Can we talk about telework efficiency in developing countries?
The Coronavirus pandemic has changed the global economic balance and forced billions of people to face the new reality of remote work, known also as working from home (WFH) or telework. With it came a new working vision that goes behind the rationale of working just for the sake of it to focus on efficiency rather than quantity. No more hours worked, but long live achieved goals!
Such an employment framework has brought several benefits to individuals, making remote working a gradually more important condition that companies need to guarantee to retain talents so much that some consider it a must-have when job searching. A survey conducted by AIDP (Italian Association for Personnel Management) shows that 58% of companies declare that they are experiencing several difficulties in hiring people if the employment contract has no clauses which provide for the possibility of WFH. In such scenarios, HR departments need to keep up with the times and the ongoing socio-cultural changes and guarantee (at least) some degree of flexibility.
In addition, although the progressive detachment from the professional dimension seems to bring more benefits to mental health, new risks associated with physical well-being are surfacing. Just to name a few, increasing sedentary lifestyle within the domestic walls, fatigue caused by the prolonged use of online platforms while having meetings, and in many cases lack of boundaries.
“Zoom fatigue is tiredness, worry or burnout associated with the overuse of virtual platforms of communication, particularly videotelephony.” – (Wolf, 2020)
For this reason, it is essential to find a balance without being overwhelmed by the WFH dimension, and keep a certain weekly regularity, if possible, in going to the workplace and entertaining relationships with colleagues.
At this point, we must ask ourselves: how is this new way of working perceived in developing countries? Can we talk about benefits derived from working from home?
In Africa, since the beginning of the pandemic, several plans have been launched to rebalance occupational health and safety conditions at work, as well as programs to accelerate digitization. However, it seems that teleworking is harming African workers in several ways: overload or overtime in the absence of pay compensation, health, and welfare issues of workers in unprofessional positions, and violation of privacy by supervisors. (Crea, 2018). Nevertheless, according to a recent study by Michael Page working from home does not affect productivity, increasing motivation and satisfaction instead. Statistics show that around 63% of South Africa-based professionals have increased their productivity while working from home, while 31% consider their productivity the same as working in the office. For what concerns motivation, more than 50% of South African employees felt more motivated than the 41% who felt the same as before the pandemic. (Michael Page)
On the other hand, while WFH in South Africa takes the lead, only a quarter of the population of sub-Saharan Africa and only half in the Maghreb have internet access, compared to four-fifths of Europe (Gómez-Jordana Moya, 2020). In countries where frequent blackouts and poor internet connection also make it difficult to send an email, teleworking is virtually impossible without the specific support of the employer, in terms of hardware purchase and broadband provision. Beyond these difficulties, there have been countries in Central Africa that have sought new solutions. For example, Cameroon was the most affected country by COVID-19 in Central Africa. The government has not imposed stringent containment measures. However, both private sector employers and the entire public sector system have been urged to work from home to avoid physical contact. To follow up on this recommendation, the Ministry of Forests and Fauna of Cameroon has invested in new modems, software, and USB keys, while the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications has put in place a new video conferencing platform with an integrated messaging service (Nsangou, 2020).
Furthermore, in order to protect the health of the 400 employees scattered in 8 African countries (Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Etiopia, Sudafrica), a company active in the field of digital markets has introduced distance work in all the offices of the country. For most offices, this shift to telework has been an absolute novelty, requiring a series of preliminary actions. In terms of digital communication, the company’s approach has been to train employees in the use of a number of videoconferencing tools (Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp) allowing them to switch from one platform to another based on Internet availability and call quality. To break the isolation of team members and to strengthen the social aspect of the work, daily group video calls were introduced in the morning and afternoon (Stand-up and Standdown meetings), led by the CEO, and addressed to the entire team, with updates from unit managers corporate. The company has made available a contact list for employees with internet speed problems and technology in general, so as to communicate directly to colleagues to receive technical support or get a recharge or a refund of expenses (Nzekwe, 2020).
However, according to the research carried out by the University of Oxford, remote working in developing countries does not ensure 100% flexibility and independence, because in many cases it is close to exploitation, especially for the most digitalized professions, as in the case of programmers. In fact, despite the 70% of those surveyed being satisfied with the whole job offer online, the remainder is constantly under pressure due to the high competitiveness of such a market, eventually resulting in general stress, alienation, and long working hours not moderated by regulations.
Fortunately, The African Regional Organization of the International Trade Union Confederation (CSI-ITUC Africa) which represents workers in 52 out of 54 African countries, has developed a Strategic Plan to respond to the challenges of telework. This plan divides all the problems associated with work into main categories and combines each one with specific objectives and key indicators to monitor the achievement of results. The main objective remains the implementation of the ILO Agenda for Decent Work, but for now, there is still a long way to go although the lockdown resulted in one of the biggest flexible work experiments in history.