Coronavirus: Why working from home is good for women's careers in UAE

An end to the culture of 'presenteeism' is crucial for female empowerment, experts say

happy young woman using her laptop at home,sitting on the carpet in her living room. Getty Images
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Working from home could help open doors for women in the workplace, employment experts have said.

Entrenched attitudes to "presenteeism" are shifting amid changes wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

And the perception by some that women would not be able to fully commit as much time as their male counterparts because of family commitments is being shattered.

“I am positive we are going to see more opportunities for women as firms are becoming more flexible about working hours,” said Louise Karim, managing director of careers platform, Women@Work.

"Previously women were losing out because some employers had concerns over the need for women to balance their home and work lives.

“An example of this is that mums are more likely to do the school runs to pick up the kids.”

Having the opportunity to work flexible working hours is crucial for the empowerment of women

She said the region has long suffered from an attitude of “presenteeism”, which meant firms were more concerned with people being in the office than what they were producing.

There is a feeling that old attitudes are starting to shift though. The decision by the Dubai Government, earlier in the week, to provide flexible working hours for staff was heralded as a game changer by many.

“The focus has now shifted to how productive staff are and what they are actually producing,” said Ms Karim.

She said the realignment of working life, due to the measures introduced to combat the coronavirus, could lead to the creation of a gig economy in the UAE, something the region has traditionally been reluctant to adopt.

“We are going to see more staff being hired on a part-time and freelance basis,” she said.

“Companies are realising it’s about what’s being produced and not about just being present in the office. Previously there were issues of trust with letting staff work remotely.

“One silver lining of this pandemic is firms see that staff don’t have to always be in the office, which will create more opportunities for women who are balancing family and work lives.”

It is also believed there will also be more opportunities for women to advance into senior roles if firms make flexible working hours a permanent option.

Anastasia El Hage said social distancing has made many offices largely redundant. Courtesy: Hubb Careers
Anastasia El Hage said social distancing has made many offices largely redundant. Courtesy: Hubb Careers

“Having the opportunity to work flexible working hours is crucial for the empowerment of women,” said Anastasia El Hage, founder of Hubb Careers.

“It was often the case that women would get to a certain point and be expected to make a choice between their career and having a family.

“The last number of months have shown that you can be every bit as efficient, if not more, by working from home.”

She said women in the region had traditionally found the range of jobs available to them limited once they had children.

“I experienced it myself and decided to start my own company,” she said.

“I realised I could work at a pace that suited me and my family and still be successful.”

Another way that working from home has had a drastic impact on work life is that social distancing has made large offices mainly redundant, something that could become permanent, according to Ms El Hage.

“I think it’s likely that many companies will be downsizing their offices,” she said.

“It’s been shown in many cases that people working from home are more efficient than in an office.

“They don’t spend any time travelling and don’t have the distractions of other people in the office when they are at home.”

Shahzad Bhatti, whose company The Co Dubai provides shared workspace, said there has been a noticeable increase in recent months of firms looking for smaller alternatives to the traditional office space.

However, he said it was still too early to tell what the long-term implications of Covid-19 would be on working patterns in the UAE.

“We’re definitely seeing a lot more downsizing,” he said.

“But there are many companies with huge leases taken out on offices and it will take time to renegotiate them.

“Those landlords are reliant on that rent and they will do whatever it takes to keep them.”

Claire Donnelly, who advises companies on productivity at MHC Consulting, said there was a clear desire to move away from the traditional office but some hurdles remained.

“The number of visas a company can apply for is linked to the size of their office and, until the law changes, that’s going to remain the case,” she said.

“Working from home is something that millennials [the loose term given to those born between 1981 and 1996] have been crying out for years but not everyone has the means to do it.

“There needs to be a middle ground, some people are thriving as they work from home but others are being driven stir crazy.”