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Opinion: Is the future of work remote? Lessons from Coronavirus pandemic for the MENA business sector

The Covid-19 outbreak has challenged humanity to rethink its destiny on planet earth.

Without a vaccine in sight and 2.3% death rate, governments, organizations, your Facebook friends, celebrities, form Serena Williams to Taylor Swift, have all been preaching social distancing. And we’ve all been taking note.

In the Gulf region, governments have taken unprecedented measures to halt the spread of the epidemic, and the private sector is cooperating too. Gulf Talent reports that one-third of companies are taking active measures to prevent their employees from getting sick, mainly implementing remote working. But what does all this mean for business?

According to a 2018 study by IWG, 10 percent of UAE employees work from home, whilst 60% of work outside of the office for at least one day each week.

In spite of these heart-warming stats, in reality, working from home is still not widely and culturally accepted in the Gulf. Work is work, meaning you’re in the office, dressed for the occasion, collaborating with your team, contributing to the work environment. “Mo is working from home today” immediately creates an image of slouching Mo on a conference call at 12 PM, wearing a shirt and pyjama bottoms.

Without their teams under some form of a watchful eye, managers naturally worry about productivity and KPIs. But also form an employee perspective, business relations in the Gulf often overlap with friendships, more so than in Europe or the US, I can attest. Many people in the region are finding it hard and odd to physically break away from others and work in solitude. Will that not get lonely?

Despite the stigma, remote working has been preached by futurologists for decades and below I comprised the 3 most critical advantages to remote working for both employee and employer:

Remote working is safe, especially in risky times

We often expect complex solutions to complex problems. But experts advise that the best protective measures against Covid-19 are really rather simple: wash your hands and stay away from others. Working in a company is by definition highly interactive, one cannot keep away from doorknobs, desks, coffee machines, and other colleagues’ mints, as it turns out. This makes office space a perfect environment for mass-contamination.

In the Gulf, we pride ourselves on being a vibrant melting pot of nationalities, with people traveling back and forth around the world for business. In my hometown of Abu Dhabi alone, we are over 200 nationalities and Dubai International Airport sees between tens and hundreds of thousands fly through each day. Considering that 97% of people who contracted Covid-19 showing symptoms 10 days after their exposure to the virus, the risk of a patient zero quietly contaminating the workforce is rather significant. A highly contagious disease like the Covid-19 would spread like wildfire in an open space of a multinational, and the implications would be tragic at human level, disastrous for team morale and catastrophic for the company’s bottom line.

Unfortunately, I could not find any statistics for the Middle East & North Africa, but we can get a peek into how “sick days” translate into the cost from the ‘Britain’s Healthiest Workplace’ yearly survey. The study found that employees lost around 14.6% of their working hours due to absence but also due to presenteeism, which means attending work whilst ill. Sick employees are unproductive and the cost of that for companies has been steadily increasing since 2014, when the first survey was launched. In 2018, the cost was estimated at £77 billion annually. Let’s just say that is not a throw-around figure.

Remote working increases productivity and reduces costs for the employer

When the metric of productivity is no longer “showing up and doing stuff on your laptop”, it’s really all about real value delivered on time. Saving precious hours of commuting, working in comfy “house clothes”, undisturbed by Joel’s story about his weekend does in fact boost productivity.

A great study by a Stanford team together with Chinese travel agency Ctrip proved just that. The research team selected a sample of 500 employees out of Ctrip’s 16,000 HK based team. The sample was divided into two groups out of which half, 250 employees, continued working in the office, and half, 250, (happily) volunteered to work from home. After 2 years, the study found that amongst the work-from-homers, attrition decreased by 50%. These employees took less time off and showed signs of increased productivity equivalent to a full day’s work. Furthermore, the company saved almost $2,000 per employee on rent by reducing the amount of HQ office space.

The cost reduction element can be significant to a company: no electricity bills, no cleaning fees, no parking fees, no unexpected measures, etc. Most employees who work for big companies in the MENA already own work laptops, tablets and phones so the only investment for the employer would be in the tech framework. Tech platforms for meetings – Zoom, Webex and more on the startups’ side Slack and Google Hangouts, allow for seamless teamwork.

Remote working is clean for the environment

It’s trendy for companies to commit to reducing their carbon footprint, but recycling paper won’t cut it, unfortunately. Offices consume larger amounts of energy than homes on ventilating and lighting large spaces. People are more mindful of their use of energy at home than in the office. However, the largest source of pollution comes from employees commuting back and forth from home to the office, business trips and so on. This is especially pertinent in the Gulf, where walking or cycling to work is not a viable option.

Since the lockdown, city dwellers from around the world have witnessed the cleanest air in decades. From Philadelphia to Milan, to Beijing, cars got parked and the smog cleared. Humans took a step back and nature is, quite frankly, rejoicing.

To sum up, the case for remote working is clearly a strong one, although we should be mindful that it’s not applicable to all professions. More and more countries are embracing the practice, with the Netherlands, Finland, and Luxembourg sort of leading the way, but still, the percentages are low and there is a level of anxiety relating to the practice.

Us, the business community, we must ask yourselves, do these arguments suffice?

Dan Dimitriu

Dan Dimitriu

Guest Author at MENAbytes
A Senior Management Consultant who has been advising governments and Fortune 500 companies on digital banking, fintech, development strategies and more. He is also passionate about innovation and actively involved with Global Shapers. He can be reached on LinkedIn.
Dan Dimitriu
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