remote cloud meeting
The future of workplaces will look something like this as offices and its workers make do with remote access. Image Credit: Screengrabs

You or someone you know is probably working remotely. Given the spread of the coronavirus, millions around the world have been forced into self-isolation and other forms of social distancing.

Such measures are critical to halting the spread of the virus in hard-hit countries like Italy and the US. The sudden change to the normal flow of everyday life is jarring... but there are some significant opportunities to this shift. Remote working is one of them.

Over the past decade, we have explored the benefits of a remote work set up for our group of companies. With tools like the Slack messaging platform, Dropbox file sharing and the Google suite of productivity software, we found that remote work streamlines the impact of our workflow. We get more done in an efficient manner.

When the walls of the physical office dissolve, opportunities materialise in all directions. From our home base in Dubai, we have partners and collaborators on four continents who regularly interact with our core staff in the UAE.

Easier picking the best

Locating the best talent on any given subject is key to our overall business model. If we need an expert on smart city water systems, for example, we have found the remote work model exceptionally efficient in opening up possibilities. Once the person is located, we use technology to connect with partners around the world and augment our staff on projects in Dubai.

Admittedly, we approached remote work with some trepidation but after years of refining the process, the model has proven exceptionally effective. The most impactful lesson we have learned is not about which application or platform is best, but rather how to manage the psychology of remote work. There are plenty of online tools that facilitate easy communication and collaboration - but they don’t replace the human element of office culture.

Need working on

One challenge is trust. In a physical office environment, trust is hardwired into the space. If an employee is not at his or her desk, productivity alarms go off by themselves.

What happens when employees are at home and in different time zones? Clear targets and deliverables mitigate this challenge, but can only go so far. Employers need to go the extra mile in fostering a work culture based on empathy.

Extending a hand

Supporting partners and employees must be a company’s core value. This people-centric approach is reinforced by a commitment to sustainable growth and practical measures designed to prepare for the future. Ironically, remote work embodies this core value.

The incredible technology that enables these interactions is a powerful vehicle that allows these relationships to flourish.

Practically speaking, we have encouraged deep empathy in remote work by focusing on communication. Early on, we created a “digital” water cooler to keep employees engaged. Through messaging programmes like Slack, employees are able to stay connected throughout the work day.

That might mean sharing a funny meme with the team or jumping on quick calls throughout the day. Such simple practices ensure we don’t have employees drifting off or catching an afternoon nap when they should be at their desks.

There’s fun in it

Remote work doesn’t mean missing out on the fun that comes with being part of a team. We make it a priority to include remote team members in office gatherings, whether that is taking part in the office holiday gift exchange, singing happy birthday over video conference calls, or sharing stories from team outings.

The (minimal) additional effort of making these experiences possible is invaluable for promoting a vibrant office culture, wherever the office happens to be.

Ensuring employees feel valued and appreciated during rough remote work transitions is critical to keeping them engaged. While digital nomads might enjoy the solitude of working from home, others need social engagement in the office.

By engaging communication online, we create a sense of unity that fights away the loneliness and builds trust. Every company will determine what works for them in this turbulent time and by doing so will engage in critical reflection on the overall health and efficiency of their staff.

Bring it on

Ultimately, remote work is a necessary component of agile businesses that are ready to seize opportunities in today’s fast-moving economy. As business owners are forced to implement remote work due to COVID-19, we should see this as a valuable trial instead of a hindrance. Businesses need real-life scenarios to identify the chinks in the system.

COVID-19 is that test and that’s why this moment can be viewed as an opportunity. As more businesses embrace technology as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, remote work will become the norm instead of the outlier.

This is especially true for a country like the UAE that has implemented future technology platforms across sectors and benefits from the diversity of the population. If there was ever a time to innovate, it’s now.

For a young knowledge economy, this moment could make or break the future health of our technology sector.

- Wisam Amid is Managing Partner of Xische & Co.