Blog Post

Remote Working – the Emergent New Norm

Since the World Health Organization officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11, the way of working for many organisations across the entire globe, has had to quickly switch to working remotely as a means of practising social distancing and flattening the curve of the health crisis. Many managers and employees everywhere are adjusting to meeting, chatting, and collaborating exclusively online, and free ever-evolving technologies like Skype Slack, Zoom, and the ones offered by established giants like Microsoft and Google – not to mention texting and email – have made this forced transition so much easier. The global news and our news feeds are awash with reports and projections about remote working (also known as telework, telecommuting, working from home, e-commuting), and what will happen after the need for lockdowns and social distancing become a thing of the past. Businesses and researchers alike have been asking whether this mode of working is here to stay and whether the trend is economically justified, or whether it is just our evolving workforce craving modern convenience.

I think first and foremost it is important to point out that globally, remote working is not new and was more widespread before COVID-19

According to the 2018 Global State of Remote Work, 56 per cent of companies worldwide already allow remote work to varying degrees. Some organisations lend themselves more easily to transitioning to online working than others, and the degree of the benefits of remote working will differ from organisation to organisation and from one country to another with infrastructure capacity (in this context, power and telecommunications) determining the possibility and ease in which the transition to remote working can be made and sustained. 

Also, remote working suits some people and some businesses better than others, and not everyone can work from home.

Telecommuting workers with very complex jobs who don’t require a lot of collaboration or social support can perform better than their office-based counterparts. Some people certainly thrive working away from an onsite environment, while others find that the office environment provides the motivation, discipline and support received from face-to-face interactions to be productive. Working from home is an option or current necessity for knowledge workers with computer-based jobs, other like supermarket staff, fuel station operatives, and most health practitioners don’t have much of a choice. 

The COVID-19 remote working wave however comes with managerial challenges as well as increased cyber security risks.

For managers and leaders, particularly for those whose teams are new to this mode of working, the pressing questions on their minds is how to lead and manage their staff remotely. How are they to measure work and output? And then there are the increased cyber security risks as more and more people are working away from the safety of their organisations carefully crafted secure IT systems.

The UK Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD, 2020) say that it is important that managers understand that visibility is not the key to performance and that managers need to explore new ways of communicating, delegating and working with their teams to meet targets and deadlines. For those businesses that are able to shift their operations to remote working, the benefits can be enormous. A recent Harvard University study indicates that for employers, working from home can boost productivity, reduce turnover, and lower organizational costs, while employees enjoy perks like flexibility and the lack of a commute. These benefits they state can only be realised or boosted if companies have clear remote working policies that address organisational expectations and rules (on communication, tracking and measuring performance and productivity measures – how often, by whom, cyber security, sickness, absences, leave, online staff training and general support). Businesses will need to also assess the technological needs of their staff and ensure that staff have the appropriate technology and internet access (or data bundles) required to complete their tasks. 

Business Leaders and Human Resources Teams need to design and articulate clear remote working policies and procedures, and frontline managers and supervisors should have rapid access to accurate information about the company.

Remote working is not going to go away. COVID-19 has forced the world headlong into the depths of the fourth industrial revolution – the digital revolution, and our dependence on technology is going to be the state of affairs even after social distancing measures become more and more relaxed. 

Internet infrastructure – capacity and cost, digital platforms, reliable electrical or other forms of power will determine how smoothly countries can make the smooth transition to remote working and to this forced but necessary move into our digital revolution.

In a developing economy like Sierra Leone where our technological infrastructure is less than advanced and one of the most expensive in the world, our power supply expensive, at times erratic or just not available, with low bandwidth or unavailability of internet connectivity in some locations being a problem, and remote working far from being a norm these will be hugely challenging times. 

At a recent Freetown Business School Event (Leading and Managing through a Crisis, March 2020) business leaders raised concern about whether the country’s infrastructure can support this new way of working and how they would manage the high mobile and data tariffs. It is said however, that necessity is the mother of invention, and that challenging times can give birth to successes and completely new ways of doing things. Being a developing nation does not mean that Sierra Leone cannot rise to some of the challenges presented by COVID-19

Companies like SALCAB (Sierra Leone Cable Company) are working hard to ensure that the Sierra Leone cable networks are positioned to deal with the surge in residential and other traffic that the COVID-19 crisis has given rise to

SALCAB state on their website that they will be doubling the data capacities of all their clients, and at no extra cost to the clients, in the hope that such provision will enable the operators to maintain and improve on their services to end users without increasing the prices for data bundles.

1 Design and articulate clear remote working policies and procedures
2 Be sure to Include cyber security in your working from home policies and procedures
3 Structure daily check-ins  and establish rules of engagement
4 Provide frontline managers and supervisors with rapid access to accurate information about the company strategy, protocols and rules so that they are able to disseminate necessary information to staff. Managers need to be clear on how to measure work and outputs
5 Assess the technological needs of staff according to their role and ensure they have the tools and the resources they need to complete their tasks. Bear in mind that there are several free online collaboration tools like Skype, Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Docs
6 Provide training to staff on how to use the available technologies
7 Ensure that all staff read and understand their remote working policies and procedures – particularly on your expectations of them, how their work will be tracked and measured, and how sickness, annual leave and absences will be dealt with
8 Provide opportunities for remote social interactions
9 Offer encouragement and emotional support to all staff – this is very essential during these times. Remember that this is first and foremost a human crisis and that staff anxieties will be very high. 

This emergent new norm might not end up being the norm in developing countries like Sierra Leone just yet, but what the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us is that remote working comes with several benefits, and that it is telling us very clearly that we have fast entered into an era where digitalisation is most definitely the new norm and that to succeed we will need to rise to meet it.

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