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InfoQ Homepage Articles Challenges of Working Remotely in Africa

Challenges of Working Remotely in Africa

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Key Takeaways

  •  The existing cultures in Africa impact the adoption of working remotely. We need to raise awareness and foster culture change, and learn how to learn, to become more lean and agile in Africa.
  • The current global pandemic has forced business organizations in Africa to gravitate toward remote working. 
  • Leveraging the advantages of remote work and working from home can’t be achieved through frameworks, soft skills, or focusing on outcomes alone. You need all of them.
  • Technology plays a key role in remote work, remote teams, working from home, and remote agile through the use of collaboration and communication tools.
  • Leadership can make or break remote work, remote teams, and working from home.

Agile is a mindset based on a set of principles that were devised as a way for teams to focus on collaboration, self-organization, as well as cross-functionality. Although this approach was first developed to address issues that software development teams faced, it became more popular and has been adopted and applied to other activities.

Remote work can present new complexities such as communication gaps, time zone challenges, and even lack of transparency. Nonetheless, a well-managed remote team can readily overcome all these issues while discovering many benefits at the same time.

Agile teams new to remote work need to rethink how to implement their practices without the advantage of face-to-face or in-person communication.

This article focuses on the current situation in Africa citing specific challenges and solutions drawn from real companies in Nigeria. The pandemic has taught us one important lesson: we need to be prepared to adopt and adapt to new ways of working. The pandemic, which could serve as a metaphor for the uncertainty that characterizes our environment, makes working with cross-functional, self-organized teams that can incorporate remote working practices with the agile mindset, more valuable than ever.

The unique challenges of working remotely in Africa

Remote work presents some complexities for companies in Africa. The challenges that come with working remotely are power problems, internet connectivity, distractions due to limited space, financial difficulties, and societal problems.

Power or electricity isn’t constant for some countries. Many African nations where electricity supply is spotty or just not available will limit work hours and eventually affect productivity. This means for several hours in a day, week, or month, citizens may not have direct electricity from the government. We’re used to using alternatives like generators, inverters, power banks, and solar-powered devices. While government-provided electricity isn’t free, it is generally cheaper than the alternatives. The main challenge is ensuring our team members have constant electricity throughout their shift because they will most likely experience power failure at some point.

In large parts of Africa, we are witnessing a lack of progress in network coverage, extending access, and low bandwidth. Affordability is also declining in many nations.

Contact center platforms and tools are cloud-based nowadays. Even if you’re using an on-premise solution, your team requires good internet connectivity to login from home. Companies spend a big chunk of money to ensure the best internet connectivity in the office so that all processes and platforms run smoothly. While everyone purchases internet data for personal use, that same level of quality for internet connectivity that is needed at the office is now required at home.

This is a huge and costly challenge! How do you ensure the best internet connectivity for your team members? How do you mitigate the effect of poor weather, poor location, or even poor network provider performance on your team?

Imagine this scenario: you’re at home ready to begin work. Your work corner is set up with your tools, you have a bottle of water on your desk, and your internet is showing full connectivity. You take your first two calls, you’re content and focused on having a great day. Then in the middle of your next call, your toddler runs into the room crying because his/her sibling won’t share the toy. Even with the best noise-canceling headset, you’re distracted trying to handle the two situations. You quickly end the call and log out to settle the kids. This should take a few minutes but by the time you get to the living room, you see a huge mess that takes another few minutes to clean up. One thing leads to another and you see you’ve been logged out for 45 minutes.

While some people are fortunate enough to have a study room or home office, the majority of the workers will have to make temporary arrangements in the dining or living room, which may cause unavoidable distractions by kids or other cohabiters.

Pay cuts are also a major challenge, which may demotivate workers as prices of commodities are rising. Many people may not be fortunate enough to receive help from the government and organizations may not be able to give support at difficult times.

Another issue is that many Africans worry about how people who work from home are viewed. If people see you leave home early and come back late, especially if you look dressed for work, then you’re perceived to be hardworking.

The reality remains that many businesses still require the physical presence of staff.

A mix of working from home and in the office

As working remotely comes with many challenges, a flexible mix of working from home and in the office can mean huge benefits for employees and the company. Here are some solutions and examples that work and are possible for African companies and businesses.

The first example is a technology company where I consulted as an enterprise agile coach during the height of the Covid-19 Pandemic. I was able to collaborate with leadership to develop an empirical and practical approach that allowed everyone to track all the remote activities and be able to learn from them. The first phase was set up for all employees to work from home. Then, about 3 months later, we modified it and came up with a staggered approach where employees were scheduled to come to work at alternate times during the workweek.

The benefit to the employees who could work in the office at alternate times:

  • It allowed them to see that the organization cared enough for their well being.
  • It enabled them to continue to take their health seriously and adhere to Covid-19 rules.
  • It reduced distractions from home.
  • It gave them the satisfaction of a work-life balance.
  • It improved their collaboration and communication with peers.
  • It improved their work performance.
  • It improved their mental state and well being.

The benefits to the organization for the mix of working from home and in the office:

  • The ability to show true leadership based on the high priority it places on employees well being.
  • An increase in deliverables for projects.
  • Reduced operational costs.
  • The ability to manage conflicting priorities.
  • An improved turnaround time for deliverables.
  • Noticeable improvements in collaboration between teams.
  • Improved response times. 
  • An increase in revenue as an ultimate goal.

Fully working from home

The second example is a large multinational telecommunication company where I consulted as an agile coach. The approach was to have all employees fully work from home during the Covid-19 pandemic and this had positive and negative impacts on the employees and the organization.

A decision was made by senior leadership to equip all employees with the ability to work from home for the long haul by providing them all with access to collaborative and communication tools as well as daily allowances for data usage. This led to several discussions with many teams on how to effectively and efficiently work as high-performance teams even during this change. As this is currently ongoing, we are recording positive and negative impacts so far since the work from home approach naturally has its advantages and disadvantages.

The discoveries so far have been as follows:

  • Facilitating a culture to help teams better communicate, coordinate, and collaborate remotely daily using their online tools.
  • Improving response times to emails and daily tasks requests/updates.
  • The ability to sync productive work time with remote teams from various geographical regions. 
  • Documenting all the learning, what worked and what did not. This has led to more focus on these insights by everyone in the organization that can be applied to daily work for overall improvements.

What the telecommunications company immediately did to enable remote working was to ensure that each employee automatically received a daily allowance of data on their phone for each day of the week. This eliminated excuses such as not having data network access, or connectivity issues to complete their daily task. This approach proved to be very effective and efficient in enabling focused attention for on-time delivery across the board

Remote work vs. work from office

“Remote work” and “work from the office” are not mutually exclusive. The ability to work remotely will mean working from any location to complete a work task. While working from the office means being at a specified location daily to complete a work task. I fully recommend remote work as an approach to be strategically incorporated in any organization with multiple locations. This could facilitate the effectiveness and efficiency of the work being delivered. It doesn’t have to mean working from “home.” 

From my examples during the Covid-19 pandemic, there was more commitment, collaboration, and a faster response which led to high productivity for the employers.

The benefits of working remotely for employees are as follows:

  • Advantages of flexible working hours—you can start and stop work at your convenience. It is useful if your productive hours do not align with the regular 9 am–5 pm that most people are required to be present at offices because you juggle your remote job with other responsibilities. 
  • You might learn valuable skills such as time management, prioritization, effective teamwork, and so on.
  • Remote work also makes it possible for you to work from anywhere—it doesn’t have to mean working from home when physical presence is not required for you to do your job—you realize that you can work in places in which you are most comfortable and inspired if you have access to the internet.
  • No dress code for remote work. You can work in whatever you are most comfortable in, and whatever is best suited for your location while working. This also saves you money, as transportation fees to and from work would be eliminated.

For companies, I have seen these benefits:

  • Increased productivity, which is essential to the growth of an organization. And productive employees mean greater efficiency and more profit. Employees can be more productive when working remotely as it’s in their interest to get the job done effectively and not waste time.
  • Increase in the talent pool: You can hire people from all over the world, so hiring talented new employees is much easier. There is an unlimited talent pool to choose from, and easier talent attraction. This provides a greater opportunity to find staff with specialized skills, therefore saving on training.
  • Loyalty: Flexible working builds loyalty when the organization provides all the support needed to work remotely and doesn’t just mandate it. 
  • Lower costs: If your employees work remotely, you might not even need the office. You can save money on office space rent, office furniture, equipment, supplies, and utilities (water, electricity, Wi-Fi).
  • Time savings: Employees will use their time more productively if they work remotely as well as saving time spent traveling and reduces office gossip time, lateness, and time wasted in the coffee shop.

Switching to remote working

Technology has been key to remote working, with software like Slack, Teams, Skype, and Zoom facilitating virtual meetings, enabling staff to collaborate remotely, and allowing management to send important messages with the click of a button. These tools will still enable teams to fulfill the agile principle of face-to-face communication as an advantage for effective and efficient delivery. 

Ultimately, to enable remote teams to function and deliver properly, we should remind them of the importance of the basic agile-quality attributes of transparency, accountability, and collaboration. The foundation of delivery requires teams to practice these three quality attributes.

The creation of self-organizing teams is a prime goal in agile principles. “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams,” as stated by the Agile manifesto. 

Self-organized and distributed teams need:

  • Communication: Communication methods such as video conferencing enable the team to coordinate and collaborate much more effectively compared to regular text messages as observed during the project. It is important to build trust and form relationships in any team to work effectively together and share information even though it is harder to build trust online as opposed to face-to-face.

  • Coordination: A distributed team needs to coordinate their projects because the work is carried out simultaneously by multiple individuals and then integrated into one product. When team members interact with each other, they gain knowledge about the team and the task which implicitly helps them coordinate. Tools and systems can aid in coordinating e.g., KANBAN, Trello. The organization must be able to invest in more than one tool to accomplish several tasks.

Leveraging remote working practices

We can support teams to incorporate and leverage remote working practices in the following ways:

  • Be flexible: Trust your team and give them the freedom and flexibility to get work done on the schedule that helps them be the most productive. That’s good for your team in the long run anyway.
  • Establish clear communication: Successful remote work relies on effective communication.
  • Provide coaching: Supply one-on-one coaching to the team members.
  • Invest in tools: Setting up collaborative working spaces with access to digital media equipment for video and audio conferencing.
  • Manage expectations: Help your team figure out what they should do, and create realistic expectations for their work. By the way, “managing expectations” applies to you as a manager as well.
  • Focus on outcomes, not activity: Instead of focusing on activity or hours worked, focus on the outcomes and measure your team accordingly.
  • Create dedicated spaces for bonding: Managers need to take proactive steps to strengthen the bonds between remote workers and ensure people enjoy the non-work chat and social interaction.

Many banks in Nigeria have digital labs and incubators built all over the country where teams can work at scheduled times. Make sure your team has the technology it needs to get the work done. If you suddenly have a team of remote workers, that means there’s a good chance they need tools like laptops, software, mobile devices, or even a high-speed internet connection.

Managing hurdles to remote work

Ensuring the quality of the interactions and productivity of your team members can be hard in Africa, given the unique challenges. As we have seen, there are specific hurdles to remote work that need to be addressed.

Here is how we manage some of these hurdles:

  • Use smaller work tools: Use the smallest hardware for the role. Instead of giving everyone a laptop, can they use a tablet or even their phone? This ensures that the employee will require less internet data because laptops generally use more data than smaller devices.
  • Give your team members data: This can be done corporately by providing a network SIM card for everyone to use. It’s not a perfect solution—team members in locations that are notoriously poor for that network would suffer. The other option is to give a data allowance for team members to purchase data from the best network provider in their area.
  • Provide your team members power banks: This enables your team members to have a reserved pool of electricity so they can continue working even when the power goes out. This also goes along with using smaller hardware; the smaller the tool the easier it is to provide a suitable power bank.
  • Have the best Contact Center Solution (CCS) or Customer Relationship Solution (CRS) tools: This is critical for team and performance monitoring while working remotely. Your team leads and supervisors can only successfully ensure high-level productivity and efficiency with the right tools.
  • Build lasting structures: Create processes, policies, and platforms that will enable you to continue with a remote working team even when the pandemic is over. The overnight or late-night shifts can continue working remotely after the lockdown periods meeting both the employee and company needs.

Surprise! Productivity Improves

A major incentive in Africa is the reduction in time spent in transit. Many people are used to getting up and heading to work several hours ahead of time due to traffic delays. That extra time saved is a big incentive to them; they log in promptly and there are no excuses for lateness. You’re able to create unique shifts that better suit their lifestyles. These incentives, along with using unique performance metrics, actually help improve agent productivity; team members are even willing to put in extra time when working remotely.

Conclusion

With governments strictly enforcing the stay-at-home policy in some places, and a gradual easing in other places, businesses across the globe have had to rapidly adapt and reposition their workforce to work remotely. Many organizations have developed new and innovative ways to make remote work operate seamlessly and effectively for their organizations while some have had to struggle through it. Most countries and organizations in Africa have to kick-start operating remotely, while others in well-developed countries jumped right into the process.

In these prepared organizations, important structures such as critical communication systems have been put in place to ensure connectivity is maintained within the workforce and face time is prioritized. Also, adequate coaching of the remote workforce is in place to support work/life balance and ensure productivity is not impaired while working out of the office. Creating opportunities for remote social interactions and staying motivated, which enable colleagues to have informal conversations about non-work topics, have been reported to promote a sense of belonging among co-workers. Most importantly, employee engagement surveys are being used to gauge progress and quality work gets done.

About the Author

Abiodun Osoba, everyone calls her Abby, she is an International Business Agility Coach & Trainer for Enterprise Agility Adoption at The Agile Advisor Africa. She has spent the last 20 years as a Management Consultant, crossing geographies (Africa, Middle East, and North America) and industries such as banking, insurance, telecommunication, entertainment, non-profit, utilities, education, legal, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and of course, IT. Osoba enjoys helping organizations across different regions achieve success in remote work.

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