ColumnsNigeriaOpinionWorking from Home and the lessons of the Pandemic

“The idea of lock down and work from home conceivably has come to stay”, ―Ebuka Onyekwelu

Around this time last year, so many government and private organisations have fully adopted, partially or considering the idea of allowing some or most of their workforce, to work from home.  A good number of organisations in Europe and America, do not have the luxury of a variety of options even till now, owing to the severity of the COVID pandemic. But in Africa, the reality is different. In the first instance, most African countries are faced with the same or similar measure of infrastructure deficit, but for some reasons that are still largely unclear, the COVID-19 pandemic has not been as catastrophic for Africa, as observers predicted in the early days of the disease.

Several African countries like the rest of the world experimented with lockdown and the idea of working from home, perhaps, that was the only option available then, even though the enabling structures and competence for such unplanned transition in work mode posed remarkable challenges and still do. Yet, that was and remains the credible alternative both then, and conceivably now that the fear of the pandemic has practically disappeared in most African, nay, Nigerian settings, and then, even in the future. The idea of lockdown and work from home conceivably has come to stay.

How can a cleaner or a messenger work from home?

When we consider the experiment with working from home, which was embarked upon by government and private organisations in Nigeria, the following can be observed: in many states of Nigeria, the government merely proclaimed that certain level of workers, usually junior members of staff of the organization, should proceed to work from home. They knew those workers cannot work from home for three reasons; the nature of their work cannot permit them to work from home. For instance, how can a cleaner or a messenger work from home? Then, secondly, there is the challenge of having the basic information and Communication technology know-how that makes the whole essence of working from home. The third reason is that not everyone who is a worker either for the government or the private sector can afford to work from home because they will require a stable power supply and reliable internet.

Generally, however, while working from home is good and efficient, depending on your living conditions, nature of work, and familiarity with information and communication technology, working from the office remains the only option left for certain categories of workers, given the nature and condition of their work. More profound is the simple reality that most offices, especially public offices in Nigeria, are not designed to help workers put in their best. In fact, many of these offices are only designed to have workers who are paid to do nothing. The majority of the workforce in civil service is not engaged with any form of productivity. So those who go to the office are not exactly productive. When juxtaposed against working from home, one can hardly, in many instances make sense out of it. This is to say that for those who, for obvious reasons, cannot work from home, but were asked to work from home, they were simply asked to proceed on leave.

For those with the competence and know-how who are capable of working from home, particularly in private organisations, are faced with systemic challenges. The challenge of stable power supply, affordability of good internet, and the ceaseless distractions, in the comfort of their homes. It is, therefore, safe to deduce that beyond the rhetoric of working from home pronouncements by the Nigerian government at different levels, both now and in the future, whether working from home or from office, there are enormous amounts of challenges that the experiment has brought to fore and it is now left for policymakers to dutifully utilize in shaping the future of work in public and private sectors in Nigeria.

Employers must be creative with their demands on the time of their employees.

The COVID triggered experiments with working from home calls for reforms in the civil service. Just as it calls for adjustments upon our general conception of work, in Nigeria. A working-class doesn’t have to be someone who wakes up every morning, going to an office and going back home in the evening. Working from home should now be integrated as a viable option in our work schedule, such that those who can work from home and should work from home. Then, workers don’t have to be coming to the office every day of the week. In fact, both private employees and civil servants can as well work part-time, while they use the other time to engage in other profitable ventures. Employers should also be creative with their demands on the time of their employees. This will put the endless agitation for salary increment, among others, by workers, in check.

One thing Nigeria must learn from the COVID-19 enhanced lock-down and work from the home experiment is that the generally applicable traditional idea of work has been challenged and no longer relevant in the future of work. Hence, the now normalization of the pre-COVID-19 work model, in which both private and public sectors in Nigeria are fully back to the previous order, is grossly incompatible with the reality of the post-COVID-19 work schedule. Even worse, it is likely going to leave the country and the Nigerian workers largely unprepared for the future, and upcoming disruptions.

♦ Ebuka Onyekwelu, strategic governance exponent,  is a columnist with the WAP

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