Coronavirus: Working remotely in an environment of IT and energy constraints

Samson Addo Opinion Samson Addo is the writer of this opinion piece

Wed, 15 Jul 2020 Source: Samson Addo

What of Working Remotely?

Work from home (WFH), Work at Home (WAT) and work remotely (WR) are phrases being used often these days by most corporations and companies thanks to COVID-19. These words though not the same have very thin lines of difference that are hard to identify and hence some are tempted to use them interchangeably. They all carry on their shelves an understanding of a shift away from exclusively executing work responsibilities from traditional corporate offices. In this article we use the words work from home and work remotely interchangeably to describe the use of telecommunication and online resources to perform one's roles outside the company office.

WR is not a new concept. Forward-looking and agile companies have long harnessed the opportunities that are shrouded in the WR approach and have developed policies to guide employee actions and behaviour within the WR environment. Global Companies such as Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, which are largely IT-driven, have experimented with WR in the past and have entrenched such systems in the wake of COVID-19.

In response to social distancing protocols which have been birthed by COVID-19, companies in Ghana are busily finding ways to remain resilient by the application of nimble processes that help them continue to deliver to customer expectation. WR helps companies to circumvent the bottlenecks that COVID-19 erects within the traditional work-from-office system. Whilst WR is a good way of ensuring that social distancing protocols are observed within a corporate setting, key conditions such as good telecom/ IT infrastructure and adequate energy solutions are necessary for smooth process/operational maintenance and service delivery that WR is intended to offer.

My Experience working from Home

For example on 19th of June 2020, I decided to work from home because my to-do-list for that day required me to convene and lead a short training session, participate in a key business meeting and complete a report. All these activities hitherto would require physical meeting in our corporate office. With the advent of coronavirus, I thought that the activities could be done seamlessly through a virtual platform. Just one hour into my first activity for the day, power was siphoned from my electrical cables by the Electricity Company of Ghana, the largest electricity retailer in Ghana. And then I also realized that my telecommunication network was not very stable. Now reality dawned on me because I did know when power would be restored. Whilst I completed the first activity, I could not fully participate in the second meeting nor complete my report for the day, all because the power in my devises i.e. laptop and phones had all drained. I did not have a generator or any solar installation in spite of the abundance of sunlight in Ghana.

This experience clearly reveals that if the adequate level of telecom/IT and energy service efficiency is not guaranteed in Ghana, the attempt by companies to adopt a WR system in Ghana will be fraught with serious challenges.

Benefits and Demerits of WR

As estimated by Global Workplace Analytics nearly 25% to 30% of world employees will be working remotely and therefore WR systems should be cautiously promoted by companies because not only does it provide flexibility in work schedules for employees, but they also help companies to reduce some operational costs (e.g. electricity, water, etc), help employees to have time for their families and facilitates reduction in greenhouse gas emission because of reduced use of vehicles. WR has its disadvantages though and these include lack of social interaction which is present in the physical corporate office, loneliness, certain distractions in the house and community as well as fluctuations in power and network connectivity. Other challenges include the tendency to put in disarray corporate culture and values due to distance and sometimes the urge by employees to over-work whilst home.

Enabling Platforms

In Ghana, most organisations have resorted to using technologies such as Teams by Microsoft, Zoom by Zoom Video Communications Inc and Google Meet (formerly Hangout Meet) by Google to conduct virtual meetings and others are permitted to connect to their company systems remotely by way of an encrypted connection via the Internet called Virtual Private Network (VPN). VPN, however, comes with data security concerns which every company must address in line with its level of risk appetite and data security management policy.

Key Policy Issue - Internet

WR can be facilitated with the right policy framework both at the national and corporate levels. As indicated earlier WR is mainly facilitated when a country has a stable high-speed internet. Ghana has high-speed internet in some parts of the country and more is required to be done to improve quality and extend coverage to other parts of the country to promote widespread WR.

As a matter of fact Ghana has signed on to the Sustainable Development Goals and Goal 9 requires especially developing countries like Ghana to work ‘to significantly increase access to ICT and strive to provide universal and affordable access to internet’. This requires that there must adequate telecommunication infrastructure that provides quality high-speed internet service to enhance seamlessly system of WR. At the moment in spite of keen competition among telcos and internet service providers most consumers complained of poor internet service which is characterized by connection shudder. Secondly, the high cost of internet service limits widespread access and this impedes WR efforts. Even though Ghana signed on to “1 for 2” internet affordability target adopted by UN in 2017, cost of internet access is relatively high. Holding a virtual meeting using video and picture contents consume a lot of data and this may be seen as an additional cost to organizations and individuals.

Key Policy Issue - Energy

The second critical pillar for the smooth implementation of WR is the presence of efficient and sustainable energy. When power is predictably available and affordable companies and employees are more willing to adopt WR policy. We were happy when Ghana was saved from the severe energy crisis between 2015 and 2016. We were however ushered into a period power glut four years after 2015 due to presence of thermal plants to complement hydro sources plus scanty renewable sources of energy. Our power sector can be improved to ensure that affordable electricity is provided at all times.

The Energy Commission in its 2020 Energy outlook indicated that the current installed capacity of Ghana is ‘capable of generating over 25,000 GWh, which is enough to meet the country’s electricity requirement including suppressed demand’. This capacity is derived from three main hydro facilities, 14 thermal power plants (including embedded ones) and four renewable energy supply facilities. So the question then is why do we continue to experience unstable power supply? USAID found out that the issue emanates from ‘costly supply of electric power’ and the ‘significant financial deficit’ that stares the sector in the face.

WR will be greatly enhanced if power is constantly available for workers to work with their devices anywhere. This, therefore, requires that the energy sector should be enhanced through a concerted effort to significantly reduce its constraints. A key constraint is the increasing debt burden arising from increasing fuel cost to run the thermal plants (currently majority of Ghana’s power is generated from thermal source which depends on gas and liquid fuel). It is estimated that the energy sector debt is increasing at $300.00 million per quarter. Other challenges are the costly contracting regime i.e. take-or-pay arrangement, which has become albatross on the neck of policymakers, pre-disposition to gas supply volatility, increasing transmission and distribution loses (for example transmission loses increased from 3.7% in 2010 to 4.7% in 2019) and as 2020 Energy outlook report puts it, inadequate ‘regulatory precedent to drive competition’.

Way Forward

WR is a key response to COVID-19 and companies should prepare to assimilate it into their processes. By deploying the right technologies and supporting it with sound but flexible policy, business continuity and workplace safety will be guaranteed. Nevertheless, government must ensure that adequate policy and the enabling environment is created to deploy and safeguard critical IT infrastructures like the fibre-optic cables which provide high-speed internet service. The cost of internet access should be made affordable to enhance productivity and national development through IT. Efficiency should be instilled in the energy space through appropriate and cost-effective energy contracts, developing innovative means to reduce energy sector debts to make the sector more attractive and enhancing the efficiency of public utility providers without unnecessary government/political interventions.

Columnist: Samson Addo