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The gulf between remote workers and office advocates

A legacy of the pandemic is forcing governments to redesign working practices

remote work Reuters/Albert Gea
Remote work from home is enabled by digital tools, and appeals to those keen to avoid rush hour traffic to get to the office

I have a colleague here in Riyadh who is brilliant at what she does, but who admits timing is not her strength. While I’ll be in the office at the crack of dawn, she’ll often come in a couple of hours later.

Her preference is remote working. Having started her professional career during the coronavirus pandemic, she is used to working online.

She is a digital native, surrounded by digital tools, and she would rather not have to drive through the rush hour traffic to get to work.

Welcome to Saudi Arabia’s generation Z. They are smart, conscientious and like remote working.

But here comes the clash. The Gulf’s business owners and organisational leaders want their employees back in the office.

And this is in fact a global phenomenon, with politicians now diving into the debate. For example, the UK government recently passed a law that empowers employees to make two flexible working requests in a 12-month period, and employers must respond to the request within two months.

Additional UK legislation will grant employees the right to request flexible working from the first day of a new job, rather than the 26-week period of current frameworks.

These new laws, which will come into force from 2025, are an attempt to strike a balance between employees who felt the benefits of working from home during the pandemic and employers who want to have their people back in the office.

It is hard to make a call whether or not we will see similar laws in the Gulf.

Some cities are marketing themselves as remote-working destinations, but this seems to be positioned more at tech entrepreneurs and service-focused professionals abroad rather than those who already live in these places.

And there are offices to fill – although the lack of real estate space in a number of cities is giving some leaders another reason to prefer remote working.

Gulf remote workReuters/Anwar Mirza
Polluting rush hour traffic jams in Gulf cities conflict with Cop28 goals

Other issues to contend with are increasing urban sprawls and the related traffic woes (I do miss Europe and Asia’s public transport networks), as well as the pollution caused by all of those cars carrying a single passenger.

This is not a good look in the year of Cop28, and it is an issue the Gulf needs to deal with if it is going to improve the respiratory health of the local population.

I anticipate the status quo remaining, with younger people across the Gulf desiring more choices for how they work, versus their elders who prefer to keep in place the rules requiring people to be in the office during working hours.

However, we will probably see some outliers, who will not only implement remote working but actively use it as a recruiting tool to attract the best and brightest talent.

So our love-hate affair with remote working will remain for now. I shall keep coming in at the crack of dawn and saying “hello” to my colleague a couple of hours later.

The important thing is that the work is done, and done well.

Alex Malouf is a marketing communications executive based in the Middle East