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How COVID-19 boosts culture of working remotely

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It took the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic to make some Nigerians come to terms with the fact that physical meetings are not all the times unnecessary, just as working remotely by the certain calibre of workers, including working from home, are initiatives that ought to be given a trial in these parts.

As basic as the idea of using video conferencing is in many parts of the world, it remains a luxury to many public and private sector organisations in the country.

That notwithstanding, some secondary school pupils in some privileged private institutions, as well as their counterparts in some private universities are already at home with the idea of using Zoom, TeamViewer and Skype to execute holiday tasks and assignments in groups.

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While TeamViewer is a proprietary software application for remote control, desktop sharing, online meetings, web conferencing and file transfer between computers, Zoom Video Communications, an American outfit provides remote conferencing service that combines video conferencing, online meetings, chat, and mobile collaboration.

The more popular Skype is an application that specialises in providing video chat and voice calls between computers, tablets, mobile devices, the Xbox One console, and smartwatches over the Internet. It also provides instant messaging services and helps users to transmit text, video, audio, and images.

However, days after asking its junior and mid-level manpower to work from their homes, the Lagos State government last Monday went ahead to hold its first-ever virtual State Executive Council meeting.

The state Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Gbenga Omotoso, who spoke after the meeting, which held via Zoom, with screen and video sharing for up to 100 people, said the meeting complied with the directive against gatherings as part of the anti-Coronavirus battle-plan.

“The meeting was slated for 10.45 am, but almost all exco members had hooked up to the system at 10.00 am, awaiting the arrival of Mr. Governor to kick-start deliberations for the day,” Omotoso said.

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As soon as Sanwo-Olu got online at about 11.05 am, top of the agenda was the review of the management of COVID-19, especially the provision of additional isolation centres, the fumigation of the state against the spread of the virus, and the package for the less-privileged and daily income earners, the indigent.

“Members were in high spirits. Some of us were in our offices; others attended the online meeting from the comfort of their homes. With this historic achievement, residents are assured that governance in Lagos State will continue, irrespective of the situation around us,” Omotoso asserted.

Like Lagos State, many public and private enterprises are also beginning to test the waters as far as working from home or working remotely is concerned.

For instance, 22-year-old Nyakno Effiom, a National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) was perplexed when his boss at the financial technology company, where he works informed him that he would work from home in the coming weeks, as the firm does its bid to stop the spread of the lethal COVID-19.

One of the reasons why he was puzzled was because he was imagining how the entire episode would pan out.

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Besides, his mind must also have been agitated by a cocktail of challenges that abound in the society, chief among which is the parlous state of infrastructure.

But as Effiom wondered how such an uphill task of working remotely would be achieved, especially given the highly erratic power supply, and the sometimes horrible Internet connectivity, his employers had everything laid out for him and other colleagues to have a smooth sail. Provision was made for Internet service, as well as for gasoline to power his generating set for the period he would be on duty daily, at home.

This perhaps, explains, why the network engineer, who resides in a three-bedroom apartment with two others, in the Surulere area of Lagos State, appears to be enjoying the experience.

“Generally, it is much more comfortable and convenient in contrast to the office environment,” Effiom said of his remote working experience, adding that he “works between four to eight hours daily, depending on my shift, and schedule.”

Even though working from home comes with its set of challenges, including high-level distraction from some family members, and others, which may cause divided attention, the corps member appears to be doubly lucky as he faces none of such.

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Said he: “We are just three adults at home, so for me, there is very little distraction, which can be easily ignored.”

Personal (face-to-face) interactions between colleagues at the workplace are commonplace and ensure that work details are not missed, just as bouncing ideas off colleagues also produces great feedbacks. But Effiom appears not to be missing that also because “the nature of my job allows for less face-to-face interactions with clients. Other than that, there is no other hindrance to the services we render to our customers.

“So, having been provisioned with my laptop, Internet subscription taken care of by my firm, I have no worries working from home. As for the fluctuating Internet services, which usually happens in some cases, I have been lucky so far with my network service provider because there has been no fluctuation whatsoever.”

Olusola Rickett, who works with an online media company as an editor, equally sees “working from home as fun and relaxing, but there are disadvantages too. When you are in the office, it strictly works, but at home, there are side distractions. And since you are relaxed, if much care is not applied, it could be a thug of war to meet your daily target, and there have been a few occasions, where I experienced this.

“It is also hard to adjust to the sudden change. The body system is used to a certain way of life – leaving home and relating with your colleagues at work daily. However, I spend more money on data too since my job is Internet-based.”

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Coping with distractions has not affected Rickett adversely as he is determined to meet his set targets daily, come what may. “Yes, there are distractions,” he said, “but I have targets and I ensure that I meet them daily. When I need to work, I isolate myself and shun anything that could be a source of distraction such as the television set,” he said, adding, “sharing ideas with colleagues is the only obvious disadvantage of working from home. But we have an active WhatsApp group, where we communicate regularly. It helps to fill that vacuum in away.

“Despite working from home, the quality of the job has not dropped. I work with a committed team of people and we all know our roles. For all work-related issues, we’ve created different WhatsApp groups. Once there is a technical issue, I know where to drop the message and it would be resolved promptly.”

While some firms provide equipment like laptops, computers and Internet modems to facilitate working at home, but some circumstances are beyond the workers’ control. This includes erratic power supply and fluctuating Internet connectivity. How are you coping with these two, and who is paying for them?

“Since we don’t come to work, the expectation of the company is that money used on daily transportation can be converted into another usage at home. There is no additional fund from the company for working from home.

“Well, my office is open to an employee, who has issues with power supply or cannot work from home for one reason or the other. From day one, the management made it clear that it would not be responsible for additional expenses.”

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But in what ways does the parlous state of our infrastructure constitute a minus to working remotely from office? The President, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Olusola Teniola responded: “With our current 70 percent broadband penetration target for 2025, the requisite infrastructure will be put in place to be able to achieve the future of the workplace. That means that OTT applications, mobile money, Fintech, and other e-services will become the norm. Without the infrastructure, Nigeria will remain behind and be controlled by satellite technology owned by foreign technology entities.”

While commenting on the place of technology in the whole initiative, Teniola said remote working or teleworking is a choice that has existed in the world since the dawn of fast broadband Internet, rather than the narrowband slow-speed access, which was prevalent in the 1990s.

“With Nigeria now having areas where 4G and fibre are deployed and accessible from homes and multi-dwelling units, it is now possible to carry out some assignments from the home. It means that those workers, who are most able to control and manage people remotely, or in virtual teams and those who are in Small Office Home Office (SoHo) and involved in one-man businesses that have a level of flexibility can now work from home.

“However, in Nigeria, this is only common in Lagos and Abuja to a greater degree, and then in Kano, Kaduna, Ibadan and Port Harcourt for those, who are not required to engage in face-to-face trading of goods in the markets, etc. Ecommerce is still at its infancy and requires an advanced and efficient logistics to gain trust, and user acceptance before we witness orders from home on a massive scale,” he said.

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Asked how much of a disincentive poor/slow Internet connectivity would be even if some firms were to encourage remote working on a long time basis, he said: “Slow Internet means that work is performed online on a slower and delayed frustrating interworking in between office workers, and those working remotely from home. Evidence has shown higher speed leads to improve efficiencies and high performance where workers are skilled in digital literacy, have domain expertise, and can teamwork and deliver finite pieces of quality work with the low level of supervision.”

On whether the face-to-face office-based interfacing will not be greatly missed by working from home, he said that the future of work captures the sort of details that would be required for processes and services and the outcomes that deliver value to the digital economy will be achieved by working virtually, and this is the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), where robots will perform the work of the low-skilled and manual labour, and humans will focus on areas where Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (MI) cannot operate at a high and creative level. So, face-to-face office-based interfacing will still occur, but infrequently in the future. This is the context that Nigeria needs to transform to.

Powering electricity generating plants in the absence of public power supply must be another discouraging factor when it comes to working from home. But to what extent is this disadvantageous to the idea of working at home? Teniola said: “No disadvantages. Once we overcome Power generation issues, which can be overcome by solar power, battery technology, and hybrid solutions, then the ability to work with cloud computing and interact with collaborative tools will mean that we no longer waste commuting time in densely populated cities like Lagos, for instance.

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