by Keri Allan

Middle East goes remote for the future of work, business continuity

Sep 08, 2020
Business ContinuityIT LeadershipIT Strategy

COVID-19 forced businesses in the Middle East to move to remote working almost overnight, but once the pandemic passes will it continue as a trend?

diversity south african woman in hijab on video chat middle east uae by jacoblund gettyimages 10974
Credit: JacobLund / Getty Images

As the global pandemic forced companies to close offices, it shook up the way we work, especailly for the highly relationship-orientated businesses of the Middle East.  When COVID-19 arrived, in order to maintain business continuity, companies had to rely on digital engagement models rather than the traditional means of personal interaction with customers and co-workers. 

While the Middle East has embraced digital transformation is recent years, many companies were caught short by COVID-19. According to Riverbed Technology’s recent Future of Work Global Survey 2020, over two-thirds (68 percent) of UAE and Saudi organisations weren’t completely prepared to support remote working when the pandemic began.

Schneider Electric has had a flexible working policy in place for several years, but had never considered a situation where all employees would work from home at the same time.

“Our assumed ratio was 20 percent and we did our sizing for infrastructure, data centre capacity and connectivity based on this,” says Walid El Attar, MEA zone IT director at Schneider Electric. The business had to rapidly adjust in order to uphold business continuity, upgrading VPN gateways and internet connections as well as replacing desktops with laptops and accelerating the roll-out of Microsoft Teams to support remote collaboration.

Remote work spurs digital transformation

Many businesses were in a similar position but rose to the challenge by investing in the devices and applications that would facilitate remote working on a larger scale. For example, in a matter of weeks, Partha Banerjee, then CIO of Safeer Group, had evaluated and chosen a remote connectivity solution for his business.

Remote working has become a new reality and has acted as a catalyst for enterprises’ digital transformation plans, says Krishna Chinta, program manager, telecommunications and IoT, IDC Middle East and Africa. “It’s led to a shift in organisations’ IT investment priorities. [Focuses include] collaboration applications, video conference and unified communication systems, and smart digital work spaces to increase business resilience, continuity, and online presence as part of their ‘future of work’ adoption plans.”

Several benefits have come out of this unexpected move to remote working. For example, many CIOs have discovered the cost effectiveness of work from home  practices.

“It proved an eye opener for infrastructure cost savings,” Banerjee notes, while Wissam Al Adnay, chief information officer at GB Auto Group agrees that “it saves plenty of working space, electricity, fuel consumption as well as wasted time on traveling back and forth to the office”.

Remote work improves productivity

On a productivity level, Al Adnay has seen mixed results, with some departments and employees over-performing, while others had a noticeable drop in their productivity. In general, however, remote working is said to have improved employees’ productivity in the Middle East.

“There’s more acceptance around working from home now that it’s proven to be capable of generating productivity on par or even more than on-premise work practices,” notes Banerjee.

As they’ve adapted to the ‘new normal’, almost all of the businesses Riverbed surveyed (98 percent) said they’re comfortable with the broadscale shift towards remote work. And despite the challenges they’ve faced, almost a quarter (22 percent) of UAE and Saudi business leaders said they expect at least half of their employees to work remotely after the pandemic.

Mena Migally, Riverbed’s senior director, MENA, says there’s a definite trend towards introducing formalised work-from-home schemes that will enable workers in the post-COVID world to adopt more flexible working arrangements. According to the report, 41 perent of UAE and Saudi decision makers intend to make significant technology investments to enhance remote working performance within the next 12 months.

“This level of investment indicates that organisations have gained confidence in their workforce remaining productive and see the value of offering employees more flexibility and mobility, while ensuring resilience and flexibility of the business for the long term,” he concludes.