Is working from home hyped for the “new normal”?

Tuesday August 04 2020

A woman works from home. This requires one to create an organised space free of inconveniences to be productive. PHOTO/INTERNET

During the lockdown, thanks to Coronavirus disease (Covid-19) containment measures, many businesses went into an unusual mode.

Despite the painstaking approach being used to ease the lockdown, the need to do business differently seems to be picking up momentum slowly.
As a result of this, some habits that were previously frowned upon, suddenly became trendy.

Until the Covid-19 pandemic reared its ugly head, the idea of taking office work home or making home a workplace was not that popular, especially among the elite and corporate employees.

This is because it tends to interfere with the quality time one could spend with dear ones. Also, the home environment does not particularly exude the kind of atmosphere that can help one operate productively without disruption.
At the moment, many employees, notably those in the formal sector, and those involved with corporate organisations, seem to have no problem with the idea of working from home. In fact, many appear to relish the opportunity.

And because of that, some employers are insisting on letting most of their employees to work from home.
But in all this, who is the ultimate beneficiary?
“I am enjoying working from home,” says the country leader for Ernst & Young (EY) in Uganda, Mr Muhammed Ssempijja.
“I think it is more productive to work from home. I also believe it cut costs and save a lot of time. With time, people will adapt to it and eventually it will be the convenient mode of operation,” he says.
Addressing the cost implication concerns and inconvenience that could result from this mode of operation, Mr Ssempijja whose work is primarily to provide assurance services which include financial audit, tax, consulting and advisory services, says, “In life, you cannot have everything and that is how it is.”

“The inconveniences including the erosion of social connection is the opportunity cost for embracing technology. I believe it is the price we have to pay for working from home,” Mr Ssempijja says when contacted for this article.
He continues: “I have been working from home for about three months. Sometimes I wake up at wee hours to do some work.


For me, that is convenience. I also put in longer shifts in my work than before and I don’t find that burdening.”
Before Covid-19 struck, Ssempijja would spend nearly three hours every day just in traffic while trying to get to office. Not anymore.

“The inconvenience that people say the family provides is different for my case. I now have more time with my family and the attachment has grown,” Mr Ssempijja notes.

He says the overhead cost for the office will reduce and work places will no longer be the place where things happen as technology define how people live their lives.

According to Mr Ssempijja, as we sacrifice our social life thanks to technology, companies that will see the light at the end of the tunnel, following the disruption caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, will be those that invest in technology because that is where the future is.

However, Karen Mubiru thinks differently. She believes that people are social beings and without that element; their consciousness towards each other will dissipate and that is bad news for humanity.

“Working together as a group or collectively towards one agenda is not exactly the same as working individually in our various cocoons. We need each other to grow and be efficient. That cannot be achieved in the absence of social connection,” she says.

Ms Mubiru believes that working from home should not be at the cost of setting us physically apart from each other because people are social beings. Should the aspect of individualism be rooted as evidenced by the agitation to work from home, it will not be long before the bottom lines of organisations get worse as a result of  disillusionment, low output due to frequent disruptions at home and total lack of accountability will be the ultimate price to pay.

By working from home, an employee will have to take care of several things that the employer would have provided at workplace (office). For example you will need some space with a good desktop setup to work from. You will also have to use some power (electricity). And you should also be prepared to incur some phone and internet costs.

This is in addition to creating an organised space or environment free of inconveniences so as to be productive. And you must actually create time for working. For those with families, you must learn to be multi-skilled.
When interviewed for this article, Ms Doreen Adiru Agata, an insurer with one of the leading insurance company in the country, seems to like the idea of working from home, with a disclaimer though.

She says: “People who are self-driven may benefit the most, but this on its own is not enough. The questions however is, who will take the cost that comes with working from home?”

She continues: “It doesn’t make sense to work from home if you are struggling to clear your Yaka (electricity bills). It is worse if you cannot afford the cost of sufficient data. You need support and it should come from your employer. Without the necessary help, this idea of working from home will not work.”

As for Mr John Kakungulu Walugembe, the executive director of Federation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises - Uganda (FSME), the whole idea of working from home is not just elitist but driven by the privileged few who have decided to make this their agenda in total disregard of the context in which the country’s economy is operating under.
“First of all, most employees are digitally illiterate save for a few elites,” he says.

According to Mr Walugembe, the economy is still struggling to mechanise agriculture, and people are talking of working from home!

“Unlike the western world setting, we still have a way to go before actualising the idea of working from home. And I am not saying it is a bad thing. What I am saying is that we have to first attain some standards and reach certain stage before thinking of such wonderful but difficult to implement ideas.”

He continues: “Some employees live near a bar or a market place, so tell me how you are going to deal with the noise and disruptions emanating from such surroundings. We cannot sleep walk our way into the so called ‘new normal.’ We must be prepared for it.”

“Working from home is possible, depending on the kind of work you are engaged in. For me all I need is a laptop!” Dr Yusuf Kiwala, a lecturer at Makerere University College of Business and Management Science, says in an interview.
According to Dr Kiwala, working from home has been a revelation for him for the duration of the lockdown, saying: “It’s working for me.”

However, his biggest regret so far is the cost of Internet services that he parts with. The other thing, especially if you are holding a Zoom meeting, is managing time, because any meeting beyond 30 minutes you may have to incur some cost yet the company or the institution is looking at cutting costs.

As employers take over their employees ’living spaces, they are inevitably passing over costs they would have otherwise incurred.

Importantly, meetings held digitally, save the employer the costs of electricity, water, telephones and toilets!

Employer’s role
Currently, conversations regarding compensation of employees incurring costs for doing their employers work are not happening. This is because the economic impact resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, is still taking its toll on Ugandans and the economy.

According to several available studies conducted during the peak of the lockdown, among them a survey conducted by the Economic Policy Research Centre, an independent policy think tank in the country, disclosed that overall, about 76 per cent of the businesses had reduced the size of the workforce due to Covid-19 risks and lockdown measures.

The law
According to the Director of Labour, Employment and Occupational Safety and Health at the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, Mr Martin Wandera, the law regulates where work is done. The law also requires that you communicate the place of work. However, lately the place of work is no longer the office but increasingly place of abode is becoming the new place of work.
“What is required now is to have the particulars of the law reflect that home can be a work place as well. This is important for legal reasons especially where dispute arises,” Mr Wandera says when contacted. He continues: “How do you hold an employee accountable if he doesn’t deliver while working from home?’’ Speaking about the cost involved while working from home, he says: “When it comes to the cost issue, it will be a matter of negotiations between the two—employer and employee. But it must be fair on both sides.”