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Young African Magazine

Evolving Employment

National lockdowns have fundamentally changed the ways we work, forcing employers to catch up with technology and better workplace practice. Henrietta Ifyede (Nigeria & UCT, 2018) lays out how employers and organisations in Nigeria have to continue to adapt.

Published 20 January 2021

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In 2019 I declined a job offer at a top social change organisation in Lagos because it required me to work remotely at least 90% of the time. It was my dream job, but I wasn’t informed of the nature of the work during the application stages. After receiving the offer, I convinced myself that I would not be able to function remotely. I was used to and very comfortable with the traditional way of working; that is, with an official workspace or office, frequent interactions with colleagues, and in-person networking.

We were already in an era of major social disruptions brought about by technology and job automation, and the ‘new normal’ brought about by COVID-19 has accelerated this process. The pandemic has left many employees like myself with no choice but to work remotely. Well, here I am now, sitting in my workspace at home writing this article and simultaneously doing my job. I didn’t think I’d be efficient but I dare say that my productivity at work has increased.

Many firms in Nigeria have been complacent regarding traditional work culture in their hiring, training and professional practices. This complacency stems from the arduous nature of working in many of Nigeria’s big cities, such as Lagos: from the awful traffic situation and inconsistent power supply to the expensive internet services. Nigerian organisations preferred the traditional method in order to avoid many justifiable excuses for employee absenteeism. The arrival of COVID-19 caused the market and all its policies to evolve rapidly, compelling many organisations and their employees to reinvent strategies to survive the lockdown.

By all indications, the future of work in Nigeria has arrived, but many companies have struggled to adapt because they failed to prepare for this future adequately. A 2020 study by Phillips Consulting Limited titled The People Pandemic: A Comprehensive Summary found that only 59% of organisations have Business Continuity Plans, most of which were developed during the pandemic. 94% of organisations surveyed didn’t provide their employees with work from home guidelines and best practices. These figures, coupled with predictions from The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its World Economic Outlook Report, suggest a looming recession in Nigeria: the worst to hit the nation in 30 years.

Writing in 2019 for Forbes, author Bernard Marr foresaw this rapid evolution of work and described it as “unnerving”. Why many organisations in Nigeria were not proactive in this regard is a question I may not be able to answer. In 2017 McKinsey published a report on the effect of AI on the future of work. Innovation consultant Larry Schmitt commented that “The doomsayers portray a world of massive unemployment and social disruption. The utopians paint the opposite picture of a world of abundance where everyone can fulfill their true desires and ambitions.” The truth will be somewhere in between. The report found that by 2030, there will be more jobs created to match the job losses that will be suffered owing to automation. However, whether this transition is successfully made will depend on companies retraining employees. The Phillips Consulting report found that only 16% of Nigerian companies were open to virtual training of employees during the lockdown.

The importance of training in this new normal thus cannot be overemphasised, as organisations must strive to reinvent workspaces and employees alike. Likewise, employees must also reinvent themselves and their skills. Speaking in a lockdown webinar, Sanjiv Mehta, MD of Hindustan Unilever, aptly describes the situation as “business unusual rather than business as usual”. I believe that significant components of this new normal are technology, creativity, agility and efficient leadership. The onus now is on employees to transform their attitude to work to reflect agility, making themselves more relevant in their workplaces and more creative in how they work. Employees must continuously acquire new skills while polishing existing ones to remain employable in the labour market. Personal development must now become a priority.

Change has never been a problem in society; the problem is adapting to change. The good news is that Nigeria today is slowly putting technology to good use even in the most traditional contexts, such as court hearings. Organisations are beginning to realise that many physical meetings held in the past were unnecessary and could have been held virtually or their content even communicated via email. If revenue must increase, organisations in Nigeria have the mandate to look beyond wages to maintain a motivated workforce. They must prioritise training for employees, provide a collaborative virtual workspace and be more empathetic to the psychological and social impact of the new normal on employees. The future is indeed now.

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