The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has been affecting businesses and economies all around the world. Businesses in the Gulf have also been impacted by the outbreak; one company that endured significant losses is state oil giant Saudi Aramco, dropping 10 percent on Riyadh's Tadawul stock exchange as of Monday. Equity markets across the Gulf continued to fall on that day, with losses totaling about $400 billion as global stocks plunged and crude prices fell to their lowest point since 1991.
Businesses around the world have been trying to figure out ways to keep their employees safe, with many asking their employees to work remotely. These include Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google. More recently, Apple CEO Tim cook encouraged employees at several of its global offices to "please feel free to work remotely if your job allows" in the coming days.
As for companies in the Arab world, there still seems to be a fear of remote work. A survey released last week by leading Middle East employment portal Gulf Talent found that 35 percent of Gulf-based employers said they could soon ask their staff to work from home. The study was based on responses from 1,600 company executives, managers, and human resource professionals in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.
According to the survey, only 6 percent of the companies surveyed had already implemented plans for their employees to work from home as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Of those surveyed, only 12 percent of companies already had remote work arrangements in place before the spread of the illness, revealing just how unpopular work-from-home really is in the Arab world.
And it doesn't seem like the coronavirus scare has fazed half of the companies included in the study as 54 percent of respondents said they had no plans to introduce work-from-home plans. A further 11 percent said they will not consider such schemes and will continue to ask staff to come in to work.
Out of the six surveyed countries, Bahrain emerged as the nation with the "highest rate of remote work plans at 38%." The Gulf state was followed by Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait, where numbers stood at 37 percent each. In Saudi Arabia, only 30 percent of companies confirmed plans for employees to work from home, while the percentage went down to 18 percent in Oman. Around 45 percent of companies planning to shift to remote work said they were going to do so for all their employees while the rest revealed they will only apply the scheme to some of their workers.
It seems Dubai is moving faster than others.
As of Tuesday, 25 percent of the workforce of some selected federal departments in Dubai started working remotely as a precautionary measure. On Wednesday, 50 percent of the workforce of select federal departments in Dubai will start working remotely. The pilot remote work system will cover 100 percent of the workforce of these departments by March 17 and will be applied gradually to other emirates in the UAE.
Companies in the region are not so comfortable with remote work, although the scheme has many advantages to both employers and employees alike.
What are the benefits of remote-work?
According to FlexJobs, a platform offering trusted professional remote and flexible jobs, working from home has a number of benefits. These include work-life balance due to increased flexibility, time-savings that are usually associated with commuting, money savings for both the employer (no office space) and employee (no transportation fees), increased productivity, and better health.
FlexJobs' annual survey found that 66 percent of professionals think they would be more productive working remotely than in a traditional office. This is due to the fact that working from home comes with fewer distractions, reduced office politics, and more quiet time. The fact that employees can work in pajamas is a plus.
With digital technology and online-based apps, working from anywhere in the world - not just from home - is easier than ever. You could chat on Slack, hold video conferences on Zoom, and track and assign tasks on Trello among other things.
Remote work is a global trend. Last year, Forbes announced that 50 percent of the workforce in the U.S. will soon be remote; Europe's remote workers have grown from 7.7 percent to 9.8 percent in the last decade.
According to Gallup's State of the American Workplace report, "The optimal engagement boost occurs when employees spend [around] three to four days working off-site."
So why are companies in the Arab world so afraid of flexibility when it serves all?