Even a global pandemic won’t be enough to trigger a work-from-home revolution in Nigeria

REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja
REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja
Image: Reuters/Temilade Adelaja
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Employees at BuyCoins, a two-year old Nigeria-based cryptocurrency startup, will work from home for the foreseeable future in reaction to the threat of a coronavirus outbreak in Lagos, Nigeria’s economic nerve center.

With social distancing policies and banning of public gatherings effectively resulting in lockdowns, companies across the world are having to adopt remote work options to keep their businesses running. It’s a reality that may yet play out broadly in Lagos which has already shut down schools and banned public gatherings of more than 50 people.

Fundamentally, having more companies adopt a work from home policy will represent a major shift in Nigerian work culture. But while there are obvious benefits to working from home, including fostering better work-life balance and easing the toll of long hours in Lagos traffic on workers, there are also some significant real-world barriers to its success or long-term adoption.

Nigeria’s inefficient power grid means electricity supply remains irregular. For many employees, offices are the one place where electricity is guaranteed and where personal devices, including power banks and rechargeable fans, are often charged. Working remotely likely means incurring additional costs of powering generators or purchasing inverters. Then there’s also the problem of internet access costs. Like the rest of the continent, Nigerians pay some of the highest internet access prices globally. Paying is not a guarantee of reliable connections either: Nigeria ranked in the bottom quarter of the 2019 broadband speed league of 208 countries, with a mean download speed of 1.56 megabits per second. Put another way, it will take over seven hours to download a 5-gigabyte movie.

Yet, for their part, a growing number of Nigerian tech startups are attempting to make it work. Movie streaming platform iROKOtv and fintech startups Paystack, Carbon and PiggyVest have all gone remote in the wake of the pandemic. In a bid to ease employees’ burdens, BuyCoins and PiggyVest are providing extra stipends to cover additional internet and electricity costs respectively.

Attempting to find similar workarounds amid the uncertainty may soon become a necessity for even more companies, says Emmanuel Ihim, an Abuja-based human resource management specialist. “Those that weren’t doing [remote work] before will have to start doing it now—because, for a lot of companies, it will be sink or swim.”

Culture clash

Beyond the barriers of power supply and internet access for employees, traditional Nigerian companies will also have to revise aspects of their established work and organizational culture to embrace remote work. Traditional precepts like employees being expected to never close and leave the office before their boss highlight a system optimized for perception and fear of authority rather than actual productivity.

For younger startups, often led and staffed mainly by millennials, there’s already an embrace of more flexibility. “It’s much easier for us because we have always been a healthy mix of remote and in-office normally,” says Odunayo Eweniyi, co-founder of PiggyVest, a fintech savings startup. That familiarity with remote work among tech insiders is especially prominent among software engineers many of whom have built careers from working remotely for foreign companies. In contrast, traditional companies often appear bogged down by concerns about productivity lags.

“We have similar fears [about productivity] but we choose to trust that the performance metrics we have put in place will trump the inefficiencies,” Eweniyi tells Quartz. “Yes, sometimes people do take advantage but the positives far outweigh the negatives in outcomes, employee productivity and results,” she explains.

For larger companies looking to adopt remote work models, the first step has to be a “rethink how they see work [because] sitting down for hours straight doesn’t equate to better or more work done,” says Timi Ajiboye, chief executive of BuyCoins.

Jumia, the biggest e-commerce operator in Africa with over 1,000 employees in Nigeria, offers an example of how even large companies can adapt. Acknowledging the threat of the outbreak “requires some shift” in how the company operates, Juliet Anammah, chairwoman of Jumia Nigeria, says the company has moved more meetings online while parts of its staff base, including marketing and customer experience teams, are starting to work remotely. It’s a model that could soon be applied more broadly across the company: “The situation is evolving, so we’ll keep adjusting as we go along,” she tells Quartz.

But ultimately, startups and businesses forced to test-run remote work on a full-time basis amid the coronavirus outbreak will likely do so knowing that Nigeria’s infrastructural shortcomings pose looming threats to productivity. “It’s all well and good if people want to do their jobs from home but if they don’t have electricity, fuel or good internet connection, nothing productive is going to happen,” says Ihim.

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