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Thu 7 May 2020 07:43 AM

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New norms: Rethinking remote working boundaries for expats

With global travel restrictions in place, most employees continue to work from within the UAE. However, some have decided to work from abroad during this time, enabled by technology

New norms: Rethinking remote working boundaries for expats

Employers should seriously start to consider the post Covid-19 reality and plan for successful adaptation.

There is a bourgeoning tech community in cities such as Chiang Mai, Thailand and Oaxaca, Mexico. Keen observers of global economic development might argue that this makes sense given these cities are in rapidly emerging markets.

One thing in common between these communities, however, is that while there are certainly local nationals among its members, they are mainly expat driven.

The two cities have other things in common. They have reasonably developed IT infrastructures and, perhaps above all, have long been well known hotspots on the American and Asian backpacker trails. Hence, it is the lust for adventure and access to fast internet that has driven many tech entrepreneurs to such locations in search of the ultimate remote working lifestyle.

However, with social distancing efforts in place all over the world, including the UAE, to combat Covid-19, working remotely has become the new normal, and generally, companies indicate that they have adapted relatively seamlessly. This may come as a surprise considering that more than 85% of UAE companies in Mercer’s latest 'Covid-19 survey' indicated that only a small proportion of their employees worked remotely on a regular basis.

In a matter of a few weeks, the situation has completely changed, and many commentators, from consultants to philosophers, are now actively envisaging a changed world post the coronavirus crisis in which remote working becomes the norm. In general, the current consensus is that, based on positive experiences with flexible working, as well as supporting IT infrastructure investments, employees will demand more flexibility and business leaders will be more open to the concept.

In the UAE, while many employers, particularly in light of pressure to reduce costs in a global recession, are likely to have a more positive attitude towards working from home, an important consideration that makes our country unique is that expats comprise 90% of the working population.

With global travel restrictions in place, most employees continue to work from within the UAE; however, some have decided to work from abroad during this time, enabled by technology.

While this means they often have to adjust their time schedule to Gulf Standard Time, these employees are happy to do so in order to spend valuable time with friends or family, or even in a holiday home abroad.

More flexibility

Hence, in light of the expectation that life won’t resume to the pre-coronavirus normality any time soon, it isn’t beyond imagination that employees in the UAE, particularly expats, will expect more flexibility with regard to place of work after the crisis, and such requests that will go beyond working from their UAE home.

Given underlying currents in society and changing employee expectations, which were present well before covid-19, it is likely employers would have to seriously consider such requests.

While some companies may perceive this development as problematic, others will embrace it. These companies will go beyond allowing staff to work from other countries and may offer remote working as a differentiation tactic. An example where this can be particularly effective is highly sought-after digital talent, which can be expensive and difficult to attract.

Mercer’s 2019 “Deep Dive into Shallow Digital Talent Pools” study found that turnover for data scientists in the region is high at 13%, despite 80% of companies paying a premium for these types of jobs. Such talent acquisition and compensation related costs could be mitigated by making use of the rising trend in virtual international assignments.

While the prospects of greater work schedule flexibility and being closer to family and friends may sound very appealing for employees, there will be certain part of the current employee value proposition that may need to be compromised, such as annual flight tickets, tax-free pay and schooling allowances, to give just a few examples.

For employers, cross-border implications and prerequisites may be substantial when taking into consideration tax and labour laws in different markets. Employers will also need to evaluate how talent will be identified and managed across borders. This will not be an easy task to accomplish, rather a long journey, but for organizations that see adaptive working as a valuable element in their work models, this is a journey they’ll have to embark on.

Although we are still in the midst of dealing with the pandemic and outcomes remain difficult to predict, an increase in demand for more cross-border remote working is a realistic scenario. Employers should seriously start to consider the post Covid-19 reality and plan for successful adaptation.

While the initial focus will likely be on the practical aspects of returning to workplaces, plans should also incorporate actions to ensure or improve productivity. This was confirmed in Mercer’s recent online focus group on employees’ experiences in the Middle East during the crisis where most respondents indicated they were moderately to highly concerned about the extent to which the current situation impacted the ability to get their job done.

For the UAE specifically, with its high expat population, enhanced remote working is likely to have a larger international angle than in other countries and will have implications for government policy as well. In any case, in the near future, the expat communities in Oaxaca and Chiang Mai may see a new influx of remote-workers, and they may not only be “techies”.


Nuno Gomes is head of Careers, MENAT, at Mercer

Rob Thissen is Energy Sector Leader, ME, at Mercer

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