The inception of the Covid-19 vaccine has given dashing hopes, and perhaps a glimpse of things returning to normal. On the other hand, it puts organizations in the dilemma of having employees back in the office or continues working remotely. Research conducted by FUZU hints that the dilemma could be sorted by having flexible working models, with 43% of organizations already employing a hybrid model of remote work.
A global survey showed that 40% of companies that were working remotely indicated an intention of having their staff either fully or mostly back to the office as of March 2021. This is the same case in Africa as 67% of survey respondents reported to be either fully or mostly back to the office. The extent to which employees have so far either fully or mostly returned to the workplace varies by industry.
Exhibit 1: Working models
For instance, professional service firms (for example accounting, financial advisory, consulting) continue to embrace more flexible working models, with most of the staff in this space working either fully or mostly remotely. These roles, in which workers require extensive cognitive thinking and problem solving, managing and developing people, and data processing have the greatest potential to work from home. In fact, only 12% of employees in this space have returned fully to the office. This is expected to be a
Nonetheless, working remotely has had its challenges curtailing the productivity of long-term trends, with a Deloitte study projecting that 67% of the professional services workforce will transition to remote working arrangements within the next two years.
In discussing these challenges with business leaders, there are three broad categories of barriers affecting productivity while working remotely:
1. Poor work environment at home
This is the single largest challenge impacting organizations and includes challenges with internet connectivity and work tools such as printers, scanners, and software to physical space. The impact is most acute for more junior professionals who do not have access or the means to easily fix these challenges. In fact, at many companies surveyed, employees have been the ones requesting to return to the office to remedy these challenges.
2. Communication challenges
According to HR professionals, there was a rise in disciplinary cases stemming from poor communication from team members. Too many distractions at home hindered employees from meeting deadlines, joining video calls on time, and even completing work deliverables. The HR professionals were then compelled to pay closer attention to communication barriers that were specific to different people.
Head of Human Resources at Chloride Exide, Hanna Karuru, mentioned that they had identified these challenges and made decisions to upgrade technology to support working from home.
“Our employees can access our technology from wherever they are (through digital tools such as our ERP system and VPNs for cyber-security) and this eliminates the hindrance to providing exemplary customer service when working remotely,” said Hannah Karuru.
3. Lack of motivation and impact on organizational culture
Culture, team cohesion and motivation have been challenges to maintain with the shift to remote work. According to the FUZU report, Social connections and collaboration are the primary benefits of “time in the office”, which is essential in improving efficiency and harnessing innovation. Many organizations therefore, designed activities to motivate teams to connect with each other and maintain the company culture.
“We designed outdoor social- distanced events to allow employees to have a personal touch with each other. This improved the situation a lot,” said Hannah Karuru.
Companies are also proactively checking on the mental well-being of team members, and ensure that they are fully supported as they adjust to new working spaces. For instance, At Fuzu, we provide mental health support through Wazi to ensure employees have access to counseling services. Pulse surveys to various Fuzu teams allow us to identify challenges that members are facing when working remotely.
Consequently, the Collection of regular feedback has been used by companies to identify ways in which employers can offer support to employees as best as possible.
Despite these challenges, some African companies identified 2020 as one of their most productive years, citing an increase in general output. Possible reasons for this outcome could be; the satisfaction of employees working from home, time saved when employees don’t need to commute, or flexibility over time, and working pace enjoyed when working remotely.
Additionally, employees working remotely find themselves working after-hours without being incentivized by their managers.
“People tend to work more hours when working from home. Employees have also opened their minds towards working during the weekends. But as a result of this, work-life balance has been affected,” said Milkah Mboche, HR Consultant for Ponea Health.
With employees working remotely and commuting less, time that was previously lost in traffic is redirected to work. In Nairobi for instance, before COVID-19 struck, study reports indicated that the average travel time from one point to another in the city was about 57 minutes, resulting in overall economic losses estimated at more than Kshs 50 million daily.
Some employees have had an easy time while working remotely, that they do nor desire to go back to the office in the future. A study by a global firm showed that close to 30% of employees would rather quit than go back to fully working from the office in a post-pandemic world.
The aforementioned benefits hint towards hybrid working models being the new normal in an ideal world. McKinsey anticipates that a hybrid model of remote work is likely to persist well beyond the pandemic, mostly for a more highly-educated, well-paid minority of the employees at the workplace.
The pressure is therefore on companies to figure out how to reduce barriers to productivity as much as possible for employees, especially those related to internet connectivity, accessibility of work tools, and presence of distractions at home.