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The era of remote work

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Next Century’s Office
Paul Onwuanibe runs Landmark Africa, he left the global property and managed offices company “Regus” in the UK to start Landmark in Africa. Just like Regus, they also provide managed offices to companies. They are doing this in in over 20 African countries. Paul is one of the people I admire very much; he gave our team at Swifta the inspiration and boldness to scale into other African locations by adopting Landmark’s approach to doing business in the continent.

In Paul’s famous TEDx Euston talk, he mentioned that “Africa was open for business” but also gave a caveat that you cannot do the next century’s business in last century’s offices. Some global technology companies scaling to Africa use Landmark’s facilities across Africa.

The new technology enterprise does not need last century’s offices, sometimes like the web development company “Automattic,” they don’t need any physical office. Automattic is the company that built WordPress, arguably the most ubiquitous content management platform that powers a lot of sites on the Internet. Automattic has raised US$317.3 million in five funding rounds. As at May 2014, the company had a valuation of US$1.16 Billion. All the employees at Automattic work from wherever they like.  All their over 600 workers work remotely. They are either working from home or co-working locations.

Telecommuting and remote working are no longer the exception but the rule for high growth technology companies. Older companies are jumping on the bandwagon as well. WeWork is, without doubt, the most prominent Co-working space company in the world at a valuation of $16 Billion. WeWork offers its clients shared, flexible-lease offices in 113 locations in 33 countries. The company revealed recently that a large chunk of their tenants are large corporations. Corporations who don’t want the overhead and hassles of running their offices at several locations as they expand into new markets.

The Next Century’s Business Models
The next century’s offices are “shared co-working spaces” provided by 3rd parties like Landmark and Wework. The next century’s worker is now someone who chooses to work at home or a convenient co-working space. A lot of young people use Starbucks or coffee shops around the world providing free wifi for the same purpose. The owners of Cafe Neo in Nigeria are sometimes overwhelmed by young people who only come to take advantage of their environment to meet and get work done. The next century’s workers are already in abundance in Nigeria.

When we decided to start operating in several African countries, we were lucky to have clients we had to support from their offices. Our engineers worked daily from those client locations but also had to assist each other remotely from those sites. We have a model called “24/7/365 Mesh Support”. We also had “roaming” teams who had to manage the customer relationships and engineers. We could not even afford to rent space from managed office providers. We relied on coffee shops like Cafe Java in Uganda, hotel bars, and restaurants to work and conduct team meetings.

Apart from flexible locations, we were able to manage remote teams because mobile and cloud messaging services became commonplace. We were probably the first company to adopt Google’s G-suite (then called Google Apps) to manage and run remote workers and teams in Africa. We didn’t need people to come to the office every morning, and they could work from anywhere they are located. At some point, I managed nine remote teams all by myself while roaming from Nigeria. I still work remotely until this day from any country I find myself in. I have not met a number of my colleagues physically.

The Next Century’s Worker
One of the things I discovered after all these years of doing remote work is that it is a massive cultural shift. Not everyone in Africa likes their job done remotely, and not everyone understands how to work remotely. We initially built a hybrid of people permanently embedded at client sites but managed remotely. The intention was to move the teams to full remote work eventually. This model worked best with larger multinational companies who expected everyone to come to them. The model was difficult for smaller customers, and they were very wary. Some would want to go and see your office to make sure you were for real. I have had bank clients send people to come surreptitiously into our work locations to confirm that we were genuine. This concern is understandable especially with all the online fraud going on. Banks are also prone to such fraudulent activities.

I also learned that not many businesses understand that a services business can work with you without owning a fancy office. We have lost a lot of business because we didn’t show people a sizeable elegant workspace on the high street. We have also lost potential hires who love to work in those kinds of spaces. We used to have one of those fancy offices in Ikoyi, it was convenient for me when I also lived in Ikoyi, but I later learned that the overhead was unnecessary. We closed it down, and I started working from home in Lagos until we needed a larger local team and we reopened and got a place where people could both live and work.

Thanks to tech advances in communication, the next century’s technology worker does not have to commute to do a 9 to 5. Actual productivity and results are now more important than seeing an office full of people who are on the bench or “under furniture.” The term under the furniture was coined by Accenture consultants to mean people stuck in the office instead of being busy doing billable work at client locations. The next century’s worker can build another Billion dollar company just as Mark Zuckerberg did from his dorm room. We now have them in abundance in Nigeria and Africa.



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