Remote working has been gaining popularity in recent years as increasing numbers of people favour the option of carrying out their duties from home or other non-traditional locations.

Abu Dhabi has seen an 18 per cent rise in the use of flexible workspaces in the past year, while Dubai has seen a 15 per cent uplift, according to property solutions company The Instant Group’s newly published ‘Global Cities’ review.

And now the idea has gained official approval. Earlier this month, Abu Dhabi’s Judicial Department (ADJD) announced its employees will be able to work from home following the introduction of a “telecommuting” system.

Yousef Saeed Al Abri, undersecretary of the ADJD, said the new system promoted flexible working methods, based on the use of technology to enable employees to offer the highest levels of professional service and to maximise their productivity, reported the Khaleej Times.

He added that the use of mobile technology would help to increase the speed with which tasks could be carried out as well as boost the accuracy.

While cost savings are an attractive benefit for organisations looking to introduce flexible working, there is plenty of research to show that productivity and engagement can also be boosted. A survey carried out last year by Robert Half UAE revealed that almost a quarter of HR directors have identified work-life balance as the leading reason why employees leave, suggesting that the adoption of more flexible working practices could be key to reducing staff turnover, as well as encouraging parents to return to the workforce.

It is “a trend that should not be ignored”, according to Gareth El Mettouri, associate director of Robert Half UAE. “A big driver behind the future of the workplace is [the need for] organisations to adapt to the working styles of the millennial generation,” he said. “These ‘digital natives’ value their ability to be connected to their technology at any time and from anywhere, and they don’t expect to be tied to a desk to prove their productivity.”

These ideas echo the findings of other studies carried out over the last year which suggest flexibility is increasingly important to today’s jobseekers. For example, a YouGov survey carried out in November 2016 found that 54 per cent of HR professionals consider flexible working hours to be the most important element in the UAE’s future working environment.

The Robert Half study also found that 39 per cent of HR directors believe in the importance of workplace mobility in boosting the productivity and engagement level of employees. So with departments like the ADJD embracing remote working, will others follow suit?

Dhabia Al Bayaty, account director at TRAC HR Consulting, is sure they will. “It is our belief that the ADJD has been prompted by other organisations, as different entities in the UAE are experimenting with flexible work arrangements in order to cut costs,” she said. “Although the GCC has a long way to go in terms of flexible work, we are seeing some discussion on this subject.”

Al Bayaty believes the talent forced out of the economy due to a lack of flexible working arrangements is “massive”, and that there is a lot of room for improvement, particularly in terms of working conditions that facilitate women’s career progression.

“Numerous studies and articles that address employee welfare indicate that employees who are allowed flexible work arrangements perform better and benefit their organisations,” says Bayaty.

Professor William Scott-Jackson, chairman of Oxford Strategic Consulting (OSC), agrees. OSC’s research into the employment of GCC women has shown that working from home or other remote locations has many advantages.

“Many people live many miles away from employment centres – like Riyadh, Dammam, Abu Dhabi or Muscat. Employment levels are extremely variable based on location,” said Scott-Jackson.

“GCC countries want to utilise the skills and human capital developed through increased education,” he added. “Yet at one point, over a million Saudis were receiving unemployment payments – with 80 per cent of those women and the majority having received a good state-funded education.” Many of these women would have liked a job and of those that were employed, only 1 per cent were able to work from home.

“Home working would allow the private sector in the GCC to offer a key benefit to compete with the high preference for government roles among nationals,” said Scott-Jackson.

For those organisations considering a move towards remote or flexible working, there are challenges and considerations that HR will need to address, such as the size of the business – smaller businesses may find it harder – co-workers’ concerns, monitoring the hours worked and the motivation which comes from working in a team, pointed out Bayaty.

But these are issues which can be overcome. Bayaty recommends clear communication and detailed employment contracts and job descriptions: “When everything is thoroughly discussed with the employee, there will be no room left for confusion as to what is expected from them.”

Other things to consider include setting clear deadlines for projects and tasks, and the use of productivity-tracking software, said Bayaty, so long as privacy concerns are addressed. “Sometimes, remote employees either under- or overestimate the amount of time they dedicate to work. Productivity trackers provide both parties with a more accurate estimate of time invested.” Frequent in-person meetings and daily verbal communication are useful to ensure employees working remotely still feel involved and motivated.

Scott-Jackson said any issues hampering home or remote working are more intrinsically linked to inappropriate management and ill-prepared workers. He believes the management of remote workers needs a different leadership style. “The leader cannot be directive and hands-on but needs to delegate and have a great deal of trust in the workers. This needs preparation and re-training before any kind of remote working can be introduced,” he said.

While there are ways to monitor work performance, Scott-Jackson said it is much better to develop the right attitudes among management and teams before remote working is introduced. “Fostering these attitudes across the UAE and wider GCC would positively affect performance, engagement and wellbeing.”

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