An international literature festival in one of
the world’s most diverse cities is a great place to
be. With an atmosphere of overwhelming hospitality
and friendliness, the Emirates LitFest promotes a
lot of interaction writers and audience and also
between the writers.
‘Smart Flexibility’ was one of a handful of
business books in the new business strand at the
Festival, and was featured in both the local press
and on radio. I did a session on the book and the
isues around smart working, and a panel session
(above right) on 'How to Change Your Life', where I
was included to provide perspectives on changing
work and work-life balance.
But how ready are Dubai and the rest of the
Middle East for smart and flexible working?
The business environment, like wider society, is
both conservative and dynamic at the same time.
Working practices are closely regulated, and there
is very little in the way of flexible working
practices. Even part-time working is comparatively
rare. But I found amongst the audiences a strong
appetite for more in the way of flexible working,
both amongst local people and amongst ex-pats.
As in the West, there is an abundance of talented
women who are unable to find work after taking a
break to have children. Sometimes it is an ex-pat
spouse who has followed her (or sometimes his)
partner out to the Gulf for highly paid work. But
more often it is local women who are restless to
find work to match their skills, education and
experience. As in many of the neighbouring
countries, the education system is very good and the
working population young, energetic and ambitious.
Women take education very seriously – perhaps
more seriously than many of their male counterparts
– and while valuing their domestic and family roles
also want to contribute more to society. There’s a
hunger for more flexibility – but also an awareness
that the dominant business culture and the policies
around working practices may be slow to change.
At the same time, this is a very tech-savvy
working population. Being able to work from
anywhere, from the point of view of technology use,
should not prove to be a problem. There are issues
about the way telecoms infrastructure is managed by
a monopoly provider, however.
In terms of workplaces, in an area once seemingly
awash with money the lessons of the recession have
hit home. The messages about doing more with less
are well received. But there seem to be issues
around status and hierarchy, and reliance on
‘management by presence’ that mean that office
design for smarter and more mobile working may face
some challenges from traditional approaches to
So in some ways many of the issues are similar,
with the main focus of interest so far on work-life
balance and creating fairer work opporutnities for
women perhaps rather than on the business-benefits
of having a strategy for working smarter. But this
is a fast developing world here, and the signs are
encouraging for taking further steps towards smart
and flexible working.