Interview given during a virtual conference organized by KfW / BMZ

Last month I gave an interview during a three-day virtual conference organized by KfW / BMZ, whose main topic was the use of remote management in fragile contexts. I was initially contacted by the organizers at the end of last year. We discussed and agreed with each other the preliminary content of the interview. They were positively surprised to discover that my point of view regarding the Remote Management efficacity was outside the mainstream. This would certainly be interesting for the more than 900 participants registered for the conference.

In this short article, I have summarized the content of the interview given on 21 January 2021, and which I would like to share with my colleagues given that it might provide food for thought for others in similar circumstances.

Life in Faizabad and my work there

Faizabad is a small town in the north-east of Afghanistan. Life there is not easy. There are only small shops and stalls along the main road, small cars, old motorbikes, and donkeys ridden by people in ancient traditional clothes, but in their hands are the latest generation of smartphones. It is like a kind of modern Middle Ages! Really fascinating!

Anyway, being a remote region, difficult to reach and leave, you must learn to fend for yourself. This principle is valid in everyday life. For example, during the construction of the hydropower plant, I took many technical decisions directly on site, because my team and I were seeing the problems first-hand in real time, and were thus the most appropriate persons to best understand the situation. Sometimes, I tried to involve specialists remotely, explaining to them the issues, hoping to obtain useful contributions from them. Unfortunately, I often realized that they had not properly understood the problems, because they were too distant from them and did not appreciate local circumstances that had led to a particular problem. So, ultimately, I found that the remote interaction was not always effective. To have a person capable of taking actions directly and promptly on site is essential.

Working remotely from home

Since February 2020, I have been compelled to work from home, in Italy, due to the coronavirus pandemic and the lack of adequate medical facilities available in Faizabad. Although so far there has been no evident incidence of Covid-19 on site, with more than 200 people working there at times, Fichtner is obliged to follow the recommendations by GIZ’s Risk Management Office (RMO), who currently recommends staying away because of the pandemic.

In these circumstances, there comes to mind the ethical dilemma of having local staff endangering their lives because of the lack of adequate medical facilities, while the foreigners work from home in safety. This was not good at all, but fortunately my colleagues on site understood that this unequal treatment has been imposed on me, and so they remain loyal to the project as usual. Looking back, it turns out that company management has to follow such safety recommendations for both moral and also liability reasons in order to avoid legal challenges from the family of dispatched experts if they were to suffer harm because the company had ignored safety warnings. Things are more complicated than they at first seem.

To facilitate remote management, my colleagues send me between 50 and 100 photographs and/or videos via WhatsApp daily, calling me when necessary to be sure that they are doing the right thing. Also, we have a structured cloud-based document management system which makes all project documents available to all stakeholders. A feature of this is the contractor’s daily report, which has a concise but comprehensive format uploaded in real-time showing details such as the weather and its impact, if any, on progress, resources deployed on site, completion status of each structure, photos (just one page but with 10 photos), work quantities (BOQ) and a qualitative (graphical) depiction of progress.

Another important factor is to give the necessary independence to your colleagues on site, because generally, whoever sees a problem with his own eyes is the best person to solve it. Of course, we have daily calls and I remain available permanently (7 days-a-week), as necessary, but I rely heavily on them.

Can the remote work mode substitute the usual one?

If you were to ask me: “Would you recommend working remotely in other similar contexts?”, in all frankness, I have to say: “I am not sure at all. It depends on the possibility to properly set up qualified staff locally”. The team currently on site was established while I was in Faizabad. So, I know every person in it; and each of them know me. We are a close-knit team, and we know our capabilities as well as our limits. This is an important factor, based on mutual respect. Also, we personally know the Contractor’s team on site.

Before Covid-19, I had daily face-to-face contact on site to identify and proactively solve impending problems in a spirit of mutual cooperation. This is a big advantage now that I am far from site. I could not have followed remotely the works, as I do now, if I had never been on site, and met the people that are working there. So, new technology is good, but it cannot substitute (yet?) what you can learn by just having a coffee with a colleague on site or, to be clearer, what we describe as “smell the mould”.