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Opinions of Monday, 1 June 2020

Columnist: Goldstreet Business

The future of the Ghanaian work place

COVID-19 is the first ever global pandemic the world has ever experienced. While similarly fatal viruses have spread across parts of the world in the past, no one of them has had such a global impact, because this is the first one to arrive in a truly globalized social and economic arena, where virtually every country in the world is tied to the others in economic, political and social terms.

Thus, while the virus itself will eventually subside, or be brought under control, the world will never be quite the same again. Ghana as an enthusiastic member of the emergent global community will equally undergo a transformation in many ways.

One of the key areas of such permanent impact will be the work plamce. Since COVID 19 is spread by physical proximity, the work place, along with other such places where people necessarily gather, such as hubs for commerce, places of social interaction and venues for religious worship, sports and entertainment, will be under pressure to change their formats. Indeed this is already happening; far more people are working from home than ever before and many of them and their employers are already agreed that this should be a permanent arrangement, in place long after COVID 10 goes away.

This is being made possible by the digital revolution that has been sweeping across Ghana over the past two decades, and which is already transforming most aspects of economic activity from communications to data generation and transfer, from commerce to financial payments.

Thus it is befitting that it is MTN Ghana, the company that has been more responsible than any other institution – whether private or public – for bringing the digital revolution to Ghana, that is leading the formulation of strategies through which both corporate Ghana and the country’s government can adjust to the sweeping changes being thrown up by the collision between newly emergent technology and the ongoing global pandemic. Indeed, it is MTN Ghana, and to a lesser extent its smaller and less endowed competitors, business partners, affiliates and associates that will make the impending permanent changes in Ghana’s work places possible; and it is how well the company lives up to its pivotal new responsibilities in making digitalization available everywhere and in every type of economic activity that will determine just how well the emergent new work environment works, and thus how well Ghana is in the new global economy.

Preparation for change by both corporate Ghana and government itself is crucial and this is what MTN Ghana achieved at its watershed event last week.

“The timing of this could not have been better” affirms Selorm Adadevoh, CEO of MTN Ghana. “Just six months ago no one could have foreseen the situation we are in today. MTN Ghana continues to deliver a bold new digital world to support the future of work which is unfolding before us today.”

The four speakers succeeded in providing all the perspectives needed for employers and employees alike to get ready and make the most out of the impending new work environment.

Importantly they left no doubt as to the nature and scope of the impending changes, as well as their inevitability.

“COVID 19’s impact is simply an accelerator of fundamental change that would eventually have happened anyway” asserts Ehi Benitie, CEO of Clear Space Labs, a technology company that deals in artificial intelligence and automation. He refers to history to confirm his assertion – a century ago, the out break of Spanish Flu accelerated Graham Bell’s invention and subsequent market acceptance of the telephone, which offered a means of communication without the physical proximity through which that deadly virus was spread.

Indeed, the core change in the work environment globally – people working from home, rather than from formal offices provided by their employers – has been gradually gaining ground over the past few years, affirms Estelle Akofio Sowah, West African Regional Manager of C Squared, giving Google as an example of a major corporation that has been embracing this practice over the past few years. The arrival of COVID 19 however has made this a norm rather than a gradually growing exception.

But while in Ghana this is also now catching on as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the ramifications have not yet been properly understood, and this is a crucial issue that MTN Ghana’s event addressed.

At the core is the need for a fundamental change in how corporate human resource functions are handled.

“Employees will have to be assessed by their productivity rather by the number of hours they put in because if they are working from home, their employers cannot ascertain how many hours they are devoting to their jobs” asserts Franklin Asare, country manager of Oracle Ghana. “This means instituting Key Performance Indicators for individual staff, in the same way as companies use KPIs to measure their overall performance or that of departments, divisions or units.”

He further asserts that skills will become more important than ever before. “If everyone is working from home you cannot get the skills you need to execute your own job responsibilities from a colleague, because none would be available to you in your home.”

Indeed, employees are going to need new skill sets, which focus largely on understanding and using digital tools. Julian Opuni, CEO of Fidelity Bank predicts that future CEOs may have to be more skilled in digital technology use than even in the specific sectors where the companies they manage actually operate, as for example, some banks will actually become more of technology companies than just outright financial intermediaries. Asare suggests that companies may need to not just teach staff how to use digital tools, but could actually introduce certification for them in this regard, even if only on an informal basis.

New skills will require new training content. “People will need to learn new skills such as the ability to innovate, emotional intelligence and the ability to generate and use data” says Opuni.

The new work environment will require more trust between employers and employees, both of whom will have to be relied on by the other to exhibit utmost good faith in their responsibilities to each other while not being in close physical proximity. “Companies have to set clear policies for people working from home” asserts Akofio Sowah. “ There must be transparency both between the employees themselves and between employers and employees.”

Fortunately, as she points out, democratization of the work place is already taking place, replacing the traditional top heavy system whereby management simply dictates to their subordinates. Nowadays employees have a greater say in the processes deployed by their employers and this is already engendering greater trust between the two sides.

Then there is the issue of collaboration. Organizations run on teamwork and with people working from home, such organizations need to deploy apps that enable people working from disparate places to collaborate in their work, says Asare.

Another area where HR departments will have to adopt new ways is with regards to career planning. “HR departments will have to modernize their ways of career planning to prepare staff for lots of lateral movement in positions and job responsibilities that are impending” says Opuni. “Changes in the work place will create lots of redeployment opportunities.”

Crucially, the emergent new work environment will also dramatically increase skills mobility.

“ Technology will allow the best talents to offer their skills wherever they are needed, not just where they reside” explains Benitie. “ This will reduce labour migration in physical terms.” Indeed, for example, Ghana would be able to access the best medical knowledge without having to attract the best doctors here. Similarly, expert Ghanaian doctors can remain in their country and still make money by selling some of their expertise in rich jurisdictions.

Indeed, some jobs losses will result from the increased use of automation. But importantly, MTN Ghana’s panelists assure that while increased automation will cost some jobs, people who prepare well will rather fit into new positions created from the new ways of doing things.

“Automation is not going to take away our jobs” assures Benitie. “ But it levels the playing field by reducing the amount of specialized skill needed to do a particular job, since the worker only needs to know how to operate the machine that will do the job, rather than knowing how to actually knowing how to do the job himself or herself.”

This has major implications.

One is that it levels the playing field between small and big companies. Benitie points out that, for instance, using technology, a small enterprise can establish an e-commerce platform that hitherto only large companies had the capacity to do.

Again automation will not only result in more data generation, but will also free up people to interprete and use that data in new ways, with a view to understanding their customers needs and wants, how they prioritize their expenditures and so forth. Companies will, going forward, focus more on this, which will create new job opportunities in that area.

Interestingly, MTN Ghana itself is a pioneer in this area in the country, which is known as data analytics and indeed this is a major driver of the company’s outstanding success in attracting one of the largest and most loyal customer bases that any company in Ghana can boast of.

Indeed, the use of digital technology to meet customers needs will be a key focus in the changing nature of Ghana’s work place.

“Companies will have to redesign the mix of their product and service distribution channels to keep their customers satisfied” asserts Opuni. “We are experiencing a forced migration of activity to digital channels as customers do not want to leave their comfort zones and risk viral infection.”

While this is a direct result of COVID 19 do not expect things to revert back to the old ways when the pandemic eventually subsides. Both companies and their customers are seeing the advantages of using digital channels which are both cheaper to use and more convenient for both sides. However, Opuni acknowledges that some customers will still prefer the traditional distribution channels, such as brick and mortar physical bank branches, rather than digital channels and even ATMs, and so it is up to companies themselves to discern the right mix of channels to keep everyone happy.

But a sharp shift towards digital channels is inevitable and this will have implications for space usage too. “A key consideration will be the maximization of space usage” says Opuni. “With the rise in the use of digital channels, organizations will not need as much space as they have been doing. But on the other hand, the advent of social distancing works in the other direction in that companies may require more space per employee or customer who still use formal offices to do their business.”

Government and its employees will be swept up in the impending permanent changes too. While government has actively sought to digitize the Ghanaian economy it is lagging behind in the use of technology by its own institutions. Asare frets that this could cost it with regards to its ability to attract the most talented employees who increasingly want to work within a digitized work place.

Ultimately, for all this to work, technology has to be top class and unfailing. Fortunately MTN Ghana itself has set high standards in this regard despite formidable challenges outside its direct control, such as unrelenting fibre cuts, both deliberately by thieves and vandals, and inadvertently by construction companies and the likes.

Last week’s event shows that as the industry leader and thus the cutting edge in the digitalization of the economy which is itself underpinning the evolution of the newly emerging work environment, MTN Ghana not only fully realizes its responsibilities, but it fully intends to live up to them.

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