Liberia: The Pros & Cons of Working From Home During Covid-19

Had you told me a few months ago that I would have to work from home for a few weeks, I would have given you an incredulous look and asked “how”, or “why”. In fact, I have asked a few colleagues the same thing and each one answers first with a sheepish smile then shakes their head in disbelief.

The coronavirus disease started in China in December 2019. None of us imagined that what was reported to have broken out in Wuhan would break up our daily lives, the way we worked, and play, only a few months later. It has not only changed our routines, but the virus has also infected over 10 million, and killed over 500,000 globally, as at this writing.

My primary work is field-based. It means I have had to travel outside my home and headquarter office in Monrovia all across Liberia including remote villages and difficult-to-reach places. I have had to conduct business meetings, hold briefs with partners, organize public launches of various related programs and fundraisers, engage in one-on-one sessions with parents and children, as well as group meetings in communities. It seemed farfetched that I would ever consider the prospect of working from home.

It just would not work. Well, these thoughts were pre-Covid-19.

Today, we mostly work from home – a Covid-19 reality to protect ourselves and the people we love to serve.

Now lets face it, many of us complain and have to deal with long commutes daily. The long seemingly unnecessary traffic and bad roads. I know the effect on my body from some of many, if not all of my trips outside Monrovia. So the question is, why have we not easily embraced working from home? 

At 12%[i], Liberia has one of the lowest electricity penetration rates in the world. Less than 20% of the population has access to electricity. The cost is still amongst the highest in the world. Working from home inevitably means access to electricity. With over 80% off the national electric grade, it would mean most desirous of doing so must rely on private generators. The retail price of diesel to power a generator is U$3.5 a gallon. Of course its safer to work from home but its an unaffordable privilege and has serious challenges for many. 

Most employees look forward to going in to work to charge their phones and gadgets for use when they return to their homes. In fact, years back, I used to take a rechargeable fan to work so as to charge it for use at night.

And then, there is the challenge of the internet. Liberia’s internet connectivity, like electricity is at 12% penetration rate. As well as infrastructural challenges which would make what might be a simple and easy thing to do in other parts of the world a nightmare in Liberia, discussions are ongoing to increase the surcharge on internet use which would be another factor for those actively working from home.

To enable a response to the outbreak inevitably reaching Liberia, first a health emergency, and then a state of emergency were declared shutting down schools and businesses and restricting gatherings and imposing social distancing. Organizations like mine had to redefine the way we would work and adapt our operations, or risk permanent closures. Some of the adapted measures included:

Non-essential – quite a few organizations had to declare some of their team members “non essential”. So those without “critical functions” were asked to stay home. Ofcourse all functions in a small organization where one team member is tasked with multiple responsibilities, are critical. But such was the need to adapt including to available work and resources. Suffice to say, some organizations have been able to retain their non-essential staff on full salaries and benefits while others have had to institute a pay cut. As in all cases of any salary cut, the employee has to sign approving and accepting notices. Despite the unforeseen health emergency which has impacted the economy and work, salary cuts cannot be done arbitrarily or without prior consent. 

Intermittent work schedule– Some organizations opted to reduce the number of people coming in to the office space by scheduling their team members to come in on particular days only. This has enabled them keep up operations, and not have to declare any staff “non essential”.

Redundancy– When all else fails, redundancy is what some organizations have had to resort to. Now, redundancy has strict labor guidelines employers must follow to ensure they are in adherence to the Labor Laws of Liberia. The employer must make a reasonable  business case to the Division of Labor Standards outlining why they have to lay off staff. In the future when the business has improved and these positions become available again, the law mandates that employers gave preference to team members made redundant previously. 

Team members declared to be “non-essentials” have either had to deal with a pay cut, or face the real prospect of redundancy. Like one HR Professional I spoke to said “How do you justify keeping a contractual driver on payroll? How can he ‘work’ from home?”.

Some companies provided staff with few extra gallons to cover fuel/gasoline for the running of their private generators at home so that they work from home. Others provided chargeable power banks to recharge phones and laptop when they run out of power. Bigger companies provided solar panels to some of their employees to keep them working away from their offices.

Working from home has also meant, for big and small organizations, the subsidizing of internet data usage and connectivity.

Especially across various counties with competing challenges, how have some Human Resource Professionals coped with working from home and maintaining a level of connection and interaction with their teams? 

Weekly check in meetings– Scheduling of weekly meetings to check-in on team members. These calls can be group calls or one-on-one. It provides staff an avenue to share concerns, fears and “feel needed”, all of which are proving to be important contributions to remaining engaged and being productive in the strange situation of working from home. The phone calls makes it more personable, a valuable loss for many employees now forced to work from home.

Whatsapp Groups– Some offices have created whatsapp groups to enable team members keep in touch, share updates and concerns about happenings and conditions. This has helped teams feel connected, share the new learning experiences even while separated for extended periods of time. 

What have been some of the challenges with actually working from home?

Hands down, from all I spoke to, the biggest challenge has been that of electricity. Unsurprisingly, it is immediately followed by issues with internet connectivity. 

As already indicated, most homes rely on self-run generators, commercial community electricity provided at exorbitant fees, or in rare cases, state provided “LEC”. 

Constant interruptions– Now being home all day means the kids, if you have them (a typical Liberian household comprise an average of 5.6 persons, according to the most recent LIGIS census),  want to hang out more. Locked out from school and having their parents around more often then they are used to; who can really blame them? 

Parents, other than adjusting to working from home, now have to parent more, and become the teachers their children need, miss and must have. And so, the home is not just converted into the new office, it is also the new school, and even the new play place. 

With parents around, children want attention. And so every so often, they interrupt. When in the flow writing, or analyzing, or preparing a complicated report, splitting attention and concentration is not the ideal enabling environment. In fact, it can be a bit annoying and stressful.

One HR Professional I spoke to told me she has to start work at 10pm most days as that is when her kids are asleep, the house has less noise and distractions, and the internet is faster! She works up to 2:30ish am, before heading to bed.

Internet connectivity– even if affordable, presents a difficult challenge. Depending on where one lives, one might have good steady internet, or struggle with inconvenient blind spots. The signal might be stronger in the kitchen and weaker in the room. Even worse, the signal might be stronger on the back porch, or in the yard, and extremely weak throughout the house. Imagine trying to work at night using the internet, and battling mosquitoes (Liberia is in the tropics), or working from the most inconvenient space for work in the house!

It begs to mention again that the cost of the internet data is anything but cheap, and these numerous Zoom and Skype calls gulp up data like water poured on hot sand. 

One professional told me there are times he has to drive in his car on the road to take work calls as the network at his home is very bad and most times he is unable to participate in meetings. He also pointed to challenge of sending a simple file which he said takes up agonizing hours of waiting frustratingly to upload. Sometimes, uploading or downloading would come close to being completed after the long wait, and then, suddenly, the connection would be lost, and the process has to be restarted, from scratch!

Work-life balance: Another downside in working from home has been a reduction in work-life balance. You can no longer leave work, at work. Work is now at home – the office is the home. From across differing time zones, and trying to keep pace, we have had to take longer and longer zoom and skype calls, often at odd hours. And when videos are required, have to look your best when you’d rather be at rest. They are also time consuming and draining.

Be that as it may, it was interesting to observe that all 3 individuals interviewed for this article are in agreement that while the distractions at home have proven… well, distracting for work, they have enjoyed the reconnection with their families and children, and the family life and bonding they seemed to have forgotten, if not traded to office life in which the kids are sleeping by the time they get home from work. As one puts it, they seem to enjoy “judging complaints all day”, and just spending more time living in your home space. Often, between work and long commutes, except for off-days, many only use their homes to sleep, shower and change clothes. 

Having a semblance of control over one’s time has also been another advantage of working from home. One is able to space out work in a way that offers flexibility in and control over time. And one can dress, or be unmasked, as they would prefer, to work.

So what advice do we have to share as HR Professionals:

1. Prioritize. Prioritize. Prioritize. 

You have to know how to prioritize your tasks in order of importance so you know which ones need urgent attention or which can be pushed off to later. And no, checking your facebook status every 20 minutes is definitely not a priority. 

2. Make a Rolling List

Write the things you need to get done down. It helps you remember to keep track of what has been done, and what is outstanding. It is also a great way to just track how you are spending your working hours and being accountable to yourself, your professional requirement, and to your employer. This list will come really handy when it comes time to track achievements for performance evaluations. 

3. Structure Your Day 

Even if fluid, it is important to plan out your work day in a way that provides you a sense of order. It helps to keep you with a professional mindset and in work mode. This can take the form of logging in at 9am daily after you have had breakfast, breaking at 1 for lunch, or just allowing for a mental health break. Maintaining a sense of structure to the day helps keep the mental edge and professional instincts required to be productive.

4. Set Boundaries

Make sure members of your team understand that while you are working from home, 10pm work zoom calls are not optimal use of time. Be clear about when you will be available to respond to non-urgent tasks, avoid taking work calls or meetings at night, and show similar respect to others in managing when you call them. Unless it proves to be absolutely necessary, in which case, it should be made clear that it is an exception and not the rule, boundaries must be set.

The boundaries must also apply to family members. Inform of the times in the day that you cannot be disturbed except for emergencies. Of course kids, especially younger ones, enjoy absolute exceptions and hold priority, especially if you are a mother, and the nurse, if you have one, cannot come to work for safety reasons.

5. Keep Updated

Rules are changing as the virus change our lives. HR Professionals must keep updated with the latest pronouncements of the government especial the agency responsible for labor matters.

This can be done through direct contacts, or through constant engagements with other HR colleagues. It is also important to learn about how other organizations are adapting to the situation so as to keep abreast with the trend and be informed about new ways to approach the new challenges.

Admittedly, our lives have changed. So also is the way we have always known to work and interact. Now, we must adapt. We must change. And the change critically affects offices and homes, merging the spaces, behaviors, attitudes and timing into one.

In any case, with the crazy Monrovia traffic, its hard to tell if anyone misses the morning and evening commutes!

Originally published on FrontPage Africa-

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