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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Dubai: Would we ever be able to go back to the way we worked before the pandemic, or is the sudden shift from office desks to home dining tables and sofas here to stay? More broadly, which is better for workers, employers, businesses and economies?
Both have shown their pros and cons, say experts, adding that it is too early to identify the best.
The answer could be in a combination of both, and on organizational levels rather than country level, they say.
“There are going to be companies that in the past would never have considered flexible working or working from home as valid options,” Anita O’Connor, a consultant in business performance management and strategic organizational development based in Abu Dhabi, told Arab News.
“Now they’re realizing that for many roles in their organization, there’s a possibility for this to be a normal way of working, whether in a full-time or more flexible capacity.”
O’Connor said some professions, including medicine, hospitality and construction, are not candidates for the home option, but in general, organizations are seeing the viability of working from home.
“During the lockdown, people were forced to stay at home with their kids, spouses, everyone put together. There was no consideration of a proper working space or sufficient wi-fi connectivity,” she added.
“Yet work from home has mostly been working quite well, so if companies make it a more full-time or part-time option for people, they’ll be working in a more realistic way. With their kids at school, they actually have the time to concentrate and be productive.”
Productivity, some managers agree, has increased when people work from home. It also saves money for businesses.
A recent article in The Economist quoted a survey by Korn Ferry, a digital global consultancy firm, as saying 64 percent of workers feel they are more productive at home.
Some global giants, including Facebook, Fujitsu, Siemens and Twitter, said most of their employees can and should work from home from now on.
The article added two new “dates” to our dictionary — “bc” (before COVID-19) and “ad” (after domestication).
Psychologists say working from home makes people feel less hectic as it involves fewer hassles related to getting dressed, driving, parking, traveling and running between meetings.
Also, people feel more in control of their lives and are able to spend more time with their families.
Thanks to the availability of broadband services allowing video conferences and prompt exchange of documents, working from home saves the time and money of commuting to work, allowing people to work effectively, especially in the fields of IT and communications, according to specialists.
During the lockdown, a Dubai-based customer called an Apple store seeking advice related to a gift card sent to a relative in Canada. A UAE-based customer-service representative picked up and transferred the caller to a colleague in Ottawa to answer the question. All three were working from home.
The option is gaining adherents. “The Dubai government has announced they’re going to implement flexible work-from-home practices for the long term for all their staff,” said O’Connor.
People should start thinking of organizing a comfortable work area at home instead ending up with back pain on the couch, said Jolanta Kowalczyk-Terziotti, an Abu Dhabi-based interior designer.
“COVID-19 has changed everything, and I think in the future everything will be different. We’ll be back to some things, but not everything of how we used to work,” she told Arab News.
Office interior designing will also be different to reflect the change. “Now the trend is open space, but we must go back to the old trend of closed space (where) people see each other but feel safe,” Kowalczyk-Terziotti said. One option is to have transparent partitions.
Others do not see such a rosy picture. Working from home would carry several negative economic, social, human and mental consequences in many fields, experts warn.
“Whether people are introverted or extroverted, we as humans do require social connectivity,” O’Connor said.
“Organizations work best when there are good relationships built between teams, and it’s very difficult to build good relationships without in-person connectivity.”
Quick conversations among colleagues could bring out “innovative ideas,” she said. “Physical meetings tend to be a bit more productive than Zoom meetings … because everybody in the room can be seen (and are more likely to share their) opinions.”
As they need to build productive teams, some organizations, while looking into flexible options, do ask employees to come to the office one day or a few days per week.
Clinical psychologist Saliha Afridi told Arab News: “Regardless of what technology will have us believe, we’re energetic beings and we need human connection.”
She added: “We need to be in each other’s company, feel each other’s presence while seeing each other’s faces. Zoom can never replace face-to-face, person-to-person interaction.”
Working from home can be an isolating experience, especially for single people, and can give people a feeling that they do not belong to a common purpose, said Afridi, managing director of The Lighthouse, a Dubai-based community mental-health and wellness clinic.
“Going to work is never just about work. You belong to a community, a common mission and a common purpose. When you aren’t leaving home and only see each other on Zoom, some of that can be lost,” she added.
Most importantly, Afridi said, the brain associates home with rest and recreation, which is why working from home requires strict discipline. Not everybody has the “luxury” of homes equipped to work from, she added.
The pandemic has badly hit economies, and some big businesses worldwide have filed for bankruptcy.
COVID-19 has changed everything, and I think in the future everything will be different. We’ll be back to some things, but not everything of how we used to work.
Many employees have been made redundant, and many others have ended up doing the work of two or three employees, experts say.
From an economic perspective, they add, benefits or losses from working from home are related to the country’s business.
“A business owner in London can opt for a smaller office space outside the expensive part of the city if he or she decides that people can remotely work,” said O’Connor.
“However, in other countries, like those in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) where construction and property developers are considered important contributors to the economy, the impact of working from home is yet to be seen,” she added.
“Having a business license in the UAE requires having an office space, and it’s unclear how allowing working from home would affect that rule.”
Safety and privacy are central to work, but many employees live in either small studios or share accommodation.
Working from homes make the line between work and home “very blurred, and you don’t have people being able to switch off,” said O’Connor.
When employees cannot be seen, they keep showing their visibility by working until late, which negatively affects their health and productivity, she added.
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