Managers hold the key to a thriving hybrid work culture in the Middle East and Africa

Managers in-office connect with remote colleagues via a Teams call.]

For most working professionals, the past two years have been characterized by surprises at every turn – but for many, one of the most unexpected developments has been the decision by management to make a full-time return to the office.

Each year, Microsoft’s Work Trend Index provides a data-driven analysis of key changes within the working world. Combining insights from studies of thousands of people, trillions of productivity signals in Microsoft 365 and labor trends on LinkedIn, the Index has become a benchmark for organizations looking to better understand their employees in this era of uncertainty.

And it would seem greater insight into what workers are thinking is exactly what is needed. While businesses across the Middle East and Africa (MEA), are increasingly returning to normal, many employees in the region have indicated they will be online looking for new remote jobs this year.

This disconnect between work policy and the workforce’s expectations forms part of a broader trend highlighted in the 2022 Work Trend Index. In fact, there’s a growing consensus among managers that leaders have lost touch with staff.

Graphic depicts key statistics that relate to the great disconnect between executives and staff members.

Employees agree. Around 84 percent of workers in the Middle East and North Africa feel they are either not engaged or have actively disengaged.

It’s easy to see how this current dynamic has come about – particularly around the issue of returning to the office.

Leaders have spent the past two years under crushing pressure, shepherding their people and organizations through uncertainty amid unprecedented economic challenges. One can well understand why they might see a return to the office as the solution.

On the other hand, employees have spent the last two years growing accustomed to greater flexibility. A rising number of people in the region are actively looking for hybrid work and flexible schedules, with a view to prioritizing their health and well-being. And more than two thirds of employees in the UAE, for example, believe they are more productive when working from home.

There’s no question technology helped preserve productivity during the pandemic, but the Work Trend Index shows fears about lost gains may be factoring into the pullback to in-person work. Many executives also believe an office environment is essential to greater structure, social interaction, and professional support. In fact, many Middle Eastern companies feel it’s their more traditional and senior leadership that may well prevent remote working in the future.

It means leaders now have a new and urgent challenge in an uncertain economy and labour market: setting the standard for flexible work in a way that balances business outcomes with new employee expectations.

According to the Work Trend Index, a big part of the answer to this conundrum lies with line managers.

The past two years have taught us that culture will stand or fall with managers. As the people who embody the culture for every organization, managers are a critical bridge between evolving employee expectations and leadership priorities.

But to make matters more complex, many managers feel stuck between leadership and new employee expectations, and they feel powerless to drive change for their team.

From the very outset of the pandemic, Microsoft’s research has highlighted the challenges faced by managers in MEA, perhaps the biggest of which is maintaining a strong company culture.

While initially, managers struggled to make the transition from traditional management skills to remote management skills, the Work Trend Index shows they are now also lacking the influence and resources to make changes on behalf of their team.

It’s clear that if organizations in MEA want to unlock the full potential of hybrid work, they must first equip managers with the resources and training they need to manage the transition.

Forward-thinking companies like Old Mutual in South Africa have begun drawing on tools such as Microsoft Viva to empower managers. The company has been on a very intentional journey, building an environment that truly cares for employees. A key step in this journey was providing managers with some insight into the ways people are working. Viva helped them achieve exactly that, enabling managers to identify key patterns, better understand their teams and create the best possible working experiences for them.

While policy is set at the top, leaders need to decentralize decision-making and empower managers to make change on behalf of their employees’ individual needs. Developing clear guidelines and agreements, like the ones in this template put together by Microsoft, can provide managers with the framework needed for hybrid work.

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