Working from Home in the United Arab Emirates: Can Employees Be Forced to Return to the Office?
This is the great workplace debate of our time: working from home vs. returning to the office.
Businesses want their staff back – at least for part of the week.
And with many government restrictions now lifted, employees have few excuses – although a recent increase in the number of cases to more than 2,000 per day calls for caution.
Many businesses, including their bosses, have also seen the benefits of working from home, with improved productivity and staff available for longer hours.
But where is everyone legally?
We’ve spoken to lawyers and workplace experts to find out.
Are UAE employees allowed to work from home?
From a legal standpoint, companies have every right to tell staff to come back to the workplace.
“All employment contracts in the UAE include a ‘workplace’ clause, which states that the employee will work at an employer’s premises,” said Sara Khoja, partner at Clyde & law firm. Co.
Following government teleworking directives to curb the spread of Covid-19 in 2020, workplaces have been regularly allowed to increase the number of occupants.
Ms Khoja said that in a place like Dubai, where authorities allow 100% capacity, a company is “in a strong position” to say that everyone should come back to the office.
“An employee can only legally resist this mandate if he has a valid medical reason that endangers himself and his colleagues,” she said.
“They should fall into a high risk category, like being a cancer patient for example, because that then becomes a health and safety issue.”
She said an employee had no legal reason to refuse to return to the office simply because they felt more productive while working remotely.
What laws must employers obey?
There are a number of steps that companies need to take before they can welcome people back to their physical offices.
Depending on the emirate they are in, companies must adhere to capacity regulations that dictate the percentage of their workforce that they are legally allowed to have in their office.
We see a lot of organizations that are very keen to go back to what they were before. It’s shortsighted because you erase almost all of the big benefits
For Dubai, it is full capacity since last June for the public and private sector, while Abu Dhabi recently doubled its working capacity for government employees from 30 to 60 percent.
Meanwhile, private companies in the capital can still only recover 30 percent of their workforce. For most of the Northern Emirates, it is still between 30 and 60%.
Employers are also required to ensure that there is a distance of at least 2 meters between all offices and workspaces.
For many in high-rise office buildings, for example, this could mean a physical reconfiguration or bringing in staff every other day.
Back to the office? A global debate
The “work from home” versus “back to office” debate continues to continue.
This week was Apple CEO Tim Cook, who received a reaction from his staff after announcing that he wanted them to return to the office from September.
According to The edge, dozens of Apple employees signed a letter expressing frustration at being instructed to work three days a week in their offices.
“Without the inclusiveness that flexibility brings, many of us think we have to choose between a combination of our families, our well-being and being empowered to do our best job, or be part of Apple,” says the letter.
As recently reported by The National, UAE companies are turning to a long-term hybrid work model as staff return to the office.
Many employers see the benefits, while some fear losing, or not attracting, the brightest talent to companies with more flexible policies.
However, not all are so flexible.
“We’re also seeing a lot of organizations very keen to go back to where they were before and have everyone back in the office full time,” said Ramy Bayyour, regional director of CIPD, a professional body for human resources and management. people development. .
“It’s shortsighted because you erase almost all of the big benefits that we’ve seen over the past year by giving people that flexibility. “
Mr Bayyour said in some cases a lack of trust between employers and their employees has led bosses to bring their teams back to the office at the earliest opportunity.
Flexible work: let’s meet halfway
Some employees The National interviewees spoke of their relief to return to their workplace.
This made it possible to re-normalize working hours and limit consecutive Zoom calls.
“The pandemic has taught us that we don’t need to be in the office all the time to work productively,” said Steve Severence, a project manager in Abu Dhabi who was asked to start working on time. full from the office in March. .
He said some parts of his job, such as building personal connections with clients, are best done face-to-face. The ideal work week for him would be to spend three days in the office and two days away from home.
However, Mr Severence said his request to switch to this model met with resistance from his employer.
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For Imran Dhalla, a Dubai-based accountant, working from home full time when the pandemic first hit last year was initially ideal as it gave him the work-life balance he dreamed of.
“At first I fell in love with the WFH, but over time I realized that I was working too much because I had my laptop in front of me all the time,” said Mr. Dhalla.
“The ideal scenario is a hybrid system because it gives you flexibility, while also providing that social component of meeting people in the office. “
Recognize anxiety and stress
Whether on a full-time or hybrid basis, HR experts say the onus is on employers to facilitate the return of their workforce to the office.
“Returning staff overnight can impact their mental well-being,” Bayyour said.
“A lot of people haven’t been around large groups of people for a while, and that could lead to things like social anxiety and stress.”
He also said it was important for bosses to communicate to their staff that those who still work remotely will not be favored over those who are back in the office.
“What we don’t want is this mentality where if my manager sees me in my cabin it means I’m working and going to be called to meetings, but if I’m working from home I won’t.” , said Mr. Bayyour.
“There has to be a level of fairness and inclusiveness. “