Case study: Does remote working actually work?

UAE-based classifieds platform makes a case for allowing employees to work away from the office

Technology has made workplaces flexible and customisable. Across the world, more and more employees are swapping their office desks for their sofa, thanks to smart devices and a reliable wi-fi connection.

In the US, for example, a Gallup survey found that 43 per cent of employees spend some time working from home, while in the UK, the number of employees working remotely has reached 1.5 million, according to the TUC. The trend is fast catching up in the Middle East.

Ruth Scott, regional HR director for Middle East and Africa at OLX, the company behind UAE-based classifieds platform dubizzle, says having a remote work programme has strengthened her organisation’s entrepreneurial culture, and encouraged staff to become more productive, creative and disciplined.

She is not alone in this observation. Abbas Ali, VP at TASC Outsourcing, believes that one of the main causes of employee satisfaction is workplace flexibility.

“Workplace flexibility is a style of working where the employer and employee agree on when, where and how work will be delivered to meet the organisation’s needs. The flexibility of place, manner and time of work can empower both the individual and the organisation, if implemented right,” he says.

Waqar Mohamed, managing director - First Select Employment, FM and Aviation at G4S UAE, says organisations in the Middle East should take advantage of technological advancements.

“New business trends, like remote administration, cloud-based project management and video conferencing, are extending the effectiveness of remote work,” he points out.

Mohamed agrees that when done properly, a remote work structure can create a win-win situation.

“Employees tend to be happier and more relaxed in their home. And because they can spend more time working, rather than commuting to and from work, this could also increase productivity,” he says. “In addition, it allows employers to reduce costs such as office space, transportation and other expenses associated with a large workforce.”

In dubizzle’s case, Scott says the impact of a remote work programme has been positive.

“Remote working has always been part of the dubizzle culture since its inception from the co-founders’ living room over 10 years ago. As the company grew rapidly, it made sense to evolve our policies to include flexible working options,” she says.

For employees, one of the key benefits is being able to focus on the job and avoid common workplace distractions – coffee breaks, general chat and unavoidable interruptions from colleagues – ultimately leading to improved productivity.

The remote working strategy was well received by the dubizzle team from the beginning, particularly those in client-servicing roles, says Scott.

“In most cases, employees can manage client relationships remotely just as effectively as from within the office. Clients tend to communicate with the team through phone and email, which is accessible from any location through the use of smartphones and laptops.

“Some clients prefer online or Skype meetings and, at times, may need to discuss confidential information at short notice. In such cases, working remotely would benefit them since employees are easily able to seek a more private location to discuss issues over a video call, if needed. This saves time as well as travel costs,” she says.

Security is always a concern for organisations planning to implement a remote work policy, warns Scott.

“The recent bout of cyber-attacks requires employers to take extra caution. According to Gemalto, nearly 1.4 billion data records globally and 45.2 million data records in the Middle East were lost or stolen in 2016, which is an alarmingly high figure.”

She explains that OLX’s IT infrastructure was set up in a way that allows any employee to work in any location globally in a safe and secure way. This is essential, as being part of a global organisation means employees travel to different locations regularly and require remote access to the system at all times.

“When it comes to the execution of such strategies among teams, working remotely requires a certain level of self-discipline. While there have been incidents of employees abusing this policy, there needs to be a certain level of trust between the company and its employees to implement this for the majority of people who actually benefit from this strategy,” she notes.

Dubizzle conducts an annual culture and engagement survey, which showed that its employees favour a flexible working environment, where they are able to balance work-life commitments.

As a result, aside from allowing staff to work from home, they also have the option to choose their work hours: 8am to 5pm, 9am to 6pm or 10am to 7pm.

“Most of us are guilty of occasionally glancing at our emails outside of working hours. However, at dubizzle, we strongly promote the maintenance of a work-life balance,” she says, adding that this policy also applies to those working from home.

Being part of a global company where some countries work Monday to Friday means dubizzle employees may need to take calls or answer emails on Fridays. The extra time worked by each employee is managed by their respective line managers. Employees can also take time off in lieu, when needed, to carry out personal errands.

Scott says that currently there are 200 “dubizzlers”, which makes it difficult for the HR team to closely monitor remote working policies, particularly in cases in which they are being abused.

“To ensure that any risk of abuse is minimised, we empower line managers to control remote working within their teams, as they have clear insights into what work the teams need to do each week.”

She also emphasises OLX’s high-performance culture, which encourages employees to have “smart” goals set every six months, making it easy for line managers to track productivity in their teams.

“The impact of the remote working policy has undoubtedly been positive in dubizzle, with an evident increase in employee engagement and productivity. The flexibility it offers employees empowers them to work more efficiently in the most suitable environment for the set task,” says Scott.

The programme has also created a ripple effect across OLX’s regional network. As some members of the team travel from one branch to another to focus on those markets when necessary, they are able to share and implement best practice across offices.