Remote Work and Upward Mobility in The Middle East

The Middle East, with its diverse economies, has been in an ongoing economic and political transformation since the onset of this decade. Different governments have vowed to curb social woes in their countries such as dim economic opportunities, high youth unemployment and the lack of access to social services, however a lot of these promises have yet to come to fruition.

Countries like Tunisia and Egypt, who have both witnessed a regime change, have averaged 1-2% in economic growth since 2011 (according to the World Bank), not enough to create jobs for millions of young people in both countries. Young graduates in Tunisia account for 30% of youth unemployment on average and this number goes up to 50% in the interior regions.

Unlike Europe and other economic blocs in the world such as ASEAN and even the GCC, the vast area of the Middle East has been negatively affected by lack of free movement of people and labor in the past decades. Although they speak the same language and share several cultural traits and traditions (which are always good indicators for economic hegemony), talent in the Middle East is constrained to national borders. Thus, talent pooling and knowledge exchanges are both restricted and expensive.

Growing Opportunities Across the Middle East

E-commerce and the overall “technology” industries have seen a consistent surge all across the Middle East. Souq, Careem, Jumia and other e-commerce businesses are ubiquitous in many economies of the Middle East. While each country has its own local market forces, several people and managers are doing the same job everywhere and learning from their own local challenges whenever they arise. Many opportunities are emerging with new injection of money after the Amazon-souq acquisition which will open new doors and bring new players to the e-commerce market across the Middle East

Remote Jobs and Talent Pooling

Remote jobs, the permanent kind, offer a genuine challenge to the status quo. If some companies are willing to pay recruitment agencies the handsome amount of money they usually pay to solicit and filter applications from foreign labor, they might as well invest the same money to scout for talent and groom it to be able to work outside office and national physical boundaries.

Besides traditional professional social networks such as LinkedIn and Bayt.com, young talents from the Middle East are adopting social networks to their employment needs. Online communities allow employers to reach and hire regional talent that are suitable for their job openings without footing a large bill for their physical movement and relocation costs.

With the rapid spread of mobile and internet literacy, more young people are able and trained to work in the internet industry more than can their national economy can accommodate, as is the case for struggling economies like Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt – and even Morocco.

GCC economies, which have traditionally welcomed migration from other Arab countries to grow their service industries, can now better manage this migration flux while maintaining their aid commitment to other developing economies in the region by helping integrate and train the local workforce from these countries with simple access to internet connections. Remote jobs offer the perfect combination of formal professional training and the possibility to redirect income earned in any market towards any other market in the world.

Remote work, upward mobility and combatting brain drain

When I joined Melltoo as a remote employee in 2014, the “remote” part did not factor much in my unspoken commitment to the team and business. I knew that I had a job to wake up to and I understood the business was heading in a direction that required my full alertness and enthusiasm to do the tasks that needed to be done. I was also slightly averse to leaving my country to migrate to a new place.

Remote work has allowed me to access gainful employment in a vibrant market outside of my home country while effectively spending my disposable income right here in my local community, buying from local businesses that employ many other people around me.

When executed right (read our pieces about productivity and collaboration in a virtual environment), remote work opportunities can offer stable jobs and incomes to vast people around the Middle East right where they are. With the advance of communication tools, not so many words are lost in translation nowadays.

I have spent three years of my professional life since graduation in a remote work environment. During these years, I have learnt immensely about the intricacies of peer-to-peer marketplaces more than I could have ever dreamed of. During the same time, I spent my income wisely traveling to over 20 countries in the world. Thanks to my job, I was also able to buy a the technology and devices I need to support me in with my remote work routine.

Traveling has become a major fixture of remote work because of its obvious benefits. Visiting new places, meeting new people and discovering new places is not only thrilling, but also a cleansing experience. I have felt the most energized doing my work from different locations while maintaining a responsible work routine. This is a privilege I have access to that many young people my age cannot even dream of.

At Melltoo, we grew from few scores of users per day to 10,000+ active users during peak days. Pace has changed but my work routine has been the same. In these three years, I have grown from a business administration graduate who had the chance and the opportunity to study abroad to a grown, more experienced, business manager who handled not only both frustrated and ecstatic customers, but also a people manager and someone who understands the complicated processes of the internet industry.

This knowledge and operational expertise has become a golden goose in my country, Tunisia, where digitalizing services and the economy is only at infant stages to say the least. Fortunately, I did not have to leave my country to benefit from all this learning. Remote work is one viable solution for governments to preserve talent and cultivate exchanges of expertise and skills transfers.

Female labor integration

Apart from my own experience, the Middle East faces an issue with staggering female unemployment due to local economic forces or otherwise. Female labor participation in the Middle East is only 27%, a low number when female university graduates in the region are almost equal (47.7%) in number to male graduates.

Remote jobbing supports women’s integration into the workforce and the workplace. The missing 15% can have an immense impact on local economies on the Middle East. Added income will help lift families above the poverty line and increase their access to good education and further professional training. This added income will replenish local treasuries with income taxes and other types of taxes from local commercial activity and capital gain.

Melltoo fully supports female training and integration into the global industry since we have often extended job opportunities on several occasions to female university students to learn and work with us. Such was the case of Yusra, who worked as our community manager and later moved on to become a special needs teacher. Yesmin, who participated in our newest article about female employees at Melltoo is our illustrator-in-chief. She works on our visual branding UI design.

Is the Middle East fully ready for new jobs of the future?

This horrific infographic, circulating among youth on Facebook, on MENA’s readiness to host skills and jobs of the future can speak further to why remote jobs are now more needed than ever. The map looks grim, however, opportunities are only arising right now. Remote work has been embraced globally by Fortune 500 companies. New tools are being developed everyday such as (slack, basecamp and other communication tools) to support the nature of remote work.

It is time to push toward the future of work to allow MEA to truly turn a new page. Join the remote work revolution.

Melltoo Remote Work Culture Help Its Women Employees Thrive in Their Jobs

Work experiences differ between different employees even as they execute the same tasks sometimes. I have worked at Melltoo for the past three years where I have seen the exponential expansion of our team from 3 people to 25 employees working in several departments: delivery operations, customer success, marketing, product development and quality assurance.

I often have conversations with my university friends in Tunisia about how work means different things to different people. All of us, males and females, do agree that work experiences are influenced by gender and sometimes class at least in Tunisia. I have seen many young job seekers in Tunisia, often females, be constrained by distance and poor transportation infrastructure when accepting a job or trying to perform well at a job. This is not unheard of in th region. Remote work allows me to be productive anywhere as long I’m dead focused on deliverables that matter.

I have been interested in everyone’s experience at Melltoo for some time. We first published a piece about working remotely and then another piece about collaboration while working around a remote work business models. Now, I want to explore the experiences of our female employees in our own unique “workplace.”

Four women in our team hold central roles chiefly our co-founder and COO, Sharene Lee, who manages the team. Asiya Shakirova, a startup veteran who worked with several UAE incubators, manages our brand online and our partners programme. Yesmin Choutri, Melltoo’s illustrator, is the skilled artist behind Melltoo’s visual branding (on the app, blog and YouTube). Heba is a customer service agent who had been with the team for over a year. Without them, we can’t do our work properly; and just like everyone, Sharene, Asiya and Yesmin, and Heba benefit from working remotely.

I spoke to them privately about their remote experience at Melltoo and what it means to them in their own words as professionals, parents and humans.

Sharene, Asiya, Yesmin and Heba represent different demographic segments that are now the new normal for innovative tech companies. Sharene and Asiya are both momprenreurs who manage both a dynamic career and a growing family. Yesmin and Heba are at the start of their careers, managing different operations. Yesmin executes her tasks skillfully while enjoying a fulfilling work-life balance. Heba speaks to our customers on a regular basis and is in charge of the regular user education cycle about our brand and our operations.

It is not often easy to lead a career in tech as female. Even Sheryl Sandberg, former COO at Facebook, still can’t make up her mind whether it is just enough to “lean in” or if the odds are just stacked against women. According to Pew Research Center, as many as 51% of working mothers in the US say they find it hard to advance their careers. This is the result of archaic work environments that require lengthy hours of work and physical presence in an office to get things done. Nearly half of working mothers would have to interrupt their careers at some point for family reasons.

When Sharene started Melltoo, she did not envision remote work as a possibility but as more people joined and proved able to work effectively by themselves, the choice has become more and more obvious. It was rather economically smarter for the young team to continue to work remotely, spend less on overhead and more on acquisition and user experience.

I asked Sharene about her relationship with work and her family whom I often hear on the other end of every other call. Family is important to me as work is.

“Being close to home and able to respond to my children’s needs allows me to focus better on my work. I know I’m not missing anything and I don’t feel a need to overcompensate after work,” she tells me.

“I think the most positive thing about working from home is being able to share what I do with my kids. Growing up, I don’t think I had a clue what my parents’ jobs were like. However, my kids do look over my shoulder, they overhear me in meetings, they are sounding boards for new ideas, they are beta testers and they are able to participate in my work life in ways that wouldn’t be possible if I were working from an office, she adds.

Because of societal expectations, women have to stop their careers when they become mothers to take care of their newborns. This interruption often puts a lid on women’s career advancement and pay expectations compared to men. It’s referred to as the “glass ceiling” – an invisible barrier that hold women back compared to men. This is also one of the strong reasons some countries are considering allowing working fathers to take some time off to take care of their families.

Asiya Shakirova is also a Melltoo mom. She joined the Melltoo team shortly after the birth of her second child. I asked her the same question about managing work and managing a family.

“When I first time heard about remote job, I really wanted it. When I left my last job because I was pregnant with second child, I realized, how much time and effort I was spending in office. I didn’t want to work like this anymore. So, when I received an offer from Morrad (our CEO), I thought this is the perfect job style for mom,” she wrote me.

Asiya had to hire other people to take care of her family when she had an office job back in Russia before, but she doesn’t see the need to today.

Yesmin Choutri, our illustrator from Germany, joined Melltoo not only as her first remote experience, but also as her first work experience. Yesmin is only going to university this year. Talent has no boundaries or age.

Yesmin and I now speak more frequently when creating illustrations that match our content and engagement campaign visuals.

“Melltoo team is like a family, everyone is kind, respectful, friendly and always there to help anyone. Sharene invited me to join Melltoo even though I knew nothing of graphic design but she believed in in my potential for art and I accepted the challenge. I taught myself and learned how to use Photoshop, illustrator, create graphics, GIFs and videos,” she wrote me on Slack.

The friendly environment around our virtual office often makes it easier when new members of the team join our operations. Melltoo has a very low employee turnover with 90-plus percent of employees having worked with us for at least a year. The level of friendly communication encourages more people to participate regardless of their personal character if they are introvert or extrovert. There are no physical meetings where some people may want to assert themselves physically in the room or shout more to fill an empty space to impose their opinions (me by fault of my height and deep voice). All voices that go through the microphone are equal, men and women. Yesmin, who is a shy millennial, has enough room to suggest edits and opinios of her own to her work freely without any friction.

Heba Mahmoud, our customer service agent, challenged her own expectations with regards to remote work. Living in El Minya in Egypt, a city in Upper Egypt dominated by the agriculture sector, Heba had her own preconceptions when asked to join the customer service team.

“I haven’t expected to love the remote work or that I’ll enjoy the work behind a screen and to sit for 8 hours without feeling bored,” she says.

It is best said that Heba surmounted these fears. She has been with the team for over a year. She is a valuable member of the transactions management team.

A remote job in Heba’s case does not only allow for time flexibility, but is also a gainful job opportunity that offers income stability and upward mobility to young professionals in the Middle East. The state of youth unemployment in Egypt and the vast Middle East region remains staggerly high (~30%) and jobs are scarce.

When given flexibility, our female employees have encountered fewer obstacles to give their 100% to their jobs. The magic formula is work autonomy, good communication and an explicit agreement that despite our geographical remoteness, we are still gathered together via online platforms to brainstorm among each other and get things done. Such is the female experience at Melltoo.

Without Sharene’s leadership, we wouldn’t have gotten ahead with $1.2 million in private funding so far. Yesmin is the creative genius behind many Melltoo characters “Melltoo Man” and the rest of the Melltoo family character.

Asiya has successfully run 3 major engagement campaigns since Spring, as well as our partners programme.  Heba continues to interact and answer our user queries on a daily basis and not surpass our 8-min average targeted reply time. Special shoutout to the former women of Melltoo, Soukaina Rachidi and Yusra Bagsheir.

How We Built A Live Product and A Community While Maintaining Our Remote Work Culture

I work for Melltoo, a startup based in Dubai. I live in Tunis. I work with people who live all around the world, UAE, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Ukraine, France, UK, from so many nationalities, Singaporean, Algerian, French, Pakistani, Indian, Ukrainian, Russian, Egyptian, Spanish, Moroccan and American. We represent a diverse group of people working toward a common goal of building the biggest peer2peer marketplace in the Middle East. We dubbed it the no-meetup classifieds.

At Melltoo, we work as a distributed team. It was not the plan, but we started out this way and kept growing from a team of 2 to 25. And in this time, we have not felt like we are disadvantaged, in fact, we have executed and grown much more rapidly than our peers.

Most people don’t fully understand what working remotely is about. Great ideas don’t always happen in closed spaces. We live in a world with excellent communication technologies (slack, hangouts, appear.in jit.si Meet, etc.). Idea generation takes place when there is communication, it really doesn’t matter if it’s spoken, written, in-person or asynchronous.

How to successfully execute ideas when working remotely

Yes, we probably have too many google docs we jam ideas into, but we shelve each one as soon as we’re done with it. As a team, we’re task-oriented and we rally behind the ideas of any team member and accompany them to execution. Our workflow is managed with objectives and deadlines.

At Melltoo, we have iterated on our product, operations, and processes unceasingly over the past 3 years. We’ve also launched scores of different marketing campaigns. Typically, someone comes up with a new idea, perhaps from something they read or heard about that makes sense in our context. The idea is pitched on slack generating a lot of discussion and feedback, then the DRP (direct responsible person) drafts an extended pitch on a Google Doc and asks for contributions as a follow up. Objectives, a timeline, and a to-do list are key components to any pitch. Finally, a team call takes place and doubts are clarified and voilà: From idea to plan to execution.

This process allows us to distribute tasks across various teams within Melltoo, from tech to marketing to operations. To date, this has been very successful, evidenced by the weekly flash sale campaigns last year that we revamped into seller-focused campaigns (rather than category-focused); or the “guess and win” campaign during the Dubai Shopping Festival this past January.

Good communication is key

My daily routine includes checking slack every other hour to read conversations across various topics. I chime in if I have a question or something to add, otherwise let people speak uninterrupted when they need to. This is different from the office spaces which I have some modest experience with where other team members will need to constantly interrupt my work and concentration to tell me something (relevant and irrelevant).

Communication is different between different team members and departments. To each their own.

Rahul Choudhary, our technical team lead, relies on direct communication to get things done which includes fixing bugs and launching new features on time.

“One of my most important roles is to communicate with the team and get things done. I usually talk with the team on phone or skype. Text chat is only used to keep records. So, if there is something that needs to be present as reference, then I put it on Slack or email. Voice calls makes it easier for everyone to explain and to understand,” he told me in our conversation.

Personally, I prefer texting which may be is due to my generational obsessions with looking into screens, but I will admit that text often distorts the message and takes more time than necessary.

In a private conversation about this very post, the head of our operations also told me that he calls people outside of work to check on them. It’s a recurrent theme.

“I use phone calls and whatsapp for social communication outside of work with my team members. We share jokes of the day and have a good laugh among each other. We are not missing out [on social interaction].”

Mostafa Mohammed, our head of operations, joined our team in Jan 2016 and has gone through different stages of growth, hyper-growth and the slower growth of the summer. Like many of our team members, including myself, who enjoy working from multiple different locations, he is attached to his job at Melltoo not only because of the learning potential and missions he is tasked to execute but also because of the “remote” part.

“I like my job and am self motivated since I can travel anywhere anytime and work in new places from time to time,” he also added.

In essence, our daily work at Melltoo has as much shaped our experience with work in the 21st century as we have shaped the company culture. Like Hesham Mustafa (our Operations QA Manager from the previous piece) puts it, our team does not have to worry about benign problems such as commuting to and from a job and the waste of time and energy that comes with or figuring out food options and other related costs while away, enclosed in a space at work. This very nature of our work has sustained our business and our growth for the past three years. We invite you to try it too, perhaps for few days at a time!

Building a product through iterations

Vitali is a UX designer. He is from Ukraine. Vitali joined Melltoo to revamp our design and help us communicate better with our users. The role of a UX designer is to figure out the best flows and processes while minimizing user interfaces, the best UI is no UI.

Among Vitali’s first projects, was a revamp of the Melltoo referral program, a strong engine of growth for us. Vitali implemented two new flows to the process that did not exist before. User can now check if their referees had indeed accomplished all the necessary steps to receive their reward or remind them to go through these steps.

These two simple actions in-app have helped lower the inquiries about referral tech bugs and referral programs and consecutively freed our CS time to focus on operational inquiries which are more complicated in nature.

“We need to be aware of the limitations that we have. Limitations of time, limitations of people, and limitations of technology. And, one of the most important work we do is to prioritize what we need to do,” says Vitali.

 

Vitali works directly with the technical team. He prioritizes direct conversations and calls to clear out detailed plans before the UI team starts to draw new screens. We regularly prepare multiple versions of any given flow, get user feedback, before we decide on which one to implement.

 

Raghvendra Pandey is a backend engineer at Melltoo. He is also the hero of our user support team. When I was part of the CX team, we often communicated through a project planning tool in writing on a user case basis. Raghvendra works on the server team and specializes in database optimization. He has been with Melltoo since the early days. He interacts with all members of the Melltoo team (leadership, user support, operations, UX and frontend development).

 

“Communication among the team is very nice. The team is highly co-operative and collaborative. Management’s communication with the team members is also very good, it helps us understand our role in the greater organization. Melltoo is a great place to work and I have enhanced my professional development a lot since joining.”

 

In the end, becoming a location-independent business requires underlying commitment between staff and leadership. It is neither easily attainable nor too hard to pursue. It has become a trend in a new work culture dominated by millennials, who account for nearly 50% of the workforce today. The recipe for success begins with clearly communicating to every member of the team the company’s vision, mission and strategy. Distributed teams require a high level of independent decision making and good decisions cannot be made if the big picture is not well understood. Processes and workflows are also important since they will reduce  communication errors.

 

We are proud of being a part of this new work culture. We encourage you to get in touch if you and your business decide to give distributed work a try!