Working from home will be the ‘new norm’, Dubai Future Foundation predicts

Rapid rise in usage of digital tools such as teleconferencing app Zoom also highlights risks of a sudden shift in work culture

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The Dubai Future Foundation predicts that remote working will be “the new norm” in the UAE in the long-term and that company policies will adapt to reflect the change.

"Though it doesn't feel like it now, there will be a time after this [Covid-19 pandemic]," Patrick Noack, the head of Dubai Future Research, the research arm of Dubai Future Foundation, told The National. "Are we starting to set up the tools, structures and mindsets to make remote work possible?"

Prior to Covid-19, the UAE had one of the lowest remote work participation rates in the world. Ten per cent of workers in the country reported working from home one to two days per week, compared to a global average of 62 per cent, according to a 2019 survey by International Workplace Group.

On March 29, almost all public and private sector employees were told by the UAE government they must work from home to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Mr Noack said that while there will not be an "all-or-nothing" shift to remote work in the long term, the DFF expects there will be broad acceptance of some of the work structures set up during the Covid-19 crisis. Those systems may stay in place because they met employers' expectations for business continuity, and allowed employees to be productive and flexible.

work from home percentage graph. The National
work from home percentage graph. The National

Above all, he would like to see this experience raise a conversation:  "Think about how you, as an employee or employer, would like to work after Covid-19. How will things change to make the most of your work or your workforce?"

The Dubai Future Foundation will regularly publish research that explores the future of work including the impact of physical distancing and what regulatory implications and work models could emerge.

Making the best use of technology – an area still up for grabs as remote working goes mainstream in the UAE – is among the biggest opportunities.

One of the most popular work-from-home tools has been Zoom. The video calling platform is one of several approved for use by the UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority amid widespread distance learning and remote working. The teleconferencing company's experience has also provided the first example of some of the risks of a massive, rapid shift in work culture.

"Video conferencing platforms were not high on the target list for cyber criminals until the Covid-19 pandemic," Amir Kolahzadeh, founder and chief executive of Dubai cybersecurity company ITSec, told The National. "But the remote working environment globally suddenly made the wealth of information worth the risk for hackers."

Zoom was valued at $9.2 billion (Dh33.79bm) when it went public on the Nasdaq exchange in April of last year. Its stock price bounced higher in early February as our new reality set in – a rare markets victor amid a growing sense of global calamity – and was up around 40 per cent before the limits of its infrastructure began to show.

Usage of Zoom "ballooned overnight",  its chief executive Eric Yuan wrote in a recent blog post. As of the end of December last year, the number of daily Zoom users was 10 million. In March, it had more than 200 million daily meeting participants, both free and paid.

Mr Yuan said that effective last Wednesday, the company would not release any new features and will bring in outside oversight experts to monitor privacy policies. But it did push out an update to address users' concerns and fix security flaws at the weekend.

The next few weeks will decide whether Zoom acted fast enough to keep its new customers' loyalty – and it is a cautionary tale for new technology products to support the remote work boom.

"With Covid-19 we are discovering we are capable of remote working and we are discovering we have the tools and wherewithal to be effective," Mr Noack said. "Now, we need to make sure that we are also happy with it."