Strange, new world: COVID-19 may have re­de­fined the work­place for­ever

Weekly Trust - - Front Page - Judd-Leonard Okafor

All the gaps in the plan had been stopped. The ac­tiv­i­ties re­quired had been mapped. What each would need was costed. Each ac­tor was known and in place. The plan was ready lock, stock and bar­rel. Lil­ian Okafor lined it up and tapped a but­ton that said “en­ter”. That launched the coun­try’s lat­est plan to deal with the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

The bytes of in­for­ma­tion snow­balled into kilo­bytes and megabytes, out­lin­ing the shape of how Nige­ria planned to deal with the nu­tri­tion fall­out from Covid-19.

They poured across net­work sta­tions, into mo­bile and desk­top de­vices of more than 110 jour­nal­ists. Then emerged a blitzkrieg of sto­ries that spot­lighted hunger, mal­nu­tri­tion, famine— and how the pan­demic could make ev­ery­thing worse.

The pan­demic was rag­ing. It was a war be­ing fought in ev­ery inch of avail­able space.

Okafor found her space even with­out leav­ing her home. She hasn’t left that spot since late March when the pan­demic forced a lock­down upon the coun­try. “Covid-19 has had sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on my work space,” she says.

In early April, Nige­ria was al­ready sucked in by the coro­n­avirus pan­demic rag­ing across the world. Dozens of new in­fec­tions were trick­ling in daily to light up the dash­board that kept score on cases of Covid-19.

All the signs of an im­mi­nent lock­down loomed. The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion was al­ready warn­ing of—and ad­vis­ing on—it. Na­tional gov­ern­ments were flex­ing to be­gin one, and em­ploy­ers were be­ing ad­vised what steps they could take to pro­tect em­ploy­ees. The mantra was to ‘shel­ter in place’, ‘stay home’, ‘work from home’, ‘keep so­cial dis­tance’.

Turn­ing point for cor­po­rate flex­i­bil­ity

The pan­demic hit em­ploy­ers and em­ploy­ees with a new shock: that many work­ers could ac­tu­ally work from home, an idea that seemed pre­vi­ously un­heard-of.

Busi­nesses scaled down work and hu­man re­sources units peered through job de­scrip­tions to de­ter­mine who could work from home and who had to be phys­i­cally present. The lines emerged between “es­sen­tial” and “non-es­sen­tial”, but it also spot­lighted the divide between vir­tual and on-site work.

“Ev­ery­thing has gone vir­tual,” says Sharon Grey, a pub­lic re­la­tions and com­mu­ni­ca­tions ad­vi­sor. She is based in La­gos, one of three lo­ca­tions to first go into lock­down on March 30. Her firm had or­dered em­ploy­ees to work from home even be­fore then.

“I’ve been work­ing from home since the whole thing started, I haven’t been to the of­fice at all. The guys going to work are those that need to be phys­i­cally there. Like ac­coun­tants, maybe for files and things, some ad­min guys and HR.

“So if any­one wants to be at the of­fice, they have to take per­mis­sion. The rea­son is be­cause man­age­ment is try­ing to re­duce the num­ber of peo­ple in the of­fice at the same time. And this is so there’s enough space between ev­ery­one at cer­tain times.”

A new ver­sion of the head of­fice

Two me­tres apart was the spac­ing re­quired to en­sure phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing, ac­cord­ing to the Nige­ria Cen­tre for Dis­ease Con­trol.

The cen­tre also is­sued a raft of ad­vi­sories for busi­nesses going into lock­down. With eased lift­ing of the lock­down, the ad­vi­sories are be­ing fine­tuned to tar­geted sec­tors.

The NCDC has pub­lished a guide­line for em­ploy­ers and busi­nesses in Nige­ria, it said.

How­ever, “the agency is work­ing with var­i­ous in­dus­tries to de­velop sec­tor-spe­cific guide­lines as the fi­nan­cial sec­tor and man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­try is fully open while the in­for­mal sec­tor will have a phased open­ing.”

The new ver­sion of the of­fice is one that’s lim­it­ing con­tact and putting in enough space and bar­ri­ers to look like a hos­pi­tal.

Even be­fore ar­rival at work, a face mask in pub­lic is a must that pub­lic-health au­thor­i­ties are se­ri­ous about. While states made masks manda­tory, oth­ers opened mo­bile courts and im­posed fines for not wear­ing one.

Some firms have taken the se­ri­ous­ness notches higher. Busi­nesses in­sist on vis­i­tors mask­ing be­fore entry. Em­ploy­ees are re­quired to have a mask on be­fore ar­rival and all through­out stay within work premises. Work­ers have been sanc­tioned—as much as sus­pended—for not hav­ing one on.

Hand­wash­ing sta­tions are the first con­tact, fol­lowed by a manda­tory tem­per­a­ture check. Time-and-at­ten­dance sys­tems that use bio­met­rics like fin­ger­print are out; the good old pen-and-pa­per at­ten­dance reg­is­ter is back.

Lunch gar­dens and wa­ter cooler mo­ments are out. Talk­ing be­hind a face mask from 2m across is in. The num­ber of peo­ple present is re­duced. And HR takes steps to limit the prob­a­bil­ity of touch­ing sur­faces: el­e­va­tors are pow­ered down so you don’t touch floor but­tons, stairs are the new work­place aer­o­bics, rails are rou­tinely wiped down, doors are per­ma­nently ajar.

The pan­demic hit em­ploy­ers and em­ploy­ees with a new shock: that many work­ers could ac­tu­ally work from home, an idea that seemed pre­vi­ously un­heard-of. Busi­nesses scaled down work and hu­man re­sources units peered through job de­scrip­tions to de­ter­mine who could work from home and who had to be phys­i­cally present. The lines emerged between “es­sen­tial” and “non-es­sen­tial”, but it also spot­lighted the divide between vir­tual and on-site work.

Work chang­ing homes

While work spa­ces are un­der pres­sure to be­come coro­n­avirus proof, homes are strug­gling to be work ready.

Okafor chose her space early on as the lock­down be­came in­evitable. A com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fi­cer at a non­govern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion, her job in­volved lots of travel, meet­ings, field vis­its, con­fer­ences, work­shops—all of it in per­son. At any one time, each had dozens of peo­ple packed around ta­bles in halls in any state across the coun­try.

“All of that has changed, all of it has stopped. Any work­ing from of­fice was halted,” she re­calls of the start of the work-from-home di­rec­tive. “I had to con­vert some space in my house to an of­fice, like a work-ready home set­ting.”

The work sta­tion is a chair for sit­ting, a desk to hold a lap­top—and all the bits and bobs that come with that—and, very im­por­tantly rigged for in­ter­net con­nec­tion.

It is a near replica of her in-per­son of­fice space, ex­cept for the blare of the liv­ing-room tele­vi­sion, the on-the-clock break

to make her fam­ily’s meals and her lit­tle tod­dler bound­ing about the house and tug­ging on the leg of her desk.

With work­forces around the world al­ready gone vir­tual, stay­ing con­nected on­line is as im­por­tant as the vol­ume of gi­ga­bytes that’s spent on it. On­line con­fer­enc­ing apps and plat­forms—from Zoom and Han­gout to Skype and Join. me—have re­placed of­fice meet­ing desks and chairs, and busi­nesses are fall­ing over them­selves to se­cure just the best suited for vir­tual work.

While set­ting up her work-ready home, Okafor mapped “Zoom­ready spots for video con­fer­enc­ing and on­line meet­ings” as well. She goes through ses­sions of Zoom meet­ing ev­ery day for hours, some as a par­tic­i­pant, some as a host. She has to ap­pear pro­fes­sional in each meet­ing, even while seated in her bed­room or the “workready” cor­ner of her home. They come with their own de­mands for eti­quette and pro­fes­sion­al­ism. They also come with their cost-and­ben­e­fit ra­tio.

A typ­i­cal one-on-one Zoom ses­sion us­ing ba­sic-grade HD video con­sumes around 540MB/ hr. Higher-grade video meet­ings going up to 720p will wipe 1.08GB off your data plan ev­ery hour.

Few Zoom meet­ings last un­der half an hour. Un­pre­dictable but ex­pected fits and starts can stretch a sched­uled 30-minute meet­ing any­where between 45 min­utes and one hour.

A look at data bun­dle costs helps do the cal­cu­lus: work­ing from home doesn’t come cheap. On­line meet­ings can wipe out a month’s worth of data bun­dle in just un­der five days. They lend them­selves to some prod­ucts like a charm—like the dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing Musa Ah­mad over­sees, seated in his La­gos home and vis­i­ble in any cor­ner of the world over the in­ter­net.

A sports jour­nal­ist, sto­ry­teller, tourism prac­ti­tioner, and des­ig­nand-plan­ning ex­pert rolled into one, his work was 360-de­grees— 100%--pre­pared to switch to work­ing re­motely even be­fore Covid-19. Such a move con­sid­ered time frames to de­liver projects, dis­trac­tions, pro­duc­tiv­ity, and pos­si­ble earn­ings.

“The prod­uct is there and how much I earn has increased, but not much,” says Ah­mad. “I have to spend on data and petrol to stay on­line. And there are the ca­bles per­ma­nently plugged in 24 hours to elec­tric­ity. They pack, and I have to keep re­plac­ing them. I am burn­ing data at­tend­ing Zoom meet­ings. It is re­ally ex­pen­sive. Con­sider the poor net­work all over, not just here. We have had to resched­ule a lot of meet­ings with clients even in Sin­ga­pore, de­spite their fast con­nec­tiv­ity.”

There have been com­plaints of a new-fan­gled phe­nom­e­non known as Zoom fa­tigue. There is also the gen­eral disruption that an on­line en­vi­ron­ment lends it­self to. What’s to stop the mouse hov­er­ing over a link and launch­ing an in­ter­est­ing web­page while you are gath­er­ing data on games is a chal­lenge Ah­mad has seen.

“This tech stuff is very dis­trac­tive. You have to be cen­tred while on­line. It af­fects your men­tal­ity and en­ergy,” he says.

In pre-Covid-19 days, Ah­mad en­joyed the of­fice ex­pe­ri­ence and its so­lid­ity while work­ing. “When I have short­com­ings and ques­tions, I got to ask col­leagues and part­ners and at­tend to them in the im­me­di­ate, and we work to­gether as a team,” he says. That shifted since going re­mote. He still gets to ask ques­tions and lis­ten to pos­si­ble ways out of tan­gles, but talk­ing to col­leagues vir­tu­ally has taken some­thing away. “The en­ergy is not the same,” he says.

Learn­ing is at the heart of the vir­tual-ness that the pan­demic has thrust upon the world. And Ah­mad’s busi­ness is to pack­age the best prod­uct, ex­pe­ri­ence and re­al­ism for clients. “I want to be dif­fer­ent from col­leagues in my in­dus­try. I like to ex­tract the best my au­di­ence will like,” he says. “Cus­tomers need to feel the re­al­ism of ev­ery­thing they are us­ing.” From the metic­u­lous­ness of an in-per­son in­ter­view with a sports pro to the re­al­ism of a tour pack­age, all of that stopped since March—and are only start­ing to re­turn.

Busi­nesses are turn­ing to the learn­ing—the e-learn­ing—that’s now front and cen­tre. Teach­ers and stu­dents left the class­room since

March. UNESCO es­ti­mates 60% of the world’s stu­dent pop­u­la­tion were put out of learn­ing spa­ces as schools closed from coun­try to coun­try.

But from Edo to La­gos state, teach­ers are en­ter­ing the homes of their stu­dents with tu­to­ri­als and lessons pack­aged as What­sApp videos and a plethora of emerg­ing e-learn­ing solutions.

Hadiza Ibrahim, study­ing for an MA in jour­nal­ism and pub­lic re­la­tions at Grif­fith Col­lege, Dublin was put out of school. Her school li­brary went vir­tual, af­ford­ing her ac­cess to all the books she needed for her re­search. She needed key in­for­mant in­ter­views for her the­sis, she sched­uled meet­ings on Zoom.

When her child stopped school in March, He­len John fol­lowed him home. She stopped at­tend­ing her fash­ion-de­sign classes in per­son and tracked down tu­tors who could of­fer on­line train­ings. She boasts bet­ter surf­ing skills on­line, switch­ing between videos teach­ing how to hem the per­fect seam and an­other claim about coro­n­avirus

Okafor had to in­vest in data enough to “im­prove it dras­ti­cally to be able to alight with cur­rent re­al­i­ties,” she says of her ris­ing in­vest­ment in what she need to stay on­line. “My ICT skills, my IT skills have im­proved greatly. I have up­skilled my ICT knowl­edge to be able to work and seized a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties for train­ing.”

Times have changed from the days of busi­ness suits, cor­po­rate ties and leather shoes pol­ished to within an inch of their life. So, too, for the skirt suit and high heels that go with the work space. Dif­fer­ent busi­ness sec­tors are ap­proach­ing the new dress mode dif­fer­ently. And it is be­ing mostly de­ter­mined by who is on the other end of the video con­fer­ence.

Some have joined video meet­ings while walk­ing on the street, oth­ers loung­ing in bed, but still more sit­ting at a desk. What’s changed most is the wear. No more dress­ing for work, but dress­ing for con­ve­nience. “My work at­tire is now re­tir­ing,” says Okafor. “I’m get­ting more com­fort­able with dress­ing more com­fort­able.”

“I rarely dress up for work these days. Be­fore Covid-19, a lot tended to­ward of­fi­cial at­tire and wear. My trend to­ward ca­sual wear now is greatly im­proved. You don’t have to bother about mak­ing your hair, dress­ing up, wear­ing heels.” It seems a con­tra­dic­tion, but ca­reer an­a­lysts pre­dict it rolling out across the cor­po­rate world.

“Maybe some peo­ple in Fi­nance will keep the but­ton-down and tie or the blouse and pearls, but the trend to­ward ca­sual at­tire will ac­cel­er­ate quickly,” writes Wil­liam Ar­ruda, co­founder of Ca­reerBlast and au­thor of Dig­i­tal YOU: Real Per­sonal Brand­ing in the Vir­tual Age.

In an ar­ti­cle for Forbes, he says, “Al­ready, some con­sult­ing firms and other or­ga­ni­za­tions have ‘dress for your day’ poli­cies where if you’re not meet­ing with clients, you can leave the suit at home. Be­sides, peo­ple work­ing in tech have been wear­ing shorts and flip flops to work for decades.”

As video con­fer­ence apps in­creas­ingly in­te­grate into the work space, so are busi­nesses con­sid­er­ing whether their in­vest­ment are in the right places.

Odoh Okeny­odo, founder of a de­vel­op­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tions firm in Abuja, saw the dis­rup­tions like the ones from coro­n­avirus com­ing—and has seen savvy in­vestors re­duce in­vest­ment in brick-and-mor­tar in­fra­struc­ture and in­crease fo­cus on vir­tual work.

That way, he says, work con­tin­ued non­stop even as the pan­demic con­tin­ued to rage. “I’d say we have been 100% ready.” Work­ing from home helped busi­ness re­duce the num­ber of peo­ple phys­i­cally present on-site.

“It also showed up re­dun­dan­cies, when you have jobs be­ing done by 100 peo­ple be­fore Covid-19, now be­ing done by 20 peo­ple,” says IT ex­pert Mike Ter­soo. The re­sult isn’t just pay cuts but the ex­po­sure of many work­ers seem­ingly “do­ing noth­ing” and even­tual lay­offs, he says.

In his as­sess­ment, the “work from home” ex­pe­ri­ence has forced busi­nesses to eval­u­ate their ICT com­pli­ance—and opened up lots of gaps in in­dus­tries sup­pos­edly led by IT, like the me­dia.

On­line pub­li­ca­tions didn’t feel much dif­fer­ent; they have their con­tent man­age­ment app. But print pub­li­ca­tions suf­fered pag­i­na­tion cuts. Many that used pri­or­ity work­flow soft­ware switched to plain emails. They are also look­ing to­ward multi-mod­ule pro­grammes that can take the tasks of hu­man re­sources, ac­counts, fi­nance, store and even pro­duc­tion on­line. “Nearly ev­ery­thing can be done on­line in this in­dus­try. All you need is to have in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity,” says IT an­a­lyst Martin Has­san. “Even servers can be mon­i­tored on­line. The only prob­lem is power out­ages that cause dis­rup­tions when you are not on­site.” Bleed­ing lines between spa­ces In­di­vid­u­als have to con­sider how work life, forced out­side the work space, is in­ter­twin­ing with per­sonal life. Be­fore Covid-19, Okafor con­sid­ered her two-year in the morn­ing be­fore work, then he was in crèche till evening. That sep­a­ra­tion is fast erod­ing between him in­ter­rup­tions Zoom meet­ings and de­mand­ing lunch while she worked between video calls. It isn’t just fam­ily. “Col­leagues send tons of What­sApp mes­sages even at un­of­fi­cial hours and you have to at­tend to all those,” she says. “Work life is grad­u­ally start­ing to min­gle with per­sonal life, it is some­how dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate. Col­leagues you haven’t had op­por­tu­nity to visit, you get to see their en­vi­ron­ment. Work life is re­veal­ing one’s per­sonal life these days. Per­sonal ac­tiv­i­ties are in­trud­ing into work life thanks to Covid-19.” It’s a strange, new world.

Some have joined video meet­ings while walk­ing on the street, oth­ers loung­ing in bed, but still more sit­ting at a desk. What’s changed most is the wear. No more dress­ing for work, but dress­ing for con­ve­nience. “My work at­tire is now re­tir­ing,” says Okafor. “I’m get­ting more com­fort­able with dress­ing more com­fort­able.”

A sur­face, a PC, power, data and ca­bles are just about all needed to take most work on­line for Musa Ah­mad

Hand­wash sta­tions are the first things to greet you on ar­rival

Bio­met­ric records of time and at­ten­dance are out

Lil­ian Okafor started early to iden­tify a spot she could make work-ready long be­fore the lock­down

Manda­tory tem­per­a­ture checks have be­come a fea­ture of the new work place

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Nigeria

© PressReader. All rights reserved.