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Middle East SMEs will likely be most affected by pandemic lockdown

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Middle East SMEs will likely be most affected by pandemic lockdown
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Homework, or working from home, has taken on a new meaning lately amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, a decision was taken by the UAE authorities to restrict about 70% of the workforce to their homes.

This included Abdelrahman Shaath, an engineer in Abu Dhabi.

He designs and manages off-grid solar power systems, which provide electricity for oil operations in the region.

The 26-year-old says the lockdown experience has helped him save time and money.

“It reduced my travel costs to work and I don’t have to order food from outside,” says Shaath. “At the same time, it has increased my productivity level.”

SMEs lockdown impact

The COVID-19 lockdown has presented significant problems for many global and regional SMEs, or small and medium size enterprises.

According to McKinsey, these companies have been among the hardest hit due to the current remote work situation.

Many companies have had to reduce their workforce, cut salaries and even close altogether.

To lend support to the sector, the UAE government announced a $70 billion stimulus fund to support businesses and individuals.

Adapting to changing circumstances, Dubai-based Itani & Company Marketing Consultants reduced its office hours.

The year started well, says the founder of the four-year-old entity, Maya Itani, yet as of March the business came to a sudden halt.

Maya Itani has a virtual meeting with her team

“The clients that we do have put a lot of our work on hold, as they were trying to preserve cash to honour their existing obligations and pay staff,” she says. “The uncertainty that everyone is facing is kind of making us suspended in mid-air.”

Prior to the lockdown, Itani had adopted a hybrid system allowing staff to split their time working from home and the office.

This structure enabled Maya, and her team of four working mothers, to function remotely after 2pm daily, plus one whole day a week.

With the aid of digital tools, Itani says, this maximized productivity. Technology not only enabled the team to effectively communicate in-house, they could also manage their clients efficiently from afar.

Human input

Project Engineer, Abdelrahman Shaath, works from his home

Connecting with technology is the future of remote working, according to some experts.

Human resources consultant and researcher, Rada Hrout, has been conducting surveys on the topic from Jordan.

Her latest survey identifies one of the biggest challenges people in the region face while working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, is feeling disconnected.

“A big percentage of people who received daily connections with their managers, they are under pressure and they are not really productive,” explains Hrout, the founder of MEDAD Consulting. “The calls themselves, or the nature of the connection, was not human based. It’s more task and delivery.”

In 2018, about 30% of industrial man hours were performed by machines or algorithms, reports the World Economic Forum. By 2022, some analysts expect this figure to double.

Getting with the program

As Artificial Intelligence and automation advance to take on more of what we do, a critical component remains missing, says Hrout.

“With COVID-19, we discovered the need for a more ‘human touch’ in all that we are offering,” she told Inspire Middle East. “This is what customers are asking for, it is what employees are craving, to keep their engagement levels [up], and to keep their productivity levels as high as possible.”

Hrout proffers that if remote work environments become more commonplace in the future, technology coupled with empathy from managers, could better prepare future generations of the workforce.

SEEN ON SOCIAL MEDIA: ADAPTING AT HOME

Maria from Lebanon shared this snap with her Instagram followers. Highlighting the challenges of working at home with a toddler.

Ezat from Yemen shared this post of him enjoying his first day in his home office.

With contributions from Nancy Sarkis, Arthur de Oliveira and Nicolas Tabbal.