Africa Business Communities

[Column[Sammar Essmat: How COVID-19 is pushing MENA companies to embrace flex work

An office job has always meant exactly that working in an office. An employee arrives early in the morning, hunkers down for eight hours or more, and finally heads out, sometimes arriving home late in the evening. 

This routine, recently commonplace around the world, has long disadvantaged women, especially in households across the Middle East and North Africa, where women are largely responsible for caring for children or elderly relatives.

Women in the MENA region have long found it difficult to balance the demands of home, family, and work a major reason why only a quarter of Egyptian women work outside the home.

While hard data on individual MENA countries does not exist, local companies repeatedly report that many female employees quit their jobs after having children. This aligns with global research from the universities of Bristol and Essex, which found that  17 percent of women leave employment completely in the five years following childbirth, compared to only four percent of men. Meanwhile, the South Korea Institute of Child Care and Education found that 40 percent of mothers quit their jobs for childbirth or childcare. Less than one percent of fathers did the same.

But COVID-19 has proved a watershed moment for redefining how and where we work. Thanks largely to the connecting power of the Internet, the world is learning to adapt to home-based work and other flexible working arrangements, creating new opportunities including for women in MENA.

I am based in Istanbul, Turkey and work online with far-flung colleagues sitting in Beirut, Cairo, Rabat, Washington, and elsewhere. Over the last year, cities around the world have applied various degrees of lockdown to help contain the spread of coronavirus.  In Istanbul, there are mandatory stay-at-home orders. To adjust, we had to be agile and flexible. This new way of working at a distance requires trust and continuous communication so teams can reach their goals. 

Many businesses around the world have embraced flexi-work models. A recent survey by consultancy Deloitte found flex work can help reduce travel expenses, lower office rents, and increase worker productivity all of which bolster the bottom line. Those advantages mean that in some places, the shift to remote work may be permanent. According to a PwC survey conducted in June 2020, the majority of American financial services companies expected almost two-thirds of their employees to work from home in the future.

In MENA, however, many companies have balked at the idea of flex work, fearing that employees cannot be trusted to work remotely. But many firms are making the switch.  For example, in Egypt before the pandemic, food and beverage company Nestlé introduced a flex-work plan for both women and men, which the company expanded during springtime lockdowns last year in Cairo. That was part of a broader effort by the company, which also offers benefits like paid maternity leave, to promote gender diversity.

Overall, however, businesses in the MENA region have been slow to embrace non-traditional working arrangements. An IFC survey of Egyptian firms across several sectors and the impact the pandemic has had on their female employees found that while most companies recognized the benefits of flex work few knew how to implement it.   

To address those concerns, IFC teamed up with business associations across MENA, including  the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt and with the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture of Beirut and Mount-Lebanon, to deliver a series of webinars on how to implement remote and flexible working arrangements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One key takeaway from the sessions: there is no one-size-fits-all approach to flex work. Companies have a menu of flex work options to choose from, including flexible start and end times, part-time work, remote work, a condensed work week, and shift swaps. Businesses should consult with staff and managers to determine what type of flex work is most appropriate. Then they should design a policy with clear staff eligibility rules. Firms also need a process through which staff can apply for flex work.

It not only takes well-refined systems to make things work. From my personal experience, it also requires a shift in mindset about how we manage teams, how we create cohesiveness and trust, and how we foster dynamism.

And from what we hear from our clients and partners is that shift in mindset has started in the MENA region – businesses are moving ahead with flex work arrangements.

While transitioning into a flex work model requires adjustments and personal growth, the opportunities it creates can be incredibly rewarding for employees and companies. If implemented in a family-friendly way, MENA’s working women stand to benefit dramatically from the shift.

Sammar Essmat is  the Senior Gender Lead for Middle East and North Africa / East Europe and Central Asia  at International Finance Corporation


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