A look at the changing world of work
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, 87% of companies revealed that flexible working is a focus for them in 2020 according to the 2020 Global Talent Trends Study conducted by Mercer, a global consulting firm and Alexander Forbes’s strategic partner.
In subsequent observations, Mercer showed that less than 25% of employees were already working flexibly, with both the global outcome consistent with observed patterns in Africa (see Figure 1). Fewer companies confirmed having more than 25% of employees working from home before the crisis. While companies were already looking at ways to transition into work from home (WFH) programmes, COVID-19 expedited the transition.
Figure 1: Mercer survey on remote working and flexibility during COVID-19, May 2020
With 100% of the workforce in most companies working from home due to government lockdown regulations to halt the spread of the coronavirus, much consideration has been given to whether this will be a permanent feature.
Most companies surveyed expressed concerns around the reliability of remote technology infrastructure, increasing costs of mobile data connectivity and productivity of employees working virtually. Global firms have had similar concerns with differing degree of intensity to those doing business in Africa for reasons that can be explained by the technology landscape in the continent.
VPN, data costs and productivity
When it comes to the reliability of their virtual private network (VPN), a significant number of companies (72%) worry about the stability of the infrastructure. The cost associated with subsidies for remote internet access has become a larger burden for African companies relative to international companies by a significant quantum of 32% as shown in Figure 1. Although data costs have been coming down in African countries, with a notable drive in South Africa in recent months due to regulatory pressure, the financial commitment made by companies remains high. As the number of employees working remotely increases, costs for mobile data will surge, requiring a commensurate adjustment to the company’s cost.
All these developments raise uneasiness about the productivity of employees working flexibly. As seen in the survey results, more than 80% of companies are concerned about the productivity of employees working flexibly, with a notable degree expressed in the African continent. Companies would need to construct new employee engagement methods incorporating remote management of teams, performance measurement systems aligned to specific key performance areas and training to improve and measure productivity.
However, solace can be taken from research that was performed by IBM, using employee engagement surveys in 2017. After correcting data from bias that can be derived from age, gender, job type and industry, IBM found teleworkers (working remotely) are more engaged with a six-percentage point gap (at 61%) relative to those in more traditional office arrangements (at 55%).
Internet access in people’s homes
Data from the International Telecommunication Union, a specialised agency of the United Nations, indicates that people using the internet in their homes is unevenly distributed in the world (see Table 1). Over 80% of households in Europe have internet access while in Africa it is a meagre 18%. The digital divide is stark and bourgeoning.
In terms of having a computer at home, the data does not differentiate between a laptop and a desktop. The picture is similar but tells a woeful story for Africa with only 11% having access to devices. The mobile phone has, however, made a dramatic change in Africa by providing people with access to the internet, which remains a major game changer.
Table 1: Percentage of households with internet access or a computer at home
Source: International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
While the mobile phone is used to perform simple tasks such as banking, money transfers and communication, one still requires a laptop or desktop to perform fully-fledged work-related functions – run certain software, access company VPNs, download reports, write documents and attach files when sending emails. For employees to thrive in a WFH environment, companies, government and regulators as well as technology industry players will have to expedite planned capital infrastructure developments in order to close the digital divide in Africa.
Overall, companies in Africa are poised to face unique encounters as the world evolves into WFH programmes. As such, with remote working set to become a permanent shift across various industries and job functions, companies have to reconsider:
better technology to enable flexible working
increasing flexible working hours to encourage effective time management
rethinking their talent value proposition strategies to improve productivity levels
The arrival of COVID-19 has changed the world of work and companies operating in Africa to embrace technology as quickly as their global counterparts in the new economy.
Lesiba Mothata is head of strategic clients and Craig Bentley is head of multinational consulting, both at Alexander Forbes