DUBAI: At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies were forced to take a more flexible approach to work, allowing their staff to carry out tasks remotely, splitting their time between home and the office and to define their own working hours.
The phenomenon has not only accelerated an existing trend toward the digitalization of work processes, but it has also made workplaces far more flexible and, as a byproduct, much more inclusive for women.
This has taken place at a time when many more women in the Arab world are entering the workforce thanks to new legislation designed to protect them from discrimination and harassment, and also due to burgeoning growth in new sectors of the economy.
Regional experts have welcomed this new environment of hybrid working and greater inclusivity. “We see quite a few companies adopting the flexible working model,” Marketa Simkova, partner of People and Change at KPMG, told Arab News.
“It could be more flexible working hours and also the off-site/on-site model. Women require the flexibility to juggle their private life, their family and work environment.”
Simkova, who is taking part in a panel discussion, “A new beginning: Work 2.0,” at the Arab Women Forum in Dubai on May 17, said several of her female clients appreciate such flexibility and view it as one of the deciding factors when they look for new opportunities.
“They prefer companies that could offer that,” she said.
In fact, advancing the role of women in society and the economy is considered a key driver of change in the Middle East.
According to the management consulting company McKinsey, increased female participation in professional and technical jobs could turbo-charge economic growth in a region that will be significantly impacted by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
McKinsey researchers estimate that the share of women in professional and technical jobs is set to more than double by 2030 as a result of the move toward digitalization, online platforms and entrepreneurship.
“Capturing this opportunity would put women in the Middle East at parity with global peers,” the firm said. “Women in the Middle East can go further and aim to achieve parity with the region’s men in professional and technical jobs.”
However, according to Simkova, regional firms are still divided on the issue, with many demanding their employees come back to the office after the lifting of pandemic restrictions as they feel productivity would otherwise drop.
Others simply do not have the flexibility because of the nature of their work.
“Most offer a hybrid model, which is a mix of working from home two or three days a week and the office,” Simkova said. “Very few select companies are completely flexible.”
Today, technology allows for this flexibility, with the expansion of tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom offering virtual meetings and the secure transfer of large files, while allowing home-based workers a better work-life balance.
“I see on the ground that this is an advantage,” Simkova said. “The benefits are that the flexibility suits more women than men, and the fact that they get this flexibility thanks to digitalization can then combine their family life and career, hence this whole situation is promoting diversity.”
According to McKinsey, digital inclusion is critical to boosting female participation in professional and technical jobs in the region, offering more advanced job opportunities with greater flexibility.
For Samia El-Kadiri, adviser and head of research in governance and compliance at Hawkamah, who is also taking part in the Arab Women Forum panel, diversity is a fundamental element to innovation and creativity.
“It is generally understood that companies with a diverse workforce are more likely to have a better understanding of their consumers,” she told Arab News. “So this (pandemic) crisis should be an encouragement for a new future that is more flexible, more diverse and more well-being oriented.”
Boards of directors are nowadays under the microscope as never before, measured on their racial, cultural and gender diversity criteria under the umbrella of environmental, social and corporate governance.
As a result, practices are changing, and El-Kadiri foresees that they will remain in place well into the future.
“Company leaders are also realizing that as well. So leaders can now focus on blending a culture that can provide for employees to work from anywhere they want. Some companies are already practicing those policies.”
As a result, digitalization has helped women during the pandemic to balance their work life with their responsibilities as mothers and caregivers.
“Especially in our region, women are under the pressure of stereotypes to give more time to home responsibilities or to their husbands,” El-Kadiri said.
“Today, they can do both. They can be successful and (fulfill) their responsibilities, not only in our region, but also globally.”
Despite many of the clear benefits, Simkova has a word of caution for companies and employees embracing remote and hybrid work.
“This digitalization trend will continue,” Simkova said. “But it remains to be seen how it will impact things such as employee engagement, productivity and employee learning in the long term.”
Indeed, there can be downsides to working from home. For instance, those employees who come into the office regularly tend to have greater visibility with management.
“We need to be a bit careful because we are starting to notice that it’s a disadvantage for a new starter,” Simkova said. “People don’t typically come to the office, so it’s more difficult for them to be integrated and make connections.”
Equally, newer employees working remotely tend to miss out on the chance to learn from others through observation and networking. “People are also social creatures,” Simkova said.
“If they don’t have the opportunity to meet frequently, create relationships and spend time together then, in the long term, it might impact their bond with the company, its culture and their engagement.”