[Column] Freeman Addico: The key coronavirus lesson for Africa is "work is a task, not a place"
The negative impact of the global Coronavirus lockdown on business and commercial operations around the world is grave. The full damage is incalculable and even at this early stage, the loss runs into multiple trillions of dollars. Productivity has taken a nosedive and full recovery is a very long way.
The skill and business acumen necessary to adapt, survive and thrive in a crisis such as this is an indispensable quality of business leaders. A considerable number of these leaders have deployed interactive videoconference technology to circumvent the lockdown and continue working and being productive.
There are many such tools, including Skype, Zoom, Messenger and FaceTime. The most popular over the last few weeks is Zoom.
Zoom has, as it were, zoomed from only 10 million users to more than 300 million clients around the world. Much like the deadly Coronavirus (Covid-19), preparedness and swift action based on knowledge and experience are what businesses need to stay ahead and avoid pain, and even annihilation.
Hundreds of thousands of businesses have suspended work and millions of employees have been rendered jobless. But companies that developed the innovative ways of working from home or remotely are the ones that continue to be productive.
To be fair, not all types of businesses can implement robust and practical remote working or working from home arrangements. For example, essential and heroic medical workers cannot work from home but must keep traveling to work every day to save lives.
As the conventional ways of traveling and gathering in a particular place to work are no longer safe or prudent across the world, Africa is a big loser since it lags behind the culture of working remotely or from home. As far as work and productivity are concerned, the key lesson businesses in Africa must learn is clear: work is a task, not a place.
Why We Define Work as a Task, Not a Place
Almost a decade ago, I led Addicnet, an African Technology start-up based in Accra, Ghana. We have since grown into a leading cloud computing and eCommerce solution provider, including advanced Cloud encryption, multi-cloud managed service, white-label cloud backup, Enterprise file sync and share as well as on-premise end-to-end eCommerce.
Before founding Addicnet, I worked remotely for many companies in Europe and North America. As a result, remote working processes was a natural policy choice.
With a current staff strength of 20 across four African countries, we operate 90% remote working policy, allowing staff to work from anywhere, from the comfort of their homes or wherever they may be. At the core of our Business Continuity Plan (BCP) is that 100% of our operations can be undertaken without staff needing to go to any particular location. It is both one of the easiest and smartest things any forward-looking business in Africa must do.
It this day and age, it doesn't make sense for me to travel (unless it is absolutely necessary) to perform a task.
Just weeks before the coronavirus outbreak, I was interviewed on AfricanPod Business Forum, an audio and video Podcast where I spelled out these points.
Looking back and thinking about it now, it feels like doing everything necessary to work remotely and be productive should be as natural as breathing. But really, it is not a problem-free undertaking. Like many things, the easier it seems, the more challenges you can find with it.
The Real Challenge of Working Remotely
For many employees forced to suddenly jump into the rigorous routine of working from home, the illusion of thinking they are on holiday is a significant risk to productivity.
The only effective risk mediation to maintain productivity is a conscious decision by companies to develop the culture of remote work. A sustained period of such corporate cultural transformation helps employees to adopt the right attitude and specific strategies for working remotely.
The Joys of Working From Home
There are huge advantages of working from home. First, employees save resources required for the grinding daily commute with its associated toxic vehicular traffic - something SpaceX and Tesla billionaire, Elon Musk describes as "soul-destroying."
The precious time it takes employees to travel to and from work is also saved for other productive purposes. The relaxed mindset experienced by employees knowing they do not have to hit the jam-packed road so regularly cannot be quantified. In all, employees developed a happier outlook and therefore become more productive.
This is a win for businesses as well since they can confidently run a small office, rather than spend money on extra space and furniture for employees.
How to Succeed in Working From Home
For Addicnet, making the success of operating a 90 per cent remote working policy means we had to develop strong and effective communication strategies as well, along with the capability of objectively measuring the pre-defined output of each employee. This is the core of our shared values and working culture.
Important information required from operational efficiency is shared among everyone in a timely fashion. This means effective documentation and regularly updated corporate manuals for easy reference. Using video conferencing tools, we hold regular meetings during which discussions are limited to only the most essential points after which productivity is accelerated.
This ensures that employees demonstrate a more responsible disposition as they are not waiting for a manager to tell them what to do and when to do it. They have learned to be continuously passionate, requiring only minimal guidelines to achieve quality results consistently.
To the extent that interpersonal relationships assist in promoting higher productivity, regular team or company-wide meetings remain an important function.
Over the years, we have learned how remote work results in greater work-life balance. It has been a source of pride to see my team members succeed by adopting strategies to efficiently work remotely.
My personal experience and feedback from team members in our hyper-distributed company show several steps are required to succeed in working from home and remotely.
• Sticking to a practical daily routine
• A dedicated, distraction-free workspace
• Creating boundaries with family and friends while working
Crisis, whether local or global has a way of focusing our attention on critical lessons to be leaned and the adjustments needed going forward. For businesses in Africa, the key lesson is that work must always be a task, but not always a place. The benefits of incorporating remote work or working from home arrangements are a must.
In the face of an endlessly costly global pandemic that has brought grief to millions, businesses owe it to themselves, their employees, clients, and the wider community to adopt the culture of remote and working from home policies. This is indisputably the future of work. I have been on the front row long before the pandemic to see the enormous benefits it brings to all.