Dubai: The idea of working from home has not yet made itself at home in the UAE. So far, there are few employees who get to shed their suits, put their feet up and get some laundry done while they finish that report - due in an hour.
Management has not yet warmed up to the practice of telecommuting — HR jargon for working from home or a remote location — due to a traditional corporate culture, inflexible managers and the lack of cost benefits for employers.
"While working from home is becoming increasingly popular in Europe and the US, it's still rare in the major international business hubs of the Gulf," said Mark Baxter, director at the FiveTen Group.
According to WorldatWork, a non-profit association that studies human resources issues, 26.2 million people worked from home or remotely for an entire day at least once a month in 2010 in the US. That's roughly 20 per cent of the American workforce.
"Telecommuting is still seen here in the UAE and wider Middle East as a way for parents to spend time with their children and not necessarily as a preferred choice for professionals who would be motivated to work outside their offices," said Gaj Ravichandra, general manager of HR solutions at Talent 2.
One major reason for this lag is that visas for foreign workers allow international companies a fixed number of employees per square metre of office space, said Baxter.
This means telecommuting does not give employers the opportunity to save costs by cutting down on floor space, he explained.
Another reason that telecommuting has not caught on is the corporate culture in the UAE.
"Companies in the UAE, by and large, continue to have very traditional notions of employees, the workplace, and human resources," said Michael Burchell, Partner and Director of the Great Place to work Institute in UAE.
The mindset of requiring employees to be physically present to ensure they are working is still dominant.
There are some instances of course — particularly for employees with young children — where employers are offering flexible arrangements.
This can even offer non-financial benefits to the company, Baxter said. Retaining employees through flexible arrangements, where they would otherwise be unable to continue in their jobs, means potentially reducing the employee turnover.
Nonetheless flexible arrangements are the exception rather than the rule, he said.
Indeed, jobseekers would be hard-pressed to find an abundance of job postings advertising work from home, said Burchell, but job candidates can discuss the option during their interviews.
About five years from now telecommuting can become more popular with advancements in technology and employees' insistence on a better work-life balance, recruitment experts say.
"Based on current trends, there will be significant inroads into telecommuting here in the UAE over the next three to five years," Ravichandra said.
The change will depend on the economic situation, the perceived control employers believe they need to have over their employees and the ability of employees to deliver work from home, he said.
Green initiatives gathering strength in the UAE will increase the rationale for employees to telecommute in order to reduce their carbon footprint, he noted.
Top companies to work for in the UAE are leading the way in facilitating flexible work options and changing the traditional corporate mindset.
"We find a lot of companies moving from ‘if I physically see you then I know you are working' to ‘what it counts in your work product, regardless of where you conduct business'", Burchell said.
If telecommuting is to make inroads in the UAE it needs support from the organisation as a corporate goal rather than left to up to managers, Burchell said.
A change in visa requirements would also be necessary to create cost benefits for employers of flexible working, Baxter said.
The secret to successful telecommuting is a combination of clear guidelines between employers and employees, trustworthy employees who are capable of working well independently, supportive management who will oversee and guide the telecommuting system, and a proper training programme for the employer and employee in new procedures, said Lama Ataya, chief marketing officer of Bayt.com.
"As the UAE continues to work toward being globally competitive — in both attracting talent and investment — and technological advancements support such programs, the adoption of such policies will continue to increase," Burchell said.