DUBAI: Time was when long office hours were equated by company management with employee engagement, while telecommuting was considered the province of the couch potato and lazybones.
That was before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic transformed the world of work, proving almost overnight that many types of traditional office tasks could be done equally efficiently from home.
The emergence and widespread acceptance of remote work has led to an explosion in the use of advanced communication technologies, including video conferencing apps like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and FaceTime that have virtually seamlessly replaced in-person meetings, thereby spreading the highly contagious virus.
“During the pandemic, individuals, organizations, communities and nations have encountered enormous hurdles, and video communication has helped maintain a sense of normality and continuity in life’s essential tasks,” said Sam Tayan, Middle East and North Africa Division Chief by Zoom, to Arab News.
More than two years later, the transition from full-time presence to partial remote interaction appears to be continuing, with workplaces, educational institutions, healthcare professionals, business partners, families and individuals all depending to varying degrees on communications applications.
For Melissa Whitehead, who lives in Dubai and works in public relations, working remotely was a game changer as it saved her fuel, parking and commuting time.
“Not being stuck in traffic for more than an hour twice a day has improved people’s overall mental well-being and even contributed to a greener environment by reducing car emissions,” she told Arab News.
But what employees like Whitehead see as an open argument, many employers see as a recipe for empty offices, less personal interaction, and productivity risks.
Since the easing of pandemic restrictions, businesses and government agencies have been scrambling — some of them impatient — to get employees back into the office environment. In fact, new studies show that demand for office space in countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is currently increasing.
Could the Middle East be witnessing the end of the “work from home” era popularly known as WFH?
Findings from 6Wresearch, a global market research and consulting firm, show that nearly 32 million square feet of office space is being built in Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia, to accommodate the many multinational companies now relocating to the kingdom.
The figures reflect the success of the kingdom’s HQ campaign, which aims to encourage at least 500 foreign companies to move their regional headquarters to Riyadh by 2030 as part of pushes to diversify the Saudi economy.
“The flexible office space industry is clearly set to grow in the Kingdom over the coming years as more newer firms and established companies choose serviced workspaces,” Ali Rao, CEO of Dubai-based Elixir Establishments, told Arabic News.
Rao estimates that the flexible office market in Saudi Arabia will grow at a compound annual rate of more than 6 percent over the next five years.
Post-pandemic demand for office space is also booming in the UAE, rising to a five-year high amid an influx of foreign companies looking to expand or relocate to the Gulf’s commercial hub, Dubai. Office units totaling 480,000 square feet were delivered in the first quarter of 2022, bringing the city’s supply to 107 million square feet, according to 6Wresearch.
Rao attributes the improved business environment and optimistic mood to the immense success of Expo 2020 Dubai (October 2021 to March 2022) and a series of UAE reforms to corporate, employment and visa regulations.
“What is helping to attract new investors and businesses are the host of new measures the UAE has introduced in recent months, from decriminalizing bounced checks to announcing long-term visas for five to 10 years, making it much easier and more attractive than ever makes for new investors to establish a base here,” he told Arab News.
Tayan of Zoom’s MENA division agrees that legislative changes have contributed to a much more benign investment environment.
“Economic reforms implemented by both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, such as 100 percent foreign ownership, new remote work visa initiatives and the government’s push to increase investment, are driving demand for commercial office space “, he said.
According to Tayan, the increasing demand for office space does not necessarily mean that remote work is a thing of the past. In fact, many companies rely on the hybrid working model and promote a better work-life balance for their employees.
“Work from home and hybrid working have become commonplace as 58 per cent of companies in the UAE offer variations of it and in most cases it has become a necessity,” he said.
The picture is not uniform beyond the Middle East either. According to a study by the real estate service provider Savills, an average of 80 percent of employees in Dubai are back in the office in some capacity, and the figure is even 90 percent in Chinese cities.
Meanwhile, in the City of London, fewer than 40 percent of workers have returned to the office, while the figure in North America is under 50 percent
According to Savills, differences between countries and regions depend on factors such as the length of local lockdowns, commute times, mobility and the average working age
Young workers seem more likely to seek interaction and mentoring in an office environment. For example, in Mumbai, where 50 percent of the working-age population is under 35, the shift to hybrid work has been much slower.
Other factors include the cost of renting office space, local workplace culture and the size of employee homes, as larger properties are more likely to have dedicated spaces for working from home.
A common concern of many business leaders around the world is that remote work reduces productivity. However, according to Tayan, the opposite could also be the case.
A study commissioned by Zoom and conducted by Forrester Consulting found that the composite model organization using Zoom could add up to 53 minutes of productivity per employee per week while reducing the need for company travel, potentially saving companies millions.
A separate Stanford University study found that working from home increased productivity by up to 13 percent. The increase in employee performance was attributed to a quieter and more comfortable work environment that allowed employees to work more minutes per shift with fewer breaks and sick days.
“It’s hard to say exactly what accounts for data pointing to increases in productivity in a work-from-home environment, but it’s likely a combination of factors such as work-life balance, lack of distraction, and employee satisfaction . ‘ Tajan said.
This was also reflected in a ConnectSolutions survey, which found that employees who followed the hybrid model had increased their productivity, with 30 percent completing more work in less time and 24 percent completing more work in the same period.
The business establishment seems to be taking notice, but seems reluctant to embrace a fully remote working model.
Priyabrata Rath, commercial investment manager at Powerhouse Real Estates, believes the trend towards remote and hybrid working will survive the pandemic but not completely eclipse office work.
“During the pandemic, it has helped all of us to cope with the changing times,” he told Arab News. “But it’s unlikely to permanently replace traditional offices.”
Whether in the Middle East or on a global scale, the general consensus seems to be that the pandemic has had a profound impact on attitudes towards remote and hybrid forms of work, ushering in an era of continued expansion of office space alongside widespread acceptance of more flexibility in the workplace.
“It’s definitely the beginning of a new era where hybrid labor arrangements are expected,” Elixir Establishments’ Rao told Arab News.
“Many organizations are now beginning to see distributed workspaces as a way to move from geo-specific workspaces to ones that are more human-driven.”