The immense organisational restructuring that has occurred around the globe as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic forces one to reflect on how the traditional workplace is changing rapidly.
In some ways though, this is not new.
The discourse on the 'future of work' has been ongoing particularly in light of fast-paced technological advancement, the increasing role of artificial intelligence in human life, and how this is spurring the fourth industrial revolution. COVID-19 has only fast-tracked this process and teleworking, or Working from Home (WfH), assumes a critical component in the discussion.
The questions that arise, then, are what opportunities and lessons may be drawn from this, especially in light of the unpreparedness of many countries for this rapid social change?
In Nigeria, the organisational changes that have taken place occurred in a context that was largely unprepared for the future of work. This reality is by no means peculiar to the country, at least if one considers the growing literature on the pandemic and teleworking. Yet, the dynamics that interests one in this context are the prospects and challenges of WfH for real people who must navigate a multiplicity of technological, economical, operational and domestic changes to their lives, with their attendant emotional and social implications.
Lagos is the economic center of Nigeria means it is subject to heavy migratory inflows, this resulting in a very densely populated place in comparison to other States in Nigeria. Thus, teleworking does make sense for the hundreds of thousands of Lagosians who live on the mainland and commute to the Island daily for work, and have to spend several hours of productive work in traffic that result in economic and environmental costs.
However, working from home also presents challenges. Home workers must also deal with the intractable problems of unreliable energy supplies and internet connections, and poor and insufficient housing. Indeed, one cannot gloss over the congested compounds and apartments where millions of workers live in Lagos, and from where they are expected to churn out work deliverables.
The real question one must address, then, is whether the ‘productive’ work time that is now being spent WfH really translates to an increased quality of life for the new teleworkers. In other words, are workers not just as physically and emotionally stressed by the extra financial costs of providing energy for themselves, paying exorbitantly for data in a context with rising inflation and poor salaries, and dealing with bosses who constantly micromanage them? What about a quiet and conducive workspace to meet organisational deliverables?
These are real issues for real working people who are now expected to meet unchanged work targets from home. Indeed, while the federal government mandated civil servants to work from home until recently, many flouted the rules because they found it cheaper and less stressful to work from the office.
A further observation is that teleworking results in a political economy of inequality that produce newer forms of discrimination, injustices, and exclusions. An example is how teleworking, in Nigeria and indeed elsewhere, translates to several extra hours of unpaid and unappreciated work. While this exists as jeopardy for male workers, it amounts to triple jeopardy for their female counterparts who have long been implicated in the discourse of unpaid domestic and care work, poor remuneration for equal work done as men, and now the current scenario. Emerging research by the United Nations and others indicate that this has led millions of women not to return to work, or choose to work part time for lesser pay.
In effect, as employers monitor for staff performance and deliverables in this era of teleworking, this needs to be juxtaposed against nuanced understandings of productivity that take cognisance of workers’ contextual and social realities, skills, gendered positionings, etc., and local socioeconomic disparities. To be sure, workers in Nigeria and elsewhere that still WfH express nostalgic feelings for the workplace, some underscoring notions of ‘virtual fatigue’.
Finally, and while we cannot fully visualise the final shape of the future of work, teleworking will be unsustainable, not least in a context like Nigeria, unless the right steps are taken, including ensuring sustainable and equitable work stations and realities for many, while monitoring for staff satisfaction for all cadres of workers within government and private work environments. Indeed, academics and governments may need to reflect on re-conceptualisations of professional and informal work spaces, notions of staff productivity, and ideas of equity, among others, in order to develop more comprehensive and integrated policies around teleworking, and ultimately proffer solutions that are simultaneously sustainable and humane.