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Remote workspaces: the facilities and support available in the UAE

It can be a lonely business working outside a traditional office environment as a freelancer, independent professional or start-up entrepreneur.

Given the costs associated with renting a commercial space, a popular option many choose in those circumstances is to build their empire from home.

But while it can save money, this approach has downsides, not least when workers need quick access to a scanner, 3-D printer or other specialist equipment – or even just a colleague with whom to brainstorm.

Research conducted by recruitment firm Bayt.com four years ago found that 53 per cent of 7,795 companies surveyed in the Middle East and North Africa regularly outsourced work to freelancers, while 69 per cent of professionals said they would like to freelance full time.

According to a 2005 McKinsey Global Institute report, 11 per cent of service-industry jobs worldwide (160 million in total) can be done remotely.

That number has undoubtedly grown since then, given advances in technology. Occupations well-suited to the “out-of-office” model include those in the finance industry, journalism and the creative arts.

Two hubs in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue strive to fulfil the business needs of the self-employed and remote workers in the UAE’s artistic community. The first, A4, is a multipurpose venue with a library, community workspace, function rooms, a cinema and cafe. The second, Nadi Al Quoz, is a multidisciplinary area – inspired by a Zen garden – available to the public for educational workshops, pop-ups and team-building exercises.

“We take a risk on risk takers,” says Alserkal Avenue director Vilma Jurkute. “We opened because there was huge demand from the market. We wanted to create a platform where free-lancers and project-based workers have everything from desk space and free internet to screening rooms. There’s space for them to set up businesses and expand their network.”

The users of the Alserkal hubs are over the age of 20 and include Emiratis, Arabs and expatriates involved in creative fields. They range from writers, gallery owners and artists to product and fashion designers. The venues are open seven days a week, from 10am to 7pm, and there is no restriction on the time people can spend there during those hours.

“The most important aspect is not the services provided – it is being surrounded by like-minded people,” says Jurkute.

“Talent wants to be surrounded by talent – to connect, collaborate and incubate new ideas. It is amazing to see companies set up in our space actually opening their doors for businesses in the UAE. These are leaders of the UAE’s creative economy, and they are coming together as a community.”

In Abu Dhabi, Alliance Française similarly brings together a community of independent workers. Open from Sunday to Thursday, the venue offers membership packages for its library, costing from Dh250 to Dh500 a year. Popular with students, academics and Francophile professionals, the space offers a literary retreat and a place to concentrate in the heart of the bustling capital.

“We provide high-speed Wi-Fi, community tables and an iPad station where people are free to surf,” says Glenda Ravonison El Korch, the head of Alliance Française’s library.

“There are also tables full of magazines and daily publications, including The National, and Arabic and French newspapers. People are welcome to work, read and borrow our books – or they can just enjoy interacting with others in the cafeteria. It is a warm and friendly place.”

For free agents looking to grow their business network while expanding their cultural horizons, Alliance Française hosts monthly get-togethers in Dubai and the capital.

“There are events for literature, music and cinema,” says El Korch. “Adults can join for about Dh30 to Dh40, and many of the events are free. It is a good opportunity to meet other people who share the same interests.”

While the open-plan, round-table library model is perfect for some, others prefer a more intimate setting when working remotely. Intersect by Lexus is a multipurpose venue in Dubai International Financial Centre that boasts a “feel-good cuisine” restaurant, a chill-out area and event space.

“Two to three times a week, I go to Intersect by Lexus in the DIFC and spend 5 to 6 hours there,” says Nicolas Pierre, the founder and headhunter at Strategic Staffing.

“There’s space for me to work, there’s high-speed Wi-Fi, and I probably spend around Dh180 on a healthy lunch and good coffee. When meeting candidates I don’t want to do it at an office, so this helps to break the ice. I can also conduct Skype interviews, as the music is not too loud.

“The important thing is that I don’t feel like I’m working in a restaurant. It provides a flexible desk for me and, from the dining tables to the lounge, I have different options.

“A coffee shop or internet cafe simply wouldn’t work for me.”

The space also houses a curated reading area that specialises in English, Arabic and Japanese tomes on literature, design and architecture.

“I go there weekly and have brought clients there,” says Samir Safar-Aly, an associate with law firm Simmons & Simmons Middle East.

“It is a space and environment that encourages creative discussion and thought. I’m also very comfortable around books, given my profession and personal interest. I have a huge library at home and I’m always reading something.”

While pleasing decor, a calm atmosphere and high-speed internet might retain the business of some remote employees, for others there are two key characteristics of an ideal working hub.

“It’s all about the team, the staff, their warmth and consistency,” says Safar-Aly. “Because I have a very busy life and work schedule, professionalism and consistency is very much welcomed.

“The people are the heart of the place and make me want to come back. That, and the single-origin coffees, which are phenomenal.”

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