How A Tech Company With 400 Staff In 7 African Countries Is Making ‘Remote Work’ Work

By  |  March 27, 2020

Remote work to the rescue? 

Not too long ago, conversations around the subject of remote work leaned towards the idea that the concept of working-from-home was little more than some passing ‘woke’ fad.

Even with the internet and all the many tech tools that have made life a sweet dream, the opinion from hardliners was that remote work was not the same as actual work.

“How would teams collaborate on projects?, how will deliverables be tracked?, how will juniors be supervised?, How can we be sure anyone’s actually working?,” they countered.

But guess what, a devastating pandemic has pretty much crippled the world as we know it. And ‘remote work’ is the only reason many businesses are still functional. Now, who would have thought the ‘black sheep’ folks tend to love and hate would eventually come to the rescue? 

Well, that’s our life now — the stone the builders rejected is now the cornerstone, as the biblical saying goes.

Looking at current data, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused over 24,000 deaths and more than 550,000 infections globally. Entire nations are on lockdown, global economies are stuttering, and stay-at-home is the only medication that seems to be effective at the moment.

Working-from-home has, thus, become the new normal, even though it came as more of a spur-of-the-moment thing as nobody had really prepped for it. At the moment, remote work is sort of on trial globally as firms attempt to adjust their operations to quell the spread of the virus.

In Africa where COVID-19 infections seem to now be rising fast after a very slow start that initially triggered misguided claims that Africans were immune, there are lockdowns and curfews in place, among other measures. And many businesses (startups included) have since moved on to ‘remote life’.

One such business, Ringier One Africa Media (ROAM Africa) — the parent company of Jobberman, Cheki, and BrighterMonday — first set up a COVID-19-enforced ‘partial’ remote work policy on March 19.

Subsequently, the company took 87 percent of its operations remote. But as of today, March 27, ROAM Africa tells WeeTracker that the company has gone 100 percent remote.

Now, for a company that boasts up to 400 employees spread across 7 African countries in different time zones, that’s some serious stuff.

We caught up with Heather O’Shea, Head of Talent at ROAM Africa, who is also leading the transition to remote work, and she shared how ROAM Africa is adjusting to having all of its employees work remotely.

The ROAM Africa remote work experience

ROAM Africa calls itself “Africa’s leading classifieds group.” The company is operating and growing up to 8 marketplaces for buying cars, finding jobs, and acquiring properties, in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its 400 employees are stationed in Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and South Africa. 

Now, how does a team of that size and span make ‘remote work’ work? O’Shea says it’s by putting the employees at the centre of its remote plans.

  • Daily standup and stand down calls

“We’re constantly communicating with our staff to check in on their well-being, see what we could be doing better, etc,” she tells WeeTracker.

The importance of keeping employee morale high in such tumultuous times cannot be overstated and it is with this in mind that ROAM Africa has added two daily “standup” and “stand down” calls to the daily routine. O’Shea says the calls are more about checking on people than sweating anyone about work that needs to be done. 

As she puts it, “To boost employee morale during these unprecedented times, we started doing daily “standup” calls in the morning and “stand down” calls in the evening. We all hop on Google Hangouts and dial-in first thing. 

“Our CEO [Clemens Weitz] first addresses the whole team and then the heads of business take turns to speak. It’s business-focused but from a people perspective, the calls aim to find out: how is everyone doing?”

  • The use of tech tools

Remote work is only possible because tech tools make it happen and thankfully, the world is awash with a boatload of them. But having too many to choose from can also be a problem.

However, O’Shea mentions Google Suite tools (Docs, Hangouts), Slack, Zoom, Skype, and WhatsApp, as the tools with which the ROAM Africa team is making remote work possible. She also highlighted the importance of helping team members get familiar with those tools.

“Google Hangout is our “go-to” video conferencing tool because it’s high quality and free. But, we also use Zoom and Skype. We train our staff on all three video conferencing tools so that they can switch if the quality is poor due to low bandwidth.”

She also adds that WhatsApp is a very useful tool that probably doesn’t get enough credit, and Slack really helps too “We also depend on WhatsApp,” she says. “Many of our clients prefer to be contacted via WhatsApp than email.”

“Slack — which we’ve been using for many years — acts as our virtual office. After implementing the remote policy, we created a #whereabouts channel so staff can check-in,” She adds.

According to her, the idea is not for HR managers to micromanage employees at this time but to see if they’re okay and that they are adjusting to remote work and not feeling isolated during these trying times. This is especially necessary because many employees are not exactly familiar with working from home and need to stay motivated if they are to be productive.

  • How the team prepped for remote work

Before now, ROAM Africa had never tried remote work except in South Africa where its developers are pretty familiar with working from home. 

Prior to going remote on March 19, ROAM Africa did do a first test run in Ghana with rolling rotations. They would have shifts where some employees worked at home and others in the office. Subsequently, the company went remote in countries like Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya, and Tanzania. 

“We didn’t trial it. Rather we consulted with the team — how are you feeling set up? Do you have a spot at home? (We told our staff to have a dedicated workspace — had to tell them not to work in bed, not to get burned out.),” O’Shea explains.

She also says that the company gave its employees some important contacts that they would surely need during this period. These contacts were to help them troubleshoot and get reimbursements on certain work expenses.

“We provided them with contact lists — the levels of contact (e.g who do you need to contact for what? Like if you need to top-up your mobile data you need to call your manager. They’ll call finance which will credit your account immediately.) 

“There was massive ongoing communication. Only Ghana had a trial period. Everywhere else the attitude was: we’re going to prep you, check in on you, guide you, support you. And the staff has done remarkably well.”

  • Staying motivated while working remotely

The ROAM Africa Head of Talent says there are a number of ways through which staff can be motivated during these times. For starters, she cites the daily standup and stand down calls as good examples. Besides that, humour also helps.

“We also share funny videos on Slack. Every day, I look for funny clips to share with the team. For example, I’ll find a funny video of a woman working from home and her child is painting on her face,” remarks O’shea.

In addition, there are training and coachings designed to boost morale. “We’re also implementing 15-minute trainings as we strive to invest in our team. We want to boost employee morale. There is also LinkedIn learnings where they get a certificate at the end of it. There isn’t a day that goes by at ROAM that we don’t speak to our staff at least 3 or 4 times during some intervention.”

  • Tracking work progress while working remotely

The whole concept of remote work will amount to nought if actual work stays undone. This is why it is imperative that there are mechanisms in place to gauge progress. O’Shea says ROAM Africa is staying on top of things through weekly calls and employee engagement surveys.

“On the progress being made at the moment, I have a call twice a week and then we’re going to do the employee engagement survey next week. I have a standing call with HR managers twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays so that they can report back any issues,” she claims.

But even with all that effort, it’s easy to lose track of things, which is why record-keeping is also important.

“We also keep Google Sheets running with interventions, any issues that have been picked up. But I mean, even today I think about today, I don’t have anything set up, but if I’m looking at my diary, I actually have three calls with HR managers today because there may be issues that have cropped up.

“They’ve asked me to be online. So twice a week is formal. Otherwise other times it’s ad-hoc and it’s really about business. I want to understand what is the mood and I’ve got a running status in a Google sheet.” says O’Shea.

  • Other Miscellaneous Details

In keeping with the times, the company says it has given out hand sanitisers, dongles, and mobile data to its employees to help them keep safe and work their best during these times.

To ease the power problem, especially for its staff in Nigeria, ROAM Africa says fuel allotments have been given out. Similarly UPS devices have been available to its developers in South Africa — a country where power has been a challenge due to the well-documented problems faced by the state-owned utility company, Eskom.

On a light-hearted yet thoughtful note, the company has also taken the time to dish out remote work ‘dressing tips,’ lest things get awkward.

As O’Shea says, “We’ve been giving remote work tips to our staff as they lack experience working at home. For example, we remind our employees to respect professional dress code if they’re on a client call. The last thing they want is to inadvertently stand up if they’re wearing a dress shirt paired with shorts or casual bottoms!”

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