in 10 jobs created was in the formal sector

5 in 6 wage-earning employees work in the informal sector

According to Mo Ibrahim Foundation;

  1. Almost 60% of Africa’s population in 2019 is under the age of 25, making Africa the world’s youngest continent.
  2. Only 1.1% of 15–24-year-olds in sub-Saharan Africa participated in a vocational education program in 2017.

According to ILO, across the African continent, informal work is the main source of employment, accounting for 85.8 percent.

Photo by Anaya Katlego on Unsplash

What does this mean?

The majority of African leaders are struggling to maintain lockdown amid civic unrests in their countries because of the huge unemployment numbers that already existed & the fact that the majority of workers rely on daily wage-earning jobs that aren't online as witnessed in countries like South Africa. Most work that powers Africa’s economies isn’t online gig friendly as described in these terms by Mercy Corps;

(i) Tech-intensive work, which requires high digital skills and is created through the production and use of technology e.g. web designers;

(ii) Tech-dependent work which requires intermediate digital skills and uses digital technology to varying degrees e.g. transcribers, and

(iii) Tech-enabled work requires basic digital skills and mostly uses technology as a tool to connect demand and supply e.g. taxi-hailing drivers.

The majority of workers here depend on daily or weekly wages from industries in agriculture & manufacturing or construction. Currently, a lot of employers have halted employees' salaries whose work doesn’t fit any of the 3 above categories eg the security personnel, admin staff, or any other person whose work depends on them being physically present in their workspaces. As noted in the first report too, many challenges still exist that have to be addressed to enable us fully explore job opportunities online or tech-enabled such as;

Internet connectivity, legislations & work policies to provide guidance & protect remote workers or gig, diversity initiatives to reduce occupational segregation among regions & gender, steady & affordable supply of energy/power, increased awareness initiatives & digital skills building for youth to help them become competitive in the global talent marketplace & get access to opportunities beyond their geographies & conducive business support from Governments to help more business success & employ more people.

Lastly, our leaders have to think strategically about the employment issue overall. There’s room for lots of opportunities in Africa even with a large population of workers in the informal sector. We have no choice since Africa is going to have the largest workforce in the entire world in a couple of years with an average age of 19. A great example of this is China & how they use industrialization to employ millions in factories while becoming a world superpower by providing affordable & cheap labor for companies like Apple & Samsung. Entrepreneurship, manufacturing & agriculture are our most plausible way of providing jobs to the masses. Another region known widely for having Talent as a Service is India. There is an abundance of skills that we can provide companies within & out of Africa from customer service support to goods production. If we worked more towards regional economic alliances such as EAC or COMESA and ease mobility restrictions via immigration, we can build enough demand & supply internally for our products & services including talent, hence increasing employment levels & disposable income. Our people are an asset. But only if our leaders turn them into one. We have many challenges that make Africa appear unattractive economically to many. But with innovation and looking within to identify our SWOT, we can build successful economies that provide millions with jobs & incomes.

Our road to remote work & the gig economy may not be straight. But it’s not impossible either. With more training & a change of legislation and norms to protect all the different workers categories, we can turn this into an opportunity to compete globally for work online & offline, optimise our workforce and build sustainable economies. It’s not about looking at what we lack, but rather what we do have. And that’s people! What’s left is to build a labor system that captures that i.e Availability & Abundance for our economic & social success.

And if you’re a company, its wise not to make permanent decisions based on temporary situations. Do not go with the wind without looking at your strategic plans & engaging your leaders & staff. The corporate office isn’t going away any time soon as Josie Cox writes here in Forbes and as many have realised now, remote has its good & bad. However, hopefully, most staff hope that in the world post corona, many leaders will now be more open to the idea of flexible work schedules at least. Make the responsible choice.

For more on how to prepare for the future of work, read next https://medium.com/jobonics/what-corona-virus-has-taught-hrps-so-far-about-the-future-of-work-717d16239d75 or https://www.ted.com/talks/mary_l_gray_covid_19_unraveled_the_workforce_here_s_how_to_fix_it

For more on Africa’s workforce composition, read https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/10/kenya-labor-coronavirus-pandemic-informal-workers-economic-crisis/

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Stella Ngugi

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HR Generalist| Founder @JobonicsHR | Where HR, Tech& Entrepreneurship meet| Eat. Pray. Code. Blog. Hire | 🇰🇪 IVisit stellangugi.com for more info.

Jobonics

Jobonics is a recruiting platform for startups & growing companies to attract, find & hire quality fulltime & part-time talent easily. Jobonics also allows jobseekers to search & apply for jobs, discover great companies & submit employer reviews.