Many Middle East companies are moving toward technologically-enabled telecommuting because it reduces costs and is efficient.
Telecommuting could solve tough job puzzle in the Middle East
Digital technology is proving to be a powerful economic stimulant, creating jobs and opportunities worldwide.
In particular, this technology can overcome social and economic barriers to reach excluded sections of the population, allowing them to work and engage in commerce. The potential and attraction of these technologies are obvious in the Middle East where many talented young people, often women, are struggling to find jobs.
Faster connection speeds and digital applications are enabling a global trend toward technologically-enabled telecommuting.
Many companies are moving in this direction because it reduces costs and is efficient: studies show that telecommuters have higher output than those in offices. One in four American workers telecommutes on a regular basis.
Home-based work has grown rapidly in the United Kingdom — 3.3 million employees, over 10 per cent of the workforce, now telecommute.
There is also an appetite for telecommuting in the Middle East. For example, when Bayt.com surveyed 9,923 Middle East job seekers in 2009, 72 per cent were in favour of telecommuting because it means more family time, flexible hours and lower commuting costs. The prospect is especially enticing for women, for whom travelling to work can be problematic.
The organisations that thrive with telecommuting understand what it adds to, and subtracts from, the traditional workplace. They have seized the benefits of greater efficiency and flexibility, particularly for those who might have felt impeded by the workplace of the past. For example, Intigral, a digital content and media company in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, introduced flexible work alternatives for women and offered them the option to telecommute on a part-time basis.
Created in 2009 as a joint venture of the STC, All Asia Networks, and Saudi Research and Marketing Group, Intigral used a small pilot group of women telecommuters to evaluate the concept. The trial was so successful that it is now a companywide practice.
The experience of similar organisations around the world shows that the sustainability and success of telecommuting require more than just technology.
Telecommuting is more effective when buttressed by a strong workplace culture that provides employees with the confidence, self-discipline, and motivation to work independently yet collaboratively. The skills and behaviours needed for telecommuting come partly from corporate culture and partly from education.
Companies need to empower and direct their staff. The education system needs to encourage greater independence of thought and self-motivation among students.
This is particularly important when it comes to the social aspect of work, which often evokes images of gossiping around the water cooler or socialising.
Much misunderstood, the social part of work is a vital mechanism that allows colleagues to give and take ideas freely and to hold each other to account through unspoken social contracts. These work encounters are typically informal, unstructured and unplanned. As a result, many people mistake these impromptu collaborations for distractions, when they are actually essential to success at work.
Learning this distinction between wasteful distraction and valuable interaction is critical for those entering the workforce or with limited work experience.
For example, in some countries women often work in isolation from their male colleagues, reducing their ability to engage in the broader work culture, limiting knowledge transfer, and excluding them from decision-making.
Companies that decide to use technology to bring previously excluded groups into work will have to compensate for these missed social connections. This can be achieved through senior management sending strong signals about the importance and value of telecommuters, implementing structured training and mentoring programmes to improve telecommuters' connections to role models, organising peer networking events, extensive communications efforts and, of course, well-crafted IT solutions. Companies can thereby turn what may seem to be social and organisational isolation into an opportunity for new colleagues to become more involved, focused and organised.
Education systems and schools in the region also need to adopt a new paradigm, one that focuses on skills development, creativity, innovation and independence.
They should embed these skills in the curriculum and in teaching methodologies. After all, these are the very skills demanded by the labour market, skills that are vital for success in any career and any sector, whether in the office or telecommuting.
Harnessing the benefits of telecommuting comes down to leadership and how organisations function at their best. It is about how companies can get the best from their people, which has more to do with corporate culture and education than physical location.
Ramez Shehadi is a partner and James Thomas a principal at Booz & Company and Mounira Jamjoom a senior research specialist at the Ideation Center, Booz & Company's Middle East think tank