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Managing Remote Work in the Middle East

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The practice of remote working is not new and has been prevalent in several countries for many years. The coronavirus pandemic made this flexible-work arrangement commonplace across the globe, and the Middle East is no exception.

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Now, with the worst of COVID-19 possibly behind us, organizations need to revisit their decisions and actions that were taken to manage the operations to sail through the sudden and massive disruption the pandemic caused to rev up again and move forward.

One such item on every CHRO’s must-do list is to appropriately manage the advent of remote working.

The recent survey, Employment and Work-Life Outlook 2022, touched upon some key aspects of remote working. While the full report is expected to come out by the middle of March of this year, the following two strands of employee view stand out for white-collar professionals in the MENA region, and many of these findings reflect the state of remote work, and how employees feel about remote work, throughout the world.

  • Most employees believe their work-life balance has improved since the onset of COVID-19, as a result of the flexibility to work remotely (either fully or in a hybrid few days a week model).
  • Most employees and most of their managers believe the employee productivity has remained the same or has improved since they started managing their work/business operations working remotely, either fully or in some form of hybrid model of few days on-site and few days remote working.

Given this backdrop, it is no-brainer that remote work is already on its way to becoming a key must-have component of any company’s employee value proposition.

It means the HR fraternity in the region now needs to consider remote work as an important and common HR policy for their companies unless it only deals with blue collars.

Here, we touch upon the key aspects that need to be managed, and managed well, to have a smooth and effective remote working arrangement at your organization.

  • Eligibility: Who is eligible to work remotely? It is important that the company defines the criteria of remote working objectively. Simply put, this could be done by answering the following three basic questions:

- Can the employee do most (if not all) of his or her work remotely?

- Is the employee’s presence at the office (on a daily basis) needed for the successful performance of certain operational jobs or compliance needs?

- Is employees’ presence at work or in the field (on a daily basis) important for the customers?

 It is critical that your criteria of remote working are objective (and is also seen as objective by employees). A loose policy that leaves the decision with line managers or is perceived as an HR prerogative can be detrimental to the overall employee motivation of your workforce.

  • Employee performance management: It is vital that a thought-through process around employee performance management is implemented to manage remote workers. If left unmanaged, or if you assume that your existing performance management process, will be just fine, you are deeply mistaken. Slowly, but steadily, the productivity of employees and the team will drop to lower levels.

At this point, it is important to highlight that while your performance management solution (PMS) needs to leverage IT tools. The key is not to get drawn into what all the technology can track and the level of granularity of such tracking, such as mouse clicks or mouse movements.

It is important for the CEO and CHRO to be clear as to what needs to be measured, reviewed and guided to help employees perform at their best. It might be a cliché, but it’s important to remember that technology should just remain the enabler and not become a snooping tool that invades the privacy of employees or makes them feel too suffocated at (remote) work.

The design of the performance management solution, in particular, for the remote work scenario, needs to involve the line function at the design stage itself. This is important because the workflows, milestones and associated processes have varied nuances in the online remote-working setup. A one-size-fits-all PMS will not be your best bet in remote working situations.

  • Sustaining the corporate culture: While employee performance and metrics achievement by remote workers can be managed with a well-designed PMS, the company leadership needs to introduce and schedule opportunities of intra-team and cross-functional engagements, including leadership interactions such as town halls, to ensure sustaining the company’s corporate culture as well as to ensure organizational synergy. The key is to balance employee performance management with events that help reinforcement of company values and team spirit.
  • Technology beyond remote connectivity: Remote work cannot be thought of without the underlying technology that makes it possible. However, limiting ones thinking to just the technology of remote connectivity is a very myopic view of the situation. HR leadership needs to work with their IT teams to help migrate as many employee/people processes as possible and reasonable to online platforms so as to improve employees’ work-life balance. The idea is that employees get a platform where they thrive, and associate with their organizations, through various touchpoints, irrespective of their location of daily work - whether in the office or at home or at any other location.
  • Total rewards: The onset of the pandemic was sudden, which means that organizations were forced to quickly move into a remote work set-up for their employees. Remote work means no commuting time or travel costs for the employees or arranging of such facilities by the businesses. Similarly, it means saving on the workspace and associated infrastructure for the companies usually in commercial or business hubs while adding new costs of setting up home-office spaces for employees.

While geographical pay differentials are common in the western world, this may not be very relevant given the predominance of the expatriate population that primarily resides in the city they are employed or visa sponsored. Having said so, the factors of no or less commute or desk space-saving are aspects that apply equally to the workforce in the Middle East.

As such, organizations need to rethink salary packages, balancing them with the aspects of employee engagement, to formalize what will make them thrive in the coming future. Otherwise, one runs the risk of becoming uncompetitive on wage bills. Or worse, you are left with a set of outdated pay and benefits policies that breeds internal inequities and resulting demotivation at the workplace.

  • Keeping an eye on employee engagement: While our survey findings do seem to indicate that employees generally believe their ‘work-life’ balance has improved since the availability of remote working options, the survey findings also suggest that the overall employee engagement levels are between ‘neutral’ or ‘dissatisfied’ for a large population of the workforce.

We must realize that it is one thing for employers to move to remote work to ensure continuity of business and another thing to consider as an employee total rewards engagement tool that creates solid EVP. The latter approach means you consciously work towards making it a successful employee offering instead of letting it simply exist as a work arrangement forced upon you by the environment. It is no surprise that companies that supported employee health and well-being for remote workers already show higher employee engagement as compared to those that did nothing.

Organizations that consider remote working as a fact of operations and not a potent lever to manage employee engagement are losing out on a great opportunity. They are also unknowingly allowing disengagement to creep in by not proactively implementing tools and processes that engage this set of ‘remote working’ employees.

It is only a matter of time before employees and the job market starts reacting to the actions we took to ‘manage’ the operations during the pandemic. For organizations that planned and executed the above aspects with care and as well-defined processes, the journey would be smooth, and for those who are yet to figure out the answers to these questions, the coming days would be challenging.

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About the Author

Nirmal Singh is the founder and managing consultant of People Prudent Consulting & HR Solutions.


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