Remote working in Lebanon in the age of COVID-19

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, global unemployment rates have risen. The way businesses operate globally has witnessed remarkable changes: Remote work, previously adopted by only a few, became an everyday reality for millions. 

In recent years and across specific geographic locations, remote work has become a growing trend with higher concentrations in the technology and communication sectors. COVID-19 accelerated and broadened the teleworking trend, across countries and industries, with more companies adopting it fully or partially. 

The sudden worldwide shift to teleworking has proven itself to be an important method to reduce business costs, maintain productivity and ensure business continuity. However, the abrupt shift to remote working has also had its numerous challenges.

Generally, developed countries like Canada, Sweden, and Belgium, were able to adapt easier to telecommuting as they have a larger share of higher-skilled occupations that can be achieved remotely, greater internet access, higher incomes, and pro-worker policies.

The case of Lebanon

The pandemic hit during the country’s worst economic and financial crisis in decades. Before the pandemic, the outrageous economic and financial situation in Lebanon had already left thousands of workers either unemployed or under-employed.  

According to a brief from the International Labor Organization (ILO), 350,000 private-sector jobs were lost between October 2019 and June 2020 –130,000 of which were lost in the first half of 2020 alone. At the enterprise level, one-fifth of companies countrywide have shut down since the beginning of 2019, and 18 percent of establishments have terminated or suspended their operations, half of them doing so in 2020.

Teleworking in Lebanon has been a vital part of the response, taken by the government and establishments, to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic. A myriad of workers have shifted to teleworking to maintain productivity and reduce overhead expenses. In this regard, many jobs could be potentially performed remotely in Lebanon, yet the lack of infrastructure constrained the ability of some to do so. 

One of the greatest challenges of remote working in Lebanon is the inequality of teleworking opportunities, across economic sectors and occupations. Before the crisis, high-risk sectors that cannot be operated remotely such as accommodation and food services, manufacturing, construction, and arts and entertainment, employed almost half of the Lebanese workforce and 60 percent of non-Lebanese workers residing in Lebanon. Besides, almost a quarter of young people were not employed and not receiving an education or vocational training.

Additionally, the shift to remote working has underlined inequalities among workers with limited access to good quality internet connection at home. On this matter, internet speed in Lebanon is still below global averages. It still strongly depends on the location and means, so poor internet quality is more likely for people living in rural areas than those living in developed areas. 

Despite the numerous challenges of remote working in Lebanon, the overall number of people teleworking has increased since the start of the pandemic. Job postings on LinkedIn for remote work in Lebanon are rising and various groups of workers are more likely to apply for those positions. In this regard, more than one thousand remote job positions, for Lebanese applicants, are currently posted on LinkedIn.

The rise of remote work and a growing virtual world have reduced barriers for people to connect, in addition to significantly increasing the movement of skills around the globe. A noteworthy initiative in this regard is the creation of the Jobs for Lebanon platform, powered by smart recruiters.

The platform calls on the 16 million members of the Lebanese diaspora around the world to hire talented Lebanese mainly on a remote basis or office work, aiming to reduce unemployment and create an alternate Lebanese economy. 

As of December 2020, 8,600 candidates joined, 1,265 jobs were created, and 200 workers were hired. The platform is committed to hiring 1,000 Lebanese in 2021.

With the country’s soaring inflation rate and the depreciation of the Lebanese pound, working remotely for companies based abroad and earning in US dollars can be beneficial for the Lebanese employees’ financial situation as well as the Lebanese economy. 

The needed initiatives to support teleworking in Lebanon

To address the multiple crises facing Lebanon, radical change is needed. Significant effort is required to tackle the employment and labor market challenges in Lebanon. In this respect, creating remote job opportunities and hiring unemployed talented Lebanese, can be greatly beneficial during these tough times. 

The mobility of jobs implies that the growth of companies, industries, and employment rates are decentralized, which contributes to economic development in remote areas. Hence, encouraging and regulating remote work in Lebanon is key for economic growth. 

Providing teleworkers with the same rights and advantages as those working at their employers’ sites is a must for the success of teleworking in Lebanon. Implementing regulations on this matter is essential to support teleworking in Lebanon. Additionally, increasing investments in telecommunications infrastructure are also crucial, especially in rural areas.

Another major initiative is the development of internal regulations for remote working in Lebanon, aiming to avoid employees’ rights violations. In this context, remote working in Lebanon has been used sometimes as a justification to cut wages. 

Improving internet quality and increasing the number of places to work remotely from, like cafes and co-working spaces, are also important steps to support teleworking in Lebanon and encourage foreigners to work remotely from Lebanon and thus, contribute to the Lebanese economy.

Ultimately, the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated a trend that will likely persist after the pandemic. Despite the various obstacles, the pandemic has led to a general increase of teleworkers and a rise of remote job applicants in Lebanon. Growing investments and initiatives to support remote working in Lebanon will likely contribute to a better economy and higher employment rates.