COVID-19 has transformed the global workforce. Many organizations, including DAI, have transitioned to almost wholly remote working. And while collaborating across locations has always been necessary at DAI—we work in more than 100 countries—the scale of remote collaboration, with so many staff working from home, has never been this great.
98 percent of staff self-report that they can effectively perform their work from home
Is remote work working? Our internal surveys suggest that it is. Asked about their experience since the lockdown started in March, 98 percent of staff self-report that they can effectively perform their work from home, and just more than half believe they’re actually more productive in their new remote working arrangement, for reasons we’ll get into later. One of the reasons we’ve been successful in the Nigeria office in particular is a commitment to knowledge management (KM).
Results from a survey of staff in DAI’s offices in Lagos and Abuja. (Graphics Design by Damilola Praiseworth)
KM is a discipline that improves the productivity of organisations by leveraging technology, processes, and organizational culture to better share, apply, create, capture, and store knowledge. Poor KM practices duplicate efforts, compromise quality by following less-than-best practices, waste time searching for existing resources, and jeopardize business opportunities when personnel fail to share knowledge. Good KM improves the generation and flow of useful information for decision making, builds smart organizations by making learning routine, and encourages a culture of trust that fosters innovation and productivity.
In DAI’s Nigeria office, we have focused on deploying approaches, activities, and technology crucial to the delivery of results for clients, meeting the development needs of beneficiaries, and being a successful business. Here’s what we’ve learned over the past four months supporting DAI’s remote work and delivery efforts.
Four KM Lessons Learned
Knowledge Sharing Enables Collaboration and Project Delivery:
Knowledge sharing is always critical to organizational success but even more so when teams are apart. To share knowledge effectively during the pandemic, we have had to tap a deep reservoir of trust, commit to virtual engagement, and energize our communications.
COVID-19 has confirmed that our culture of trust, corporate kindness, collaboration, and collegial care is strong.
Building Trust: Knowledge sharing is helped or harmed by the underlying organizational culture, and that in turn is shaped by senior management and the behaviors and incentives it intentionally or inadvertently encourages over time. DAI’s team in Nigeria was established in 2018 with the acquisition of former partner GRID Consulting and now consists of 40 employees in Lagos and Abuja. From the outset, the management team took steps to foster a shared identity and “One DAI” culture, including group strategic planning and team-building workshops. COVID-19 has confirmed that our culture of trust, corporate kindness, collaboration, and collegial care is strong.
Engaging Virtually: Meetings are the bane and bedrock of corporate workdays. While they may take up productive time, when done properly they are valuable vehicles for the creation, recognition, use, and exchange of both tacit and explicit knowledge. Since the lockdown, the Nigeria office has used the video conferencing platform Microsoft Teams to host new, inclusive organizational get-togethers such as our COVID-19 Crisis Response Team and weekly all-staff meetings. Prior to the crisis, the Nigeria office held weekly meetings in the two separate office locations, Abuja and Lagos. The shift to remote work has actually brought the two offices closer together in that respect, helping us to maintain accountability, boost morale, and reinforce connections.
Strengthening Communications: The double whammy of responding to the health crisis and managing a remote workforce has underscored the need to communicate even more frequently, and with more stakeholders. In a weekly internal and monthly external newsletter, for example, we create knowledge flows for project staff, partners, consultants, clients, and beneficiaries. Internally, new WhatsApp Messenger Group chatrooms allow us to sustain immediate, professional, courteous, productive, and supportive conversations among the team. Increasingly, employees and project staff are using the platform to circulate new government directives, announce new wins, share documents, seek collaborators, and check in on colleagues and their wellbeing.
Knowledge Storing Supports Staff Autonomy
Remote work makes it impossible to drop by an associate’s desk to be reminded of a process or shown where a document is. Employees need to act more independently, which entails useful resources being available, personnel knowing how to find them, and systems helping them find resources they may not even be looking for.
Good KM enables “findability” and “discoverability” by leveraging technology such as resource repositories and developing good taxonomies. Our Nigeria KM unit has collated, archived, and shared links to templates, tools, guidelines, proposals, reports, case studies, and image libraries in increasingly rich repositories, and is working to aggregate resources from DAI projects previously stored on disparate websites.
Remote Knowledge Creation Requires a Willingness to Experiment
Much of the work we do developing proposals, conceptualizing technical delivery, and managing projects requires group brainstorming, deliberation, and problem-solving, often in face-to-face incubators and co-creation settings. Remote ideation is a challenge, but we have found that active facilitation by our trained KM unit has yielded productive brainstorming, work planning workshops, after-action reviews, and informal coaching sessions. Over the past 17 weeks, we have leveraged online collaborative platforms to jointly deliver business proposals, technical reports, and even a documentary film.
Effective remote collaboration requires that staff enter the process with the right mindset—primed for openness, innovation, and experimentation—which in turn presupposes a degree of trust in the facilitator and the other participants.
Invest in Digital Technology and Digital Know-How
Needless to say, effective remote working requires the right technology, from Webex and Microsoft Teams to Google Hangouts and Mural. But it also requires familiarity with the technology, and a distinct set of people skills to facilitate online rather than in-person interactions. As we adapt to the landscape of remote delivery, DAI is fortunate that its in-house Center for Digital Acceleration (CDA) and Office of Information Management Technology (OIMT) provide business units and project teams not only with state-of-the-art tech, but with world-class training, support, and experience in the soft skills—the how-to of online training, webinars, and interactive workshops—that make those platforms perform. To take just one example: cybersecurity has emerged as an everyday, every-employee concern as work shifts to the home. DAI’s IT team shares tips and useful reports every week on how to keep systems and client interactions safe from online harms.
Is Remote Work Working?
Can wholly remote teams be as productive as co-located teams? Four months into the experiment, the jury is still out—perhaps the optimal set-up is some kind of hybrid. But it is clear that over the remote-work period, DAI’s Nigeria office has been able to help individual employees work better, help clients respond to the pandemic, and find digital ways to deliver our projects, all while contributing to better public health by curbing coronavirus spread.
Remote work enables increased flexibility and autonomy and frees employees from a rigid, one-size-fits-all work window, meaning that staff are able to work in a more personalized environment
An anonymous staff survey and anecdotal evidence suggests that the average employee delivers more outputs and is more productive while working from home than onsite. Just over half of all staff reported that working from home has enhanced productivity, partly as a result of having work hours available previously lost to commuting. Colleagues in Lagos have gained up to an astounding four extra hours daily and employees with more flexible schedules are generally working more hours.
In terms of quality, remote work enables increased flexibility and autonomy and frees employees from a rigid, one-size-fits-all work window, meaning that staff are able to work in a more personalized environment: complete solitude for the loners, background music for those who prefer it; working late into the night for our night owls, or the opposite for our early birds. The flexibility to work in optimal conditions—and perhaps an increased sense of personal ownership that comes with working alone—has reduced the need for rework, we find, and led employees to be more accountable.
Ultimately, the measure of remote work will be our success in delivering development results. In the period we have worked remotely, the Nigeria office has successfully started up two new programmes: the European Union-funded Technical Assistance to Strengthen Public Financial Management, Statistics, Monitoring, and Evaluation Systems in Yobe State; and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Youth-Powered Ecosystem to Advance Urban Adolescent Health and Well-Being. We have completed delivery of and closed out two projects, and the office has continued to deliver results on 10 more.
The key point is that remote work does not just happen by default. It requires sustained investments in a high-trust organizational culture, guided by a clear strategy and deliberate execution. Establishing a sound KM culture has been an integral part of that strategy, and thoughtfully creating, capturing, sharing, and storing knowledge has stood DAI in Nigeria in good stead for the stress test of COVID-19.
Enene Ejembi is a knowledge management and strategic communications manager and Damilola Praiseworth is a knowledge management and strategic communications associate for DAI based in Abuja, Nigeria.