Stock Office work meeting
It's back to work with a bang across offices in the UAE. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Abu Dhabi/Dubai: The workstations are occupied and meeting rooms are full. Over the last few months, offices across the UAE have been operating at near-full capacity as the country returns to normalcy after seeing off the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although frontliners continued to show up at their offices in 2020, others returned to workplaces later. While professionals had to adapt to working from home amid the pandemic – aided by government support and the digitisation of many transactions – it was comparatively easier for them to make the switch back to offices.

No work-home distinction

“What I found most challenging working from home was that there was no distinction between when you started working and when you logged off. Perhaps I am old school, but I like being in an office environment when I am working. I like the structure that it brings, which I feel promotes creativity,” Mustafa Sibai, 28, a media professional, told Gulf News.

Mustafa Sibai

Sibai worked from home for about six months last year, and was relieved to get back to a physical office.

His thoughts were echoed by Malak Jarrar, 24, a public relations executive from Palestine, who said she found it much easier to focus on her work at the office.

Malak Jarrar

“For me, working from home was a new experience, and it had somehow felt like the biggest challenge. I had struggled to stay focussed on work because I was far too comfortable at home. Being back at the office required less self-discipline, even though I had to counter some initial social anxieties,” she said.

Social isolation

In fact, the working-from-home experience did prove to be rather disruptive for many people. Home offices negated social experiences, and restricted people to their homes in a way that emphasised monotony, some said.

“When people worked from home, they had to sacrifice their personal interaction with colleagues, and a chance to step outside their homes. This also took away from many people’s personal space, and disrupted everyday routines,” explained Dr Reena Thomas, clinical psychologist at Medeor Hospital, Dubai.

Having to work and live in the same space meant that clutter increased, and work-home boundaries were blurred. This made it difficult for many to focus on work, with domestic distractions abounding, while in some families, it also spurred underlying tensions.

“Over time, many people reported escalating social anxiety, and even virtual meetings with colleagues and superiors became difficult affairs,” Dr Thomas recounted.

Once offices opened up again, there was a period of readjustment, but it was short-lived and quite smooth for most.

“Our brain is wired with a capacity to unlearn patterns and make new meanings. Those who adjusted their lifestyles to stay healthy, and took it one step at a time, found the transition easier, especially as going back to work meant a return to a familiar routine,” Dr Thomas said.

Inflection point?

Ranjan Matthew, human resources director for a public relations firm, said people are still social creatures today, and that office cafeterias will still go on to host many more pizza parties.

Ranjan Matthew

“But we have reached an inflection point in the world of employment after the pandemic, and the changes may be here to stay,” Matthew said, referring to how the work from home model had allowed many companies to discover cost savings in realty payments.

Of course, there were takeaways from the 2020 experience. Shane Phillips, chief executive officer and founder at the Phillips Group, said workplaces are evolving already, with shared spaces becoming common, and with more people being allowed to work from home for some of the time. Companies will embrace this trend as it reduces dependence on office space, while increasing access to world-class talent,” he said.

Shane Phillips

These changing workplaces will foster de-urbanisation, with executives working from their holiday homes and connecting to meetings from different places, the executive noted.

“We are already seeing this trend in the Middle East. Zoom calls are now peppered with people sitting in different geographies while pre-COVID they were all in the same office,” he said.

Matthew added that such changes will eventually go on to necessitate changes in employment laws, with goals being based on results rather than time spent in the office.

“Of course, all of these decisions need to be taken only after gathering feedback from the employees,” he said.

Gregor Amon, managing partner at Hotel Data Cloud, had some key pointers for companies opting for remote work options.

Gregor Amon

“We at Hotel Data Cloud have always been working with remote teams. Our head office is here in Dubai, but we have teams in Vietnam, the Philippines, United States, and United Kingdom. Companies that want to switch to such a hybrid model need to have strong standard operating procedures in place to ensure consistent, high-quality output. For new joiners we have observed that it is highly beneficial if they are present in the office for the first three months at least, before gradually switching to a more flexible model. Before considering remote work, every company should talk to their IT security and make sure that only authorised users can access the company network from remote locations,” he advised.

What about remote work?

Needless to say, flexible and remote working trends have their share of supporters too.

“Working in pajamas, having flexible schedules and no commuting? It’s all amazing. Working from home was absolutely great. Contrary to popular belief, working in my pajamas made me more efficient. No time was wasted in travelling to work. As long as you complete all your tasks, you have more flexibility in terms of ‘free’ time and a fully stocked kitchen is right at your disposal for necessary work snacks," said Ridhima Jagtap, a social media executive in Dubai.

Ridhima Jagtap

"It’s safe to say that moving back from all of that to working from office was a tough adjustment.”

Rania Ibrahim, 37, a communications executive from Jordan, was another advocate.

Rania Ibrahim

“My children were attending classes from home, so I was actually quite happy to be with them. I was also expecting my third child in 2020, so it felt easier to manage the household and my professional responsibilities,” she told Gulf News.

Still, even Jagtap and Ibrahim agreed that working away from an office environment had its challenges, notably the lack of social interaction, and dedicated spaces and equipment for work.

“Office life has its perks too: I was able to get back into a routine, back to social interaction, and was able to visit the cafe downstairs for a daily dose of caffeine,” Jagtap said.

Winning features

Dr Rommel Sergio, professor of Management and Master of Science in Leadership and Organisational Development at Abu Dhabi School of Management (ADSM), summed it up best.

Dr Rommel Sergio

“Working from home can lend to information overload, difficulties with maintaining a routine, and meetings that stretch beyond your working hours. So even if you are saving time and money on commuting, the boost to interpersonal skills from being in an office, as well as your rapport with your colleagues and an environment built to encourage creativity and motivation, are certainly winning features of today’s workplaces,” he said.

Benefits of working from office

Better for focussed work: There are naturally fewer distractions at the workplace, and you might therefore find that work gets done quicker, simply because you are able to focus more. Seeing others at work like yourself also stimulates productivity.

Healthier work-life balance: It is easier to leave your work at the office at the end of your work day, and therefore easier to devote your time to the home and family once you leave. There is often a clearer cut-off point when you work from the office.

Access to necessary equipment, space: Some aspects of your work might need you to have access to specialised machines and equipment, or you might need to meet with a team. You won’t have to scramble around making your own arrangements, as everything is usually provided for at the office. You also have a dedicated space for work, and don’t have to use it for other activities at the same time, like mealtimes or homework.

Easier to build relationships: Those little interactions over a cup of coffee, or ones that happen as you pass colleagues in the corridor, help build relationships and ensure your own wellbeing. This also eliminates the sense of social isolation that can develop when you work on your own all the time.

Clearer working relationships: Being at the office not only helps you understand your place in the work flow of the company, but also the company’s goals and requirements. This helps you deliver better work.