COVID-19 forced public and private sector organisations to adopt remote, flexible working with unprecedented speed–now, the lessons they have learned can help to accelerate the country’s digital transformation.
This report analyses the lessons learned during the lockdown which resulted in new ways of remote working. It outlines how those lessons can be applied to accelerate progress towards realising the goals of Digital Saudi 2030, where all KSA citizens are equipped to seize the opportunities of an increasingly digitalised society. While our focus is on Saudi Arabia’s public sector, these lessons are equally applicable to the private sector, as well as to other GCC member countries which must adapt their workplaces to a world where social distancing measures are likely to remain in place for some time to come.
PwC Middle East’s own experience of the lockdown has given us valuable insights into how COVID-19 has advanced new ways of remote working in Saudi Arabia, despite the terrible human and economic cost. Drawing on this experience, the report maps out different pathways to achieving the desired future way of remote working, taking both technological readiness and business culture into account.
COVID-19 means new ways of remote working are here to stay
Changing workplace culture matters as much as installing the right ICT infrastructure
PwC’s Digital Office Framework can help employers successfully embrace new ways of remote working
Since the establishment of Saudi Arabia’s National Digital Transformation Unit in 2017, the government and the private sector have spent around $15bn on ICT infrastructure. This massive investment means the entire country now has internet coverage while more than 93% of citizens between the ages of 10 and 73 are internet users. Globally, Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to offer commercial 5G services and currently ranks 13th in the World Economic Forum’s Digital Capacity Index. Saudi Arabia’s strength in ICT has proved critical during the recent national lockdown, when the government identified remote working from home as a key enabler to contain the spread of the virus and maintain economic activity.
Investment in ICT infrastructure over last 3 years (government & private sector)
One of the first countries to offer commercial 5G services
Globally in Digital Capacity Index (WEF)
Globally in Internet Speed Average (55.58 Mbps for Mobile Internet)
Of the Kingdom covered by internet services
KSA ranking in e-government Development Index (EGDI)
Digital Competitiveness Ranking 2018 (IMD)
Internet usage by people in the age group (10-73 years)
At a national level, a wide range of digital initiatives have supported government operations amid the pandemic; doctors conducted remote medical consultations, teachers provided virtual classes, and the interior and justice ministries made many of their services available online. In the housing market, most rental contracts were processed and signed digitally during the lockdown. Meanwhile, public and private sector employers used Saudi Arabia’s comprehensive internet coverage to allow employees to work remotely from home wherever possible.
As the country comes out of its lockdown, it is essential to draw the right lessons from this rapid, forced change, and to recognise that some of these lessons are cautionary. For example, the lockdown highlighted how many organisations and citizens still have difficulties with the human and technical challenges of remote, flexible working, despite Saudi Arabia’s impressive ICT infrastructure.
Recent U.S. research on remote working during COVID-19 suggests that team leaders have struggled to lead virtual teams effectively in pursuit of a common goal. Problems include resistance by team members to remote communication tools and failure to observe online etiquette in areas such as no use of phones during conference calls and use of web cameras wherever possible. Stress has also been an issue for employees unaccustomed to working from home, where longer “office” hours can result from the blurring of lines between work and personal time, and from interruptions by children and other family members.
During Saudi Arabia’s lockdown, these difficulties were compounded in some public and private sector organisations where the level of digitalisation and automation was too low to handle the abrupt transition by all or some employees to remote, flexible working. Many KSA employers still do not enable remote access to business applications and data because of security concerns or a lack of ICT investment. By sending employees home, they effectively prevented them from working. For example, the lockdown triggered a sharp fall in public sector customer care and contact centre responsiveness to stakeholder enquiries.
Across the country, employers and employees faced sector-specific challenges during the lockdown due to the impossibility of maintaining conventional working routines and practices. Yet this change also revealed opportunities to accelerate digitalisation, raise productivity, and improve services and operations.
The lockdown placed an instant, unanticipated demand on working parents who were suddenly expected to supervise their children’s schooling. For education providers, the lockdown tested their e-education readiness regarding both the technology and the ability of teachers and pupils to engage in virtual classes and examinations. The successes and challenges of this experiment produced valuable evidence about how to develop a blended, digitalised learning model, combining conventional classroom learning with Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR) and other emerging technologies.
In the short term, the lockdown was a reality check for whether telemedicine technologies and treatments were an effective substitute for face-to- face patient-doctor consultations. For healthcare providers, these new ways of remote working also raised regulatory and policy issues in areas such as patient confidentiality and clinical accountability, as private and public sector providers wrestled with the pandemic’s disruption of supply chains. Yet despite these short-term challenges, the lockdown demonstrated the cost-effectiveness of digital healthcare, the efficiency of remotely managed treatments, and the critical role of digital technology in disease forecasting and prevention.
COVID-19 has severely disrupted Saudi Arabia’s transport sector, with air travel, land transport and shipping all impacted by essential lockdown and quarantine measures. Coming out of the lockdown, KSA authorities, like other governments, face a sensitive dilemma in balancing the protection of passengers from the virus with the economic need to enable a progressive resumption of international and domestic travel. In this slow growth, socially- distanced commercial environment, we expect an intense focus on cost reduction by transport providers; for example, by leveraging automation of scheduling and other administrative tasks to address social distancing requirements. This digitalisation will in turn increase the opportunities to introduce new ways of remote working across the sector.
Entertainment and Tourism
Sectors such as sport and tourism have been especially hard hit by COVID-19, due to their dependence on people visiting venues. Most notably, in June the government was compelled to restrict international visitors from making the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, as part of measures to contain the virus. At the same time, self-isolation has boosted demand for digital entertainment such as video game e-sports, a virtual 12-hour music festival and virtual museum tours, where a mobile app enables access to museum collections. Against this varied background, we anticipate further growth in virtual “tourism” and entertainment technologies. Meanwhile, we expect employees in traditional physical recreation sectors such as parks and cinemas to be slow adopters of new ways of remote working, given the need to serve customers on-site.
The challenge faced by e-commerce providers during the lockdown was to avoid overloaded channels due to unprecedented demand. For example, customers of Saudi Arabia’s Danube supermarket chain experienced lengthy waiting times for online grocery deliveries due to the high level of orders. Workforce availability was also an ongoing problem across the e-commerce value chain, from warehousing to deliveries. These issues have encouraged providers to scale up digital platforms and improve their resilience, while accelerating supply chain automation.
When Saudi Arabia went into lockdown, the country’s financial services sector faced immediate difficulties with tasks such as processing bank guarantees on time. The need to ensure business continuity during the lockdown has intensified existing programmes to encourage new ways of remote, flexible working. For employees in lockdown, productivity and collaboration tools have proved essential while for customers, banks have increased investments in digital channels and platforms, as well as digital wallets.
Our research suggests that the lockdown represented a point of no return for Saudi Arabia’s embrace of new ways of remote working. Across all sectors, the only direction of travel from now on is forward. For example, PwC’s COVID-19 CFO Pulse Survey on 16 June found that 62% of Middle East respondents intended to speed up automation and new ways of remote working.
Yet this advance is still being hampered by widespread problems with workplace culture and technology which existed before the pandemic. In our 28 April COVID-19 CFO Pulse survey, 54% of KSA-based respondents said they expected loss of productivity in the next month due to lack of remote working capabilities, a significantly higher proportion than the global survey average of 37%. Furthermore, only 35% of KSA-based CFOs reported that their organisations used automation to improve the speed and accuracy of decision-making.
Despite the progress made during the lockdown, it is critical that the government continues to promote the many benefits that can be achieved by employers and employees by adopting new ways of remote, flexible working. Working from home is an obvious means to encourage higher compliance with self-isolation and social distancing measures, while delivering cost savings in reduced office overheads such as utility expenses.
In addition, new ways of remote working can increase productivity by saving on employees’ commuting time and attracting the best KSA talent regardless of a new recruit’s location. A well-managed, flexible work culture can also improve job satisfaction and enable employees to achieve a better work/life balance.
The most important lesson from the abrupt, mass shift to remote working during the lockdown is also the most obvious one: for all organisations, a carefully planned, incremental transition would have been vastly preferable. Employers and employees would have had time to adjust gradually to unfamiliar technologies and novel working conditions, learning from their experience to design a model for new ways of remote working that was best suited to their own and the organisation’s specific needs.
Drawing on Saudi Arabia’s lockdown experience, we have identified two different models for remote ways of working, depending on an organisation’s sector and the services it delivers.
Organisations that interact with physical assets, such as shipping companies or government vehicle inspection units, should adopt a hybrid model where only some functions and operations are adapted for remote working.
Private and public sector organisations that only deal with digital assets, such as tax compliance departments, should adapt their operations for remote working while retaining a mandatory level of “core onsite hours”.
At this time, we do not believe KSA public and private sector organisations are at present sufficiently digitalised, both regarding organisational culture and technology, to move to a fully remote model.
Training will be critical to the successful implementation of our recommended models, enabling organisations to benefit from a new talent development philosophy that leverages distance learning and digital technologies.
Governments and private sector can benefit from a new “Talent Development” philosophy that leverages distance learning and digital technologies
|Remote talent development options|
Live virtual classrooms
Use a Learning Management System to establish virtual interactions between instructors and trainees
Attend recorded video lectures at own pace / preferred time
Play as you learn - gain points, level up, earn badges and compete on who’s the top learner.
Digital environment for employees to share experiences and learn from one another
PwC’s Digital Office Framework identifies the various building blocks needed to ensure that new ways of remote working can be integrated smoothly and productively into an organisation. At the top, rigorous corporate governance and oversight of remote, flexible working regimes is crucial, supported by clear, transparent regulations. Managers also need to be sensitive to the differing requirements of remote, digital workforces and office-based employees.
Meanwhile, remote workers must have access to an organisation’s digital resources. The provision of a laptop, mobile phone and internet connectivity at home is essential, while productivity and collaboration are enhanced by further digitalisation and automation of back office functions. Our Digital Office Framework also includes a change management layer which addresses leadership and upskilling, helping people to become better team managers and self-managers when working remotely.
Data collection and processing should cover corporate functions, core business operations, sector-specific data and individual employees. Lastly, organisations that are implementing remote working models should invest in a range of technologies and platforms to increase their remote capabilities, including VPN, cloud computing and remote helpdesks.
Our research on Saudi Arabia’s public sector’s experience of the lockdown demonstrates that there is no reason to fall back into traditional ways of working when the COVID-19 crisis eventually ends. Workplaces and workforces can be flexible by design and virtually decentralised, enabling managers and employees to become more innovative and productive.
The proposals in this report are underpinned by the insights we have gained from our “Remote Working Charter”, which identifies core values that our employees should aim to incorporate in their daily practice as they shift to new ways of remote working. They include maintaining a firm division between work and personal time, promoting transparency and trust among team members, and ensuring that each virtual meeting has a clear purpose and outcome.
This is one example among many of how organisations across Saudi Arabia’s public and private sectors can embrace new ways of remote working, building on the shared national experience of lockdown. Apart from technological change, it will also require a cultural change for the region, but one that will positively support the transformation. If the right lessons are learned and swiftly applied, the country will advance at greater speed towards a digital future that benefits all KSA citizens.
Digital Consulting Partner, PwC Middle East
Technology Consulting Partner, PwC Middle East
Talha Shahid Ali
Technology Consultant, PwC Middle East