The new working-from-home trend driven by the coronavirus outbreak has not significantly dented staff productivity, according to a new Willis Towers Watson study of how UAE businesses are coping with the shift.
Just over a fifth of employers (22 per cent) said new working arrangements have actually boosted productivity, the global insurance brokerage found, while 11 per said there had been no change and 39 per cent noted a slight negative effect.
The April survey of 35 Middle East employers that employ 590,000 employees globally and 92,000 in the UAE, found only 11 per cent of businesses reported a “moderate” negative effect on their operations and no companies noted a large impact.
“The pandemic has forced us into a massive experiment in working from home, and many employers are relieved at how well staff productivity has held up, or even increased. Technology like fast broadband has been a huge enabler, and workers have been quick to switch to tools such as video conferencing,” said Thom Janssen, Middle East head of employee insights at Willis Towers Watson.
Stay-at-home directives, first rolled out in the UAE in March, saw the majority of the country’s workforce relocated from offices to homes as authorities tried to curb the spread of the virus. Malls, schools and businesses were also closed, which resulted in some salary cuts and job losses.
While restrictions have eased slightly, allowing limited numbers of employees to return to offices, Willis Towers Watson said it did not think there will be a push by businesses to get staff back to the office, especially with concerns about social distancing.
“Employers have seen that staff can be just as productive away from the office, and that may spark a greater shift to more agile working options, which could have implications for office real estate and the wider economy,” said Mr Janssen.
Two thirds of employers now say that over 75 per cent of their workforce is working remotely. Before Covid-19 the vast majority (81 per cent) said less than 10 per cent of their workforce carried out their jobs remotely, the study found.
Asked when they were planning to stop their new flexible working arrangements, 77 per cent of UAE firms said they have no end date in mind, while 13 per cent are looking at the end of June.
However, according to PwC's latest Covid-19 CFO Pulse Survey, which looks at how regional chief financial officers are responding to the crisis, most companies are looking to reopen, with two-thirds of Middle East CFOs expecting business to be back to normal within three months and 71 per cent very confident in their ability to meet customers' safety expectations.
Seventy per cent also believe they’d provide a safe working environment for their employees. While more than half of regional CFOs remain focused on accelerating automation and new ways of working as a priority, three quarters believe that flexible working will make their company better, and one third are planning to make this a permanent option.
Meanwhile, the Willis Towers Watson study found companies implemented a number of measures to help staff cope with changes in how they work. Four in 10 employers have increased staff access to counselling services and a similar percentage have removed any exclusions or limitations relating to pandemics from staff health plans or life and disability policies.
Sixty-four per cent of companies are running virtual social engagement initiatives for teams and departments, to help colleagues stay in touch and socialise.
However, although the majority of companies are regularly updating staff on the current situation, only 15 per cent have surveyed their employees to ask them their views and needs.
“While this is a challenging time for businesses, it is also placing huge stresses and pressures on individual people. Good employers are thinking of ways to help their staff navigate the pandemic, through better communication, more flexible working and improvements to benefits packages,” Mr Janssen added.