In 2020 an unprecedented disruption to “business as usual” hit the Globe with a pandemic of a disease called COVID-19. Working from home is not surprisingly one of the hottest topics around this “new normal” of coronavirus, as businesses around the Globe have been forced to shutter their doors. ​​​​​​​ In the UAE for example, about 70% of the workforce were restricted to their homes to stem the outbreak starting in March of this year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has indeed been a “generation-defining event” that will influence how all of us behave, from consumers to producers, for years to come. Even as we return to “business-as-usual”, with the reopening of places that have been shut for three months or more, we will not be returning to the places as we remember them, they will be radically changed. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella aptly describes the scene: “As COVID-19 impacts every aspect of our work and life, we have seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months”.

Working From Home is Not a One-Size-Fits-All

We need to remember that work from home – and the concept of a traditional office – is not a one size fits all. David Michaels of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University reminds us not to forget the 50% of UK workers, and 72% of Americans do not have jobs with the ability to work from home at any time. He explains: “What is important about this pandemic is that it has shined a spotlight on workers who have been essential but before this were invisible.” the International Labor Organization estimates that: “18 per cent of workers have occupations that are suitable for WFH and live in countries with the infrastructure to enable WFH.” Vox tells us that only 4% of the US workforce, for example, normally works from home at least part time (it’s just slightly higher for the UK), but due to coronavirus 34% of folks were working from home in early April.

Whether this sticks, only time can tell, although Ben Pring, Co-Founder and Leader of Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work was confident enough to make this prediction​​​​​​​ in early June: “probably 15% more will be working at home permanently than pre-COVID-19”. Entrepreneur and adviser Hiten Shah reminds us that a transition to everyone who can moving towards permanent work from home would certainly be a radical shift from the status quo: “Right now, remote work isn’t working for most companies…That’s because we spent the last 120 years learning how people can be productive in an office.”

Working from Home in the Middle East

Working from home during the COVID-19 outbreak has been a mixed experience for employees in the Middle East. A Forbes Middle East study found that: “More than three quarters of respondents work as well or better at home, with 42% saying that they are just as productive working at home as they are in the office, and 34.3% saying that their productivity has increased while working from home.” Their study concluded that: “working from home is likely to continue, even after the health risks are reduced, as respondents feel that productivity is better at home than in the office.” According to a survey done this spring from Bayt.com, “74 percent of respondents said they preferred employers that allowed them to have a work-from-home option” and “87 percent of respondents said they have all the resources and tools needed to carry out their job remotely”. Respondents see the work from home trend as here to stay, with “90 percent (expecting) that remote work will increase over the next decade”.

Abdelrahman Shaath, an engineer in Abu Dhabi expressed his thoughts on working from home: (It has) “reduced my travel costs to work and I don’t have to order food from outside… At the same time, it has increased my productivity level.” In Saudi Arabia, HR employee Nawaf M, whose team is working from home as of this writing explained that he missed the office to Arab News: “I don’t like working from home. I feel like the office atmosphere is so important to maintaining a sense of professionalism and producing results.”

Solving the Challenges of Working From Home in the Middle East

A new study from Riverbed Research reports that the Middle East was generally ready to work from home when it comes to technology, yet challenges remain. GlobalFleet reports: “29% of organisations in the Middle East have already completed the migration of workloads to the cloud. A further 31% of organisations in the Middle East are in the process of performing such a migration. (And) an additional 20% said they would execute such a process within the next two years – which will then bring the total of cloud-compatible organisations to 80%.” Cybersecurity and compliance are one of the main things Riverbed Research found to be concerns, GlobalFleet explains: “52% of corporates in the Middle East are currently upgrading their networks. In 54% of cases, this is because of the need for greater security and compliance. In 50% of cases, it’s to improve performance.”

A study from Bayt.com of employees also found challenges, but these were related more to the human aspect than the tech one. 24% of employees in the Middle East feel “disconnected” from others, 20%  experience an “absence of learning opportunities” and 9% feel both overworked with “an inability to disconnect”.

Sheika Al Mheiri gives some great advice to employers on how to bridge these gaps in the new normal of virtual working – trackable metrics. She writes in Entrepreneur Middle East: “Focus on outcomes, not activity. As long as an employee is delivering quality work, hitting deadlines and goals, and being productive, it doesn’t matter when or how long they actually work. Each team and position should have some trackable metrics that indicate the level of productivity achieved.”

A Remote Working Charter

One organization that is setting the bar high to optimize the remote work experience is PwC Middle East. This May Consultancy-me.com quotes senior partner Hani Ashkar on why they set up the innovative guidelines: “Recognising the challenges that come with working remotely, the charter outlines twelve values we should all work to incorporate in our daily practice; individually and together as part of a greater team.” Set forth to support and empower employees, it includes forward thinking ideas such as: “Kids. Pets. Noise. Distractions. We all have it, no need to apologise for it.”

The Benefits of Work From Home

Where work from home has been an option, several organizations have conducted studies finding several benefits from remote work: radical reduction of carbon emissions, cost savings – from company costs to employee commute time & costs, more productivity from employees, improvement of work life balance, a more equitable workplace for women and people with disabilities or chronic illness, and better mental health and a more diverse workforce.

Top Global Companies Changing Their Work From Home Policies

A Gartner survey says that “74% of CFOs and Finance leaders will move at least 5% of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions post-COVID 19”. Nationwide was one of the first US companies to announce a transition to primarily working from home. Automaker Ford has extended work from home for most salaried employees “until at least the beginning of September”. Amazon and Microsoft have announced that their corporate employees do not have to return to offices until October; Zillow, Facebook and Google have announced work from home until the end of 2020, and Shopify’s offices will be closed until 2021.

Mark Zuckerberg told The Verge “I think we could get to about half of the company working remotely permanently” (in 5-10 years) and VMWare ​​​​​foresees 60% of their employees working from home “over time”. TwitterSquare and Groupe PSA​​​​​​​ have made remote work permanent for those that are able to do their jobs from home. As of this writing, Mondeley, Barclays and Morgan Stanley were all looking at rethinking their working from home policies. Even state government, such as Silicon Valley’s San Jose, California Santa Clara County board of supervisors, is getting involved with promoting virtual work, asking businesses to consider remote work as over 100,000 employees in their region commute for 3 or more hours per day, and they’ve seen as much as a 75% reduction in pollutant levels during the epidemic.

A new Gartner study of “company leaders, representing HR, legal and compliance, finance and real estate” found that 47% of respondents will allow employees to work remotely, and “82 percent of respondents intend to permit remote working some of the time”.

The Role of Human Resources in Work From Home

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Human Resources have become more crucial to businesses than ever before, as HR departments have been called upon to retain a sense of normalcy and connection. Michelle Davies, Vice-President of People at Phrasee explains: “Everyone’s been in panic mode, whether it’s fears over losing their job or that they weren’t able to buy toilet paper. But it’s not just about communicating with people formally about business matters. In the office, people have lots of informal connection points, so we’ve tried to recreate that virtually as you have to try and keep things as normal as you can.” In many cases work has become a lifeline to people who are isolated from their friends and families. Fun virtual activities such as pub quizzes, online fitness classes and after-work gatherings provide team-building and help alleviate the multiple stresses that the current pandemic has brought to people’s lives.

Human resources consultant and researcher Rada Hrout of Jordan, was quoted in EuroNews: “With COVID-19, we discovered the need for a more ‘human touch’ in all that we are offering. This is what customers are asking for, it is what employees are craving, to keep their engagement levels [up], and to keep their productivity levels as high as possible.”

Prasad Rajappan CEO and Founder, Zing, writes: “The HR function along with the businesses at large have found that HRTech is the best bet during these testing times to improve the team collaboration, productivity and keep achieving the business outcomes”. Indeed HR Tech such as video conferencing has become a critical tool in maintaining calm and continuity for workers during the COVID-19 pandemic; in many cases work has become a lifeline to people who are isolated from their friends and families. Fun virtual activities such as pub quizzes, online fitness classes and after-work gatherings provide team-building and help alleviate the multiple stresses that the current pandemic has brought to people’s lives.

Euronews reports that “Some analysts believe that the self-improvement market’s worth will be headed towards $13 billion dollars by 2022”. Vishen Lakhiani, the co-founder of the learning platform, Mindvalley, predicts that how HR relates to employees will be undergoing some radical changes in the near future: “We will start seeing intuition training in the workplace.”

Tech Tools to Support Remote Employees

TheNational.ae reported in June that “Video conferencing platform Zoom’s user base in the UAE grew 900 per cent to reach 1 million within a month after the country authorised its use in March”. Collaborative tools such as Microsoft Teams and SharePoint are a great way to continue the in person sharing when working from home, Corporate Recruiter Sharon Monroe explained to builtinchicago.com: “We found that it’s not so much about needing new tools but instead, leveraging existing tools to foster greater collaboration during quarantine.” Other effective virtual work enabling tech mentioned by HR leaders in that article include: Slack, TeamWork, and Grokker (a wellness tool).

In the article Working from home? Here are top tech tools to help you succeed Matt Martin offers a very extensive list of enablement tools – from project management tools (Asana, Notion, Trello, Monday, and Basecamp), to task management software (Tick, Todoist, Remember the Milk, and Microsoft ToDo) and online group chat (Slack, Hangouts, Glip by RingCentral, and Twist) as well as video conferencing (Skype, Zoom, WebEx, and GoToMeeting. Facebook Messenger).

Perhaps AI will play more of a part in human resources as the world adapts to more and more people working from home. In our GCC 2020 HR Tech Trends Report, when people were asked what they considered to be the most trending technology, artificial intelligence topped the list of answers. Additionally 42% of respondents said that their organizations were using it in their human resource organizations, and that number is sure to grow. At the IBM Think 2018 conference, Michio Kaku, author of The Future of Humanity, and a speaker at our upcoming HRSE Conference gave his vision of how AI will impact the future of work. “We’re going to have instantaneous knowledge… you’ll be able to talk (to AI, and they) will talk back to you. You’ll have expert information wherever you go.”

Mercer poses another intriguing use of technology in their article People Analytics in a Time of Uncertainty, “employee listening programs” to facilitate learning from your very own in-house experts: “When faced with a series of overwhelming challenges in a crisis, it’s best to consult experts on where to focus – and those experts are your employees.” They continue: “In the coming months, companies can try to return to how things were before – or they can use the rich amount of data from the crisis to become more resilient and efficient.”