The measures introduced by governments across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) to curb the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has pushed millions to work remotely, bringing dramatic, unprecedented changes to the way we work and conduct business.
The human resources (HR) implications have been felt by every sector and industry, some positively, others fearing closure. Some businesses, particularly like the e-grocery startups in the region, healthtech and some software-as-a-service (SaaS)-based startups have had to go on a hiring spree to meet rising demand.
Others have had to opt for drastic measures in order to keep themselves afloat. Egypt-based Finish, an online marketplace for interior designers and contractors has according to its founder Mohamed Sarhan, taken “a serious hit” as a result of the Covid-19 spread, adding that the company had to eliminate certain job functions as part of its measures to reserve funds and avoid complete shutdown.
The worst-hit startups have laid off staff, and/or rolled out salary reductions. Almost all have sent their employees to work from home (WFH).
A Familiar Concept
Many startups in the region are used to working with and managing remote teams, usually their technical or backend office. It is common for tech startups, particularly in the GCC to employ developers and have an engineering team in places like Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and India, where talent is better skilled and comparatively cheaper, making them well accustomed to managing and working remotely.
“In terms of process, internally we have not had many changes,” says Tarek Kabrit, co-founder and CEO of UAE-based automotive marketplace Seez. “[We] have always had small teams who are used to working together remotely.”
With team sizes on the smaller side, startups have the advantage of being more agile and adaptive to the necessary changes.
“Startups were quicker to respond to these changes than big companies since they are already familiar with the work from home structures and how they work,” says Sarah Sabry, human resources manager at financial technology (fintech) startup Tribal.
If done right, WFH can reduce work-related stress and give employees more autonomy over their work.
“It helps people grow and makes them more responsible about their job functions knowing that there would not be managers walking around monitoring every move,” says Amir Sherif, CEO at Egypt-based online jobs portal Wuzzuf, where 90 per cent of employees now work from home, except for customer care representatives and employees who do not have adequate internet connection at their places.
Managers in the Middle East tend to be office-centric, requiring their employees to show up at 9am in the office, sit at their desk until 5 or 6 and leave after the boss leaves. In fact, the fixed hours working day is a remnant of the British Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century when factories needed fixed schedules to maximise output on their production lines.
It was Henry Ford that implemented the eight-hour working day in 1926 and doubled employee pay, the result of which was higher productivity and profits. The eight-hour day then became the norm, adopted by factories and eventually offices.
Yet this approach is unsuitable for the modern-working day and studies suggest it can harm employee productivity. A Stanford University study conducted in 2014 suggested that employees who worked from home were happier, more productive and less likely to quit than their counterparts who worked in the office.
"[This pandemic] provides the incentive for everyone to quickly adapt to working from home structures and help companies become more output-oriented rather than input-oriented," says Mohamed Darwich, product manager at tutuk and motorcycle ride-hailing company Halan. “Remote work will enable startups to establish an international team without being limited to the local talent pool, giving the business a boost in profitability and footprint.”
A wider talent pool, more motivated staff and better productivity may be just some of the advantages of remote working and WFH.
Rada Hrout disruptive organisational behavior consultant believes that remote working will also serve as a cost-cutting measure that will help businesses mitigate the economical impact of the crisis.
"Remote work reduces part of employment cost related to building, utilities and transportation (costs and allowances)," says Hrout.
The pandemic is likely to have long-lasting ramifications not only for the working culture in the region, but labour laws and the demand for real estate too. If managers see an increase in productivity as a result of WFH, then larger office space becomes unnecessary, it could also open up the discussion for introducing part time work visas in the GCC.
“I hope this will make people start thinking about flexibility and hopefully start a movement to make changes to something [labour laws] written 30-40 years ago,” says Claire Donnelly, regional director of HR consultancy The Alpha Group.
But while some founders have reported better productivity, WFH and remote working can hinder business development, which usually requires face-to-face meetings and human interaction which can be difficult to portray via video conferencing.
For women in particular, flexible working arrangements and WFH can be a great perk but in the current situation with all schools shut across the region, women now not only have their work and home responsibilities, they’ve also become educators.
“Once we come out of this, it is super important for companies to look at what worked and what didn’t and learn to see what to implement in the future,” says Donnelly.
Will WFH be Sustainable?
According to career coach and managing partner Discover Your Talents (DYT) Hassan AbdelQahar, enforcing remote work structures is a necessary part of emergency preparedness measures but this does not mean that it is going to be the new normal.
“Maintaining business continuity and employee productivity is what matters at the end of the day,” says AbdelQaher. "The outcomes of the seemingly new practice will take shape after the crisis is over so companies can re-evaluate the effectiveness of the remote work.”
For remote working to be effective, it requires managers to set clear guidelines, communicate effectively and establish clearly defined KPIs and deliverables for each individual employee.
"It can be sustainable if it is done right," says Kebrit. "It helps to have face to face meetings once in a while, but the bulk of work is usually done by individuals anyway. The current situation is actually pushing us to find even better ways to optimise this kind of work.”
*Wamda has invested in Seez