Questioning The Status Quo: Distilling Both Sides Of The Debate Between Office Work And Hybrid Work

Four founders of UAE-based startups share their stance on the Team Office versus Team Hybrid debate, and explain what has worked better for them.

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"In 2010, the Bruno Mars song saying, 'I wanna be a billionaire,' was trending. Now, trending Instagram Reels deal with mental health advocacy and boundaries at work." This statement from Bhoomika Ghaghada, co-founder of UAE-grown marketing agency Street FZC, is one way to describe the ongoing global phenomenon wherein employees have begun to prioritize their wellbeing over financial rewards and security (think: The Great Resignation). Born out of the many business ecosystem shifts that have transpired over the course of the COVID-19 crisis, it is a changed perception that is tied to the ongoing debate of whether, after a long period of being forced to work from home (WFH), employees should return to work from their offices full-time, or if a hybrid working model is better suited for the new normal.

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Indeed, Tesla founder Elon Musk sparked quite the (online) furore when it was revealed that he had confronted his employees with an ultimatum in June this year: return to the office for at least 40 hours a week, or leave the company. While he got a fair bit of backlash for his views, Musk's stance on this topic has since been supported by popular names in the business domain, a list that includes Netflix CEO Reed Hasting, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, as well as Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell. But this is not a debate that's restricted to the global business elite- it has definitely become a bone of contention among entrepreneurs leading enterprises all around the world, and we got firsthand evidence of that when we talked to a couple of startup founders in the UAE. Ghaghada, for instance, pointed out that the hybrid working model is something she and her team at Dubai Design District-based Street FZC are extremely familiar with- in fact, she says that this structure has been in place for nearly a decade at her company. "At Street FZC, we've followed a hybrid model since 2014, when we began," she says. "Flexible work has become the norm, especially post-pandemic, to retain talent. I think it's a brilliant shift in what we value, in part due to a generation that questions the archaic ideas we've built our lives around, and correcting our over-identification with work."

Bhoomika Ghaghada, co-founder, Street FZC. Source: Street FZC

One of the key arguments often made by those who staunchly oppose hybrid work models is that remote work is not conducive to collaboration and productivity. Indeed, this was what Gladwell -who, by the way, is also the co-founder and President of audio production company Pushkin Industries- alluded to in a recent interview on The Diary Of A CEO podcast. "It's not in your best interest to work at home," Gladwell said. "I know it's a hassle to come into the office, but if you're just sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live? Don't you want to feel part of something?" But Ghaghada opines that such statements are measly in the grand scheme of things. "I think the bigger question is not how hybrid work affects productivity -that's a fairly narrow view of hybrid- but how it helps build a fuller life for everyone who works with us," she says. "We are not robots! You can use the time between work tasks at home to replenish, take care of family members (which some of our team members do), and do chores, so that your weekends are used for what they were originally intended for: relaxing! This naturally leads to better morale, since we're acknowledging the full human, not just a team member's 'productive parts.'"

Ghaghada's sentiments are mirrored by Siddiq Farid, founder and CEO of Dubai-based real estate investment platform SmartCrowd, and that perhaps explains why his enterprise too had allowed hybrid working structures much before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. "We are of the opinion that while work and life may rarely be in perfect harmony, work-life balance is a vital aspect of any healthy working environment," Farid says. "At SmartCrowd, our hybrid work styles enable each employee to fit their work and life together in a way that works for them. This reduces stress, and helps boost employee productivity."

Siddiq Farid, co-founder and CEO, SmartCrowd. Source: SmartCrowd

But while employers and employees continue to have increasingly different views about returning to the office post pandemic, a 2022 study by LinkedIn has shown that 70% of professionals in the UAE and Saudi Arabia have considered leaving, or have already left, their jobs because of a lack of flexibility. The study -which sampled 2,000 full-time working adults- then highlights how employees believe that flexible polices would help them thrive at their workplaces- something that Farid can testify to firsthand at SmartCrowd. "We believe in hiring the right people and empowering them; such autonomy and empowerment is key to our employee satisfaction," he says. "If you provide full autonomy and decision-making on how, where, and when your team members work, employee satisfaction tends to skyrocket. By encouraging a culture that views remote work as a positive alternative to completing high-focus tasks in the office, our teams find a good balance of creativity and collaboration. Employees who need peace and quiet to focus, or who thrive in an office setting, are given the choice to work where and when they're most productive."

But all of this is not to say that Farid and Ghaghada have entirely discarded the significance of a physical office space. On the contrary, Ghaghada argues that a hybrid model actually allows for a complete reimagination of how an office space is used. "I've found that the energy of in-person is crucial for brainstorming or intellectual/creative discussions," she says. "I value this energy deeply, and instead of allowing it to dwindle, or use it for meetings that could be emails, hybrid allows me to consider: if we have two or three days in the office, how do we use them best? On office days, we reserve time for weekly growth training sessions, creative pitch meetings, or major workflow re-evaluations. We don't feel rushed on these days -since we do our solo work on work-from-home days- and the lulls are a great time for bonding/chatter."

Related: Hybrid Offices: The Prospects Of A Permanent Shift In The Workspace

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this sentiment from "Team Hybrid" is one that many advocates of "Team Office" acquiesce to as well. And it was evident when we spoke to two UAE-based startup founders -Laura Manning, founder and Managing Director of tea mixologist brand BRW Society, and Ibtissam Ouassif, co-founder of buy-now-pay-later platform Cashew Payments- who have had their teams return to working fully from the office, following a a two-year-long work-from-home period. In fact, both Manning and Ouassif endorse the view that an office space leads to a greater sense of belonging. "We are a new startup business; we are all still getting to know each other- so, I strongly believe that bringing the team back to the office will create a stronger office culture, and keep everyone engaged and connected to the brand," Manning says. "I believe that the office environment increases productivity and helps the team stay aligned. I also think it makes team collaboration less challenging, and people feel part of the team in every aspect."

Laura Manning, founder and Managing Director, BRW Society. Source: BRW Society

Cashew Payments' Ouassif agrees with Manning- she too co-founded her startup in the middle of the pandemic, and she feels there are definite advantages to having her team work together from an office today. "When it comes to collaboration, within teams and across departments, we've seen increased performance and productivity working from the office, as so much of what we do requires ideation and brainstorming," Ouassif says. "We've seen an increase in productivity, where working in the same office has allowed us to problem solve much faster and better meet deadlines. It is important not to neglect the social aspect of an office work environment too. Connecting with like-minded people has been great for our team's general morale, and we've found that working from the office has provided our team with better mental well-being overall while working."

A 2022 report by technology solutions provider Poly and subscription-based knowledge platform Worktech Academy that looked into the hybrid working phenomenon noted that nearly two-thirds of the 3,000 employees that were surveyed, across nine European countries, now exhibit an increasing reluctance to return to the office. But Manning claims to have witnessed no such change in attitude from her team at BRW Society- and she thinks that may well be because not all employees are cut out for a WFH culture. "After working from home for two years, my team had had enough of working in isolation, plus some team members' homes were not conducive to working from home," Manning explains. "They found it stressful and difficult to manage; some found it lonely. Wellbeing is key, and I want to ensure my team has a good work-life balance. Returning to the office has really helped to reinforce this. I encourage my team to do their daily work and then enjoy their personal time and holidays. When my team finishes work, they leave their laptops in the office, and completely switch off."

Ibtissam Ouassif, co-founder, Cashew Payments. Source: Cashew Payments

The point Manning raises here is yet another valid response to criticism that has largely questioned the efficiency of the WFH culture: mental burnout. Recent studies by mental health institutions like Australia-based Workplace Mental Health Institute and UK-based Mind have shown the dangers of turning homes into eternal office spaces. "I think when people work from home or work remotely, the lines can become blurred, and people struggle to switch off," Manning adds. "I have personally struggled with this. You feel like you have to work 24/7, and you cannot leave things until tomorrow… That is not right. Returning to the office thus helps manage people's time; my team is more focused at work with less distractions, and then they can switch off, and take time for themselves, without feeling guilty."

When the "office versus hybrid" debate was made public, one of the biggest backlashes faced by those who ardently opposed remote working was that they were being too rigid. But that is certainly not the kind of demeanor being exhibited by Manning and Ouassif. "We do still maintain that some flexible working opportunities for our team are important," Ouassif says. "For example, offering 'work from home Fridays' provided enough balance and an option that our team was happy with. We understand that the work environment requires nuance, and we have found that a one-size-fits-all solution is also unproductive."

Meanwhile, as advocates of hybrid working, Ghaghada and Farid believe in the permanence of this model. "Remote work isn't going anywhere, hence the challenge for employers is to work out how to optimize it, rather than worry about any disadvantages," Farid says. As for Ghaghada, she believes employee autonomy is what will ultimately create a good working environment. "We don't simply operate with [only] the bottom line in mind," she says. "We have different agency objectives -yet unquantifiable within traditional models- like being the best place to work in the UAE."

At this point, taking into account the views expressed by Ghaghada, Farid, Manning, and Ouassif, it seems apparent that the future of work isn't one that should be decided by someone in their ivory tower, nor is it to be based upon the whims of an armchair warrior on social media. Every organization needs to make a decision on this matter on its own terms- Ouassif perhaps put it best when she urges business leaders to never feel coerced to go only one way or the other. "The issue with blanket statements is that it implies that all employees, all teams and all companies think and act the same, which is untrue," she explains. "Certain industries require physical work environments, with manufacturing etc. Remote working has helped a lot of companies, and the hybrid model offers the flexibility that caters to the individual needs of an organization's employees. For us, we see value in working from the office, but ultimately, the impetus is on leaders to figure out what works best for their teams."

Related: Hybrid Workplaces: A Win-Win Solution For Businesses And Their Employees In The New Normal