At the present time, serious attention is being given to the ongoing debate of whether organizations should allow their employees to work from home or be strict and forbid such practice. Both academics and professionals are party to the debate with conflicting views on the question in hand. Proponents claim that allowing employees more flexibility to work from home leads to more productivity, better focus and less interruption on the individual performance front. Opponents, on the other hand, argue that teamwork, speed and quality are sacrificed when employees work from home.
In the MENA region, the practice of working from home is perceived in a negative way due to the belief that such practice hinders growth, leads to less innovation as a result of being cut off from office and colleagues, which ultimately causes reduced productivity and deteriorating overall performance. When compared to the US and Europe, there is more inclination towards allowing employees some flexibility to work from home.
There is some empirical evidence, which shows that both practices could result in better results on both individual and firm fronts. The issues of impact on firm profitability, employees’ performance and turnover, promotions and career development, innovation and teamwork are all important factors determining whether firms should allow their employees to work from home.
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- In response to whether firms should allow employees the flexibility to work from home—also known as telecommuting—I believe they should, pending the sector/industry, scope of work and role of the employee. For example, call centers and quality control unit employees cannot work from home as they are simply bound to their work stations or hubs. On the other hand, jobs that are unattached to physical locations could be performed from anywhere whenever it makes good business sense; and as long as an employee has a reliable Internet connection and some type of communication technology at their disposal, working from home should not be an issue.
- Aside from instances where a physical presence at the office is necessary, allowing—or even encouraging—employees to work from home can have various benefits not only to employees and their organization, but also to the economy at large. Evidence of such benefits are readily available in academic research and professional reports that point toward significant cost cuts, improved corporate image, access to a wider pool of qualified applicants, increased employee engagement reflected in lower turnover and absenteeism rates, and increased productivity— to name a few.
- In a recent report by the Society for Human Resource Management entitled “Telecommuting: The Way of the Future,” 85% of HR professionals believe that in the next five years, telecommuting will likely be a more common practice for organizations than it is today. Before being carried away by such statistics and blindly adopting practices that might not be relevant to our region, I would like to pause at this point and reflect upon the following question: to what extent are the trends and the evidence from the United States and Western Europe relevant to the MENA region? To provide an informed response to this question, I invite you to reflect upon the following two questions: (1) Are there certain elements of telecommuting that make good business sense in the Arab world? (2) What are some of the benefits of telecommuting to organizations applying it—and beyond that—what are some of the benefits for employees and the economy at large?
- To assess whether there are pertinent drivers to telecommuting in the MENA region, let’s examine the macro-economic outlook there. Numerous challenges are currently facing many countries in the region: high unemployment (namely among the youth), low female labor force participation rates, low levels of private sector development, and bloated public sectors, among others. All of these hurdles need to be addressed to ensure economic growth. Throughout my research at the American University of Beirut, I have been perplexed by the high education/low employment paradox in the region—namely among the youth and the female population. For example, statistics in the latest human development report published by the United Nations show that while 50 to 60% of university graduates are women in the Arab world, the labor force participation rate of women in most Arab countries hovers around 25%. I have been researching the reasons underlying this paradox for a couple of years now and most women indicated that they had to quit employment once they became mothers since they could not cope with the rigid, long work hours required at work anymore.
- Moreover, the population in the Arab world is young and the workplace is being quickly rejuvenated by the influx of generation Y (born between 1979 and 1998) workers who are characterised as being technology savvy, environmentally mindful, and valuing both work and life. Looking specifically at the MENA region, where political turmoil and unrest have taken residency, the increasingly educated workforce will likely look for employers that are most sensitive to their issues. Therefore, an employer will have to be able anticipate their needs and be creative in its work-life balance policies to even attract—much less retain—this generation of potential employees.
- Now that the relevant drivers for telecommuting in the Arab world have been documented, let’s examine some of the benefits of work from home arrangements. From a human resource management perspective, one key advantage is an improved talent management process reflected by better attraction and retention of skilled employees. Then there is the wider pool of applicants it affords; and a work environment that addresses the lifestyles and concerns of generation Y—especially female employees. From a financial perspective, companies would significantly cut their real estate, transportation, and office utilities costs; gain an improved corporate image as an employer of choice; and be seen as being environmentally mindful. When publicly traded, they would attract more ethical investors interested in the environment and people-friendly firms. Furthermore, increased financial gains can be derived from a reduction in the number of employee absences, a drop in turnover rate, and a positive corporate culture where employees enjoy working for the company, appreciate their jobs, and boost their productivity.
- Finally, I would like to close with a cautionary note on the use of telecommuting. Despite evidence of pertinent drivers to telecommuting in the MENA region, and while there are enormous benefits that a company can derive from encouraging such arrangements as discussed above, the flexibility to work from home should be properly planned and executed. A positive work culture is necessary to ensure that employees opting for such arrangements are not stigmatized and penalized by a slow career progression. Telecommuting is not a favor granted to a group of employees. Rather, it is the way of the future, and companies would have much to gain by embracing the future rather than shying away from it.
- Work in the twenty-first century is characterized by increased globalization, interconnectivity via technology, and a fundamental shift from an industrialized age—that was dependent on the mechanization of work—to a knowledge age dependent on competencies, life-long learning, and non-linear career paths. This shift has given rise to a new work ethic (Svensson, 2012), through which the younger generations of workers seek greater flexibility in their career choices and work/life balance. Part of the new paradigm of the knowledge age is a drive towards increasing flexibility with regards to work arrangements. This flexibility can take the shape of sliding working hours, a compressed work week, or job sharing.
- There is a growing body of evidence—mainly from the US and Europe—that indicates flexible work practices (FWPs) can lead to greater employee productivity, organizational citizenship, and employee well-being (Kattenbach et al., 2010). It is therefore tempting to conclude that FWPs are a viable strategy for any organization, including those in the MENA region. However, FWPs may not provide such advantages to all organizations; all too often businesses will latch on to the fad of the moment in an attempt to increase sales, profits, and productivity. Rather, in consideration of whether FWPs would be a smart strategy for an organization to adopt, first a self-analysis around the following areas should be conducted: company mission, business needs, organizational culture, management cadre, and the employees themselves.
- The first area that must be addressed before FWPs are adopted is the mission of an organization. What business obligations need to be met in order to fulfill that mission? Does the organization position its products at a low price point? Are efficiency and replication guaranteed for each product or service? What job duties are required to produce the organization’s products or services? Organizations that compete on price and convenience would have a difficult time implementing a FWP program, because such organizations’ business processes are normally highly interdependent.
- For example, fast food restaurants maintain a competitive advantage through efficient and standardized processes from supply chains of origin through to the finalized product. Such high interdependence requires clockwork-like precision in organization and delegation of work tasks. FWPs would increase problems in work scheduling and coordination, therefore negatively impacting the very competitive advantage the organization hopes to sustain.
- The second area that must be addressed before FWPs are adopted is the culture of an organization. Will its values support such a practice? Start-ups, entrepreneurial ventures, and new organizations yet to mature may find an easier time implementing and supporting FWPs because it is more likely that the organizational structures and cultures formulated in such environments reflect the new paradigms of the knowledge age: flexibility, malleability, and comfort with non-rigid structures and reporting mechanisms. However, those organizations that have existed for decades—that were established before the knowledge age—and have firm hierarchies and work distribution patterns in place should be strongly cautioned about implementing FWPs without considering the effects on the culture of the organization. Would employees feel resentment toward those workers who were allowed FWPs if they saw it to be an extra benefit or advantage that did not align with the overall formal and informal cultures of the organization? Would the connection between the FWPs and the structure of the organization be easily seen? For organizations in the MENA region, which tend to be highly hierarchical and employ workers of many nationalities, would all employees be able to understand and support FWPs—whether implemented on a limited scale or throughout the whole organization?
- An analysis of the people in an organization will most likely yield a great deal of valuable information on understanding the impact of FWPs. First off, would the implementation of FWPs be seen as a Human Resources mandate, or would the management team have buy-in for its potential benefits? It is likely that FWPs would increase the responsibilities of managers, particularly those on the front line. Would managers welcome that responsibility? What impact would FWPs have on scheduling business operations? Would managers have the responsibility to plan and keep track of the scheduling? Should managers have a back-up plan in case of unexpected absences? Of course, managers would also want to know who actually has the authority to make decisions on the variations in amount and distribution of the work hours— themselves, the employees, or both?
- Recent research (Leslie et al., 2012) has shown that managers who perceive employees availing themselves of FWPs for reasons that support business productivity are much more likely to support such practices, whereas managers who perceive employees availing themselves of FWPs for reasons that support more flexibility in their personal lives are less likely to support such practices. Therefore, it is not guaranteed that managers in an organization would wholeheartedly support FWPs especially if they felt it to be only for the benefit of the employees and thought that it would have a negative effect on meeting their own department goals. The employees themselves would also require scrutiny to determine if FWPs would be appropriate. Some of the questions that should be considered are: Can the employee take initiative? How much direction does the employee need to accomplish their objectives? How is their performance measured—through work output only, or also by workplace behaviors such as punctuality?
- Should organizations implement flexible work practices? Maybe not without first considering the unique impact such a move might have on their organization. While there are some benefits that have been measured by FWPs in certain organizations and locales, businesses should still remain cautious about implementing practices that may work well for others, but may not necessarily be the right thing for them.