For months, employers all over the world have braced themselves for a potential reckoning: with the pandemic having caused so many workers to detach themselves from office life, expectations have changed dramatically. Even as managers continue to coax and prod, numerous companies face a difficult road ahead if they want to return to an “old normal” while remaining attractive to prospective employees.
Barring any sudden misfortune, 2023 is widely expected to be the year the pandemic recedes, and the reckoning has come. This may be no bad thing. Too much time out of office is certainly bad for productivity, not to mention esprit de corps. But hybrid arrangements, many researchers have found, can lead to greater productivity and company pride. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak, and shareholders are unlikely to quibble with a change in working culture if they can see the greater returns for themselves.
But perhaps the greatest benefit of the new normal is the focus on talent retention. Hybrid work offers a straightforward way to maintain the flexibility that technologies and workflows have afforded employees and employers during the pandemic. It is a more attractive and, in the long-run, cheaper solution than pre-pandemic strategies like outsized bonuses or the Silicon Valley cliche of ping pong tables and bean bag chairs in common areas.
The post-pandemic race for talent retention extends beyond companies. In some Gulf countries, where attracting and keeping the best workers is part of national development, governments are finding that lifestyle – and a sense of security – matters at least as much as pay packets. In the UAE, labour law reforms introduced during the pandemic have set a new regional standard for employees’ rights, incorporating part-time, remote and flexible working into protections for expatriate workers. The country has also introduced new visa categories to promote freelancing and remote working for foreign companies, in further recognition of changing attitudes towards working life.
This month, the Emirates has also seen a new unemployment insurance scheme come into effect. The programme, which is compulsory for all public and private sector employees outside the country’s free zones, costs between Dh5 ($1.36) and Dh10 a month, depending on an employee’s most recent basic salary level. Upon termination, employees will receive up to 60 per cent of their basic salary amount for a period of three months.
Initiatives like greater unemployment insurance benefits have another upside in post-pandemic life. Discussions about the transformation of working life are often unfairly centred on white-collar jobs, but the pandemic showed that when global crises hit, it is often those who are required to show up in person for work whose jobs are most vulnerable. Even in the richest countries, a majority of workers must be physically present in order to carry out their work. Where flexibility is not an option, the pandemic has reinforced the message that society must offer other ways of guaranteeing workers’ sense of security.
Overall, 2023 will be a year in which policymakers, employers and workers alike will demonstrate a greater understanding of the relationship between life outside the office and life within it. While there are many economic hurdles to get through before the world can be said to have recovered from what the past three years have wrought, immediate progress has been shown through structural changes to how we perceive and honour employees’ needs.