Employees Adjust to Telecommuting in the Middle East and North Africa

By Katie Nadworny January 12, 2021
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Cairo skyline

​Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Natasha Sim rarely stayed still. In her work as a water and sanitation engineer and consultant with Dorsch International Consultants, she often traveled between her home in Cairo, the main regional office in Amman, Jordan, and project sites in Egypt, Palestine and other locations in the Middle East. Her company was about to begin a project in Kabul, Afghanistan, when the pandemic swiftly made international travel impossible.

"All of our consultants were stuck in different parts of the world, either on project sites or stuck at their home base and were not able to get to project sites," Sim said. "That was challenging at first because a lot of our relationships with clients and a lot of our relationships on projects is very much based on human interaction."

New Possibilities for Flexible Work Arrangements

As offices tentatively open, companies and governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are trying to adapt to remote work. While some countries are mostly back to normal, the months of telecommuting have opened new possibilities for flexible work arrangements in countries where that was previously untested.

According to a survey conducted in June 2020 by Bayt.com, a leading job site in the MENA region, 74 percent of professionals in the region prefer jobs that allow remote work and 90 percent expect the prevalence of telecommuting to increase over the next few years.

But increased access to remote work is not a guarantee. "The concept of remote working is relatively new to the UAE [United Arab Emirates], and that's largely because it's always been envisaged that employees' normal place of work will be the registered premises of their employer, which is tied to your residence visa," said Victoria Smylie, an attorney with Al Tamimi & Co. in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). Since 2017, the UAE Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation has encouraged remote work for UAE nationals, but no comparable work arrangement was available to the country's expat workers. Nonetheless, the pandemic changed the work landscape out of necessity. 

Benefits and Drawbacks of Remote Work

For Marie Kunimatsu, who works at UNICEF in Cairo, said the benefits of telecommuting became apparent as she adjusted to suddenly working from home. "I felt like I'm utilizing the time of the day [more] efficiently than before," she noted.

Sim has had to navigate the drawbacks and benefits of remote work. On one hand, it's been harder to collaborate with her colleagues and communicate with clients over the Internet rather than in person. On the other hand, telecommuting suits her.

"I love working from home," Sim said. "I was getting very tired of traveling every week. I haven't spent this much time in one country probably since school." 

Smylie noted that there are benefits for everyone. "From an employee's point of view, it just provides more flexibility. It takes away, for some, an onerous commute, especially those that were traveling from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, for example, every day. You get to manage your own time more if you have children," she said. "And from an employer's point of view, [there's] employee satisfaction. Effectively there is a decrease in overheads, which is certainly important at the moment for businesses that may be struggling and have been taking a particular hit during the global recession."

Looking Forward

Going forward, it seems most likely that elements of flexible work arrangements will remain, even as offices go back to full capacity. 

"The online things will be more normal for our administration and also all the office procedures, so I hope with this blended style, it will be more efficient and easier," Kunimatsu said. 

In the UAE, visa quotas are derived from office square footage, which could complicate future flexibility with atypical work arrangements. "It will be interesting to see whether the arrangement for any visa quotas will change as these are linked to the office space rented by the employer, because even if you had an employee working full time from home, they would still count toward an employer's visa quota," Smylie said.

She thinks the UAE government will move to accommodate remote work more permanently. "There's nothing permanent within the laws in the UAE that permits remote working," Smylie said, but "given everything that's happened in the last couple of months, it's certainly an area that's likely on the horizon for change."

Sim believes that remote working will never completely replace in-person work situations. "We forget how much we rely on the human nuances and subliminal signals that we get from human interaction," she said. "Especially in the engineering field, we try not to rely on our intuition so much. We like to think we're all practical thinkers. And so, I think we forget sometimes how important that actually is.

"I think that no matter how tech-savvy we are, we're all still human," she added.

Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul. 

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