Covid ushered in the era of remote working but people still want a sense of place

We may say we like the idea of working anywhere and anytime but great cities are still beacons for talent

Olga Paul, a 34-year-old from Germany, works remotely from Gran Canaria, Spain, during the Covid-19 pandemic. Reuters
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It is three years since large tracts of the world went into pandemic-driven lockdown, uprooting many long-held conventions about how, where and when we work.

Given the generational disruption to working lives the Covid-19 crisis set in motion, it is not surprising that the discussion about the future of work seems to intensify with every passing week. Certainly most of us think, act and work differently to how we did only three years ago.

A new talent trends report called this process a “fundamental change in people’s values that is underpinning a structural shift in the labour market”.

Radically different ideas on work have also recently been advanced. But where will it end?

In the past few days, we have seen several sides of the future of work debate.

On one side is the campaign for the four-day week to be more widely adopted. It is argued that compressing and shortening the working week to 32 hours without reducing pay would be a boon for well-being and productivity.

A recent large-scale UK pilot study, the largest of its type in the world, generally found that employees who followed the reduced hours week were happier, healthier, less absent and that staff retention improved in those companies that switched to the format.

On the other end of that scale were discussions this month in South Korea that would have allowed people to work for up to 69 hours a week, up from the current 52-hour week in the country, which would have included up to 29 hours of overtime in the upper limit of hours.

The logic for this South Korean government measure was that it would enable workers to earn time off in lieu if they banked overtime hours, meaning they could take extended breaks from service in the future to use for family or caregiver duties.

The proposal has now been sent back for revision after opposition from younger workers and labour unions, who said it unfairly disrupted the potential for meaningful work-life balance. This was, you could say, the contrary force of "work harder and longer" to the "smarter and shorter" principle of the four-day week.

Hybrid working was meant to challenge the idea of the city you work in being the place you live in, but that has not happened

Somewhere in the middle, of course, is remote or hybrid working, where you may still be working longer hours than you should or are used to, but at least you are spending some of the time at home while you do so, cutting out tiresome hours of commuting to workplaces, for instance, or reducing the burdens of conforming to office culture.

The UAE Government this week mandated partial remote working for federal government offices on Fridays during Ramadan, which begins next week. The most important part of that policy is to effectively articulate expectations and boundaries, which say that 70 per cent can work remotely, while 30 per cent are required to be in the office.

Omar Al Olama, Minister of State for Digital Economy, AI and Remote Working Applications, said this week that the country must “move from using the methods of remote work as a trend to using them as a competitive advantage that improves the quality of life of residents and visitors to the UAE".

It is estimated about 40 per cent of workers in the UAE work remotely for some of the week, which chimes with the report on fundamental changes to employment practices cited at the top of this piece, which found that flexible working remains a key priority for workers in 2023.

Whether hybrid working sits comfortably with a shorter working week and genuine and deep collaboration among workforces globally are the partially unanswered questions three years on from when those shelter-at-home instructions became a lived reality.

Hybrid working was also meant to challenge the idea of the city you work in being the place you live in, but that has not happened.

We may say we like the idea of working anywhere and anytime, but people also still want some tethers and a sense of place, and anyway, the global regulatory and tax framework around extreme remote working will, in all probability, take years to catch up.

As such, great cities are still beacons for talent and ambition. People still want to work in towns and places that offer opportunity, convenience and choice in the hours when they are not working. That’s why the annual Arab Youth Survey has consistently found that young people from around the region – generally around two-thirds of respondents – want and see their future in the UAE because of its economic opportunities, safety and culture.

And what does that talent want most? Community and connection within easy reach. No wonder that the ideas of a 32-hour week and the rising trend of the 15-minute city are more than loosely entwined.

This week also saw the launch of the Expo City Dubai’s new residences wrapped within that 15-minute city principle of being a centre of economic activity and also a place with facilities on the doorsteps of residents. One potential buyer told The National that “this is how I see the future of all cities … It is the beginning of something new”.

Perhaps the shift in working practices is transforming time – or our increasing unwillingness to waste it – into the great commodity of our post-pandemic era. People also still crave connection, collaboration and communities. How long they spend at work and where they undertake those tasks remain in flux.

Published: March 17, 2023, 5:00 AM