When Rania Abbas’ employer required that she and her colleagues work from office full-time during the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, it magnified her doubts about her then-role at the small, family-owned marketing agency.
This was in early-mid 2020, when 2.3 million Egyptians, mostly in retail, hospitality, tourism, and construction, lost their jobs, with unemployment reaching a two-year high of 9.6 percent in 2Q2020, according to a Ministry of Finance report. Globally, knowledge workers like Abbas were in large part moved to hybrid or remote working, at least until vaccination drives began.
Many knowledge workers also experienced a level of precarity mirroring their counterparts in the informal sectors, with 2020 seeing the return of throes of Egyptian expatriates overseas, particularly from Gulf countries, both due to mass layoffs and declining oil prices.
Amidst an immensely overwhelming job market, even white-collar and knowledge workers with specialized expertise have been thrust into the uncertainty posed by the pandemic. Even if they weren’t made redundant, coping with salary cuts or accounting for unforeseen health costs, while potentially caring for immunocompromised family members and mitigating the risks posed to their own health, Egypt’s office workers—across sectors—have not had the easiest year.
In coping with these challenges, and with the newfound free time posed by unemployment, social distancing, and slashed commutes, many of the most populous Arab country’s calibres had space for reflection that allowed for a reassessment of their career circumstances. The coronavirus crisis may be both economically and mentally straining, but it is also allowing for career shifts and transitions, in parallel with accelerated digitization, as reflective of the broader global “great resignation” trend.
Abbas, an HR guru with over five years of experience under her belt, realized during the pandemic that one doesn’t need to be in the office daily to excel in their work functions, an insight that was particularly frustrating with the country’s new health concerns. “As an HR executive, I can do all my functions online, my interviews with candidates and meetings are on Zoom…you can imagine the stress we were in [commuting to the office on a daily basis], with all the fears that came during corona,” Abbas explains. But the pandemic was also a time when she honed her “flexibility, time management and willingness to learn.”
In September 2020, Abbas was invited to sit for the People and Organizations Diploma at the AUC School of Business, a specialized HR course for experienced executives, with a curriculum that enables professionals to develop leadership, innovation, and strategic thinking.
“It was such a great opportunity; we had so much support from the professors and the university [despite remote learning]…but it also solidified my decision that I had to leave my job at the marketing agency,” Abbas says. “The management and corona situations there became very difficult. Although I managed to apply some of what I learned in the Diploma to help propel the company into profitability and improve its human capital functions, the curriculum made me realize that if I stayed at that job, I would lose interest in the role, and eventually, my passion [for HR].”
With this broadened perspective, armed with coursework that directly translates to the workplace and a drive to apply her knowledge, Abbas took the leap and resigned in January 2021. Many of her colleagues had also left because of similar sentiments; they felt the agency was shutting down young voices with new ideas or they decided to pursue other opportunities.
“I felt stuck at the marketing agency, but the People & Organizations course really opened my eyes, exposed me to new knowledge, gave me the space to implement, and helped me reinvent things,” Abbas tells Business Forward. After just a couple of months of job hunting alongside her studies, she was offered a position as an HR Executive at a recently founded organization, which she finds a better-suited work environment. The pandemic’s circumstances, learning remotely, really helped her develop her skills and career. Abbas is also all the more keen to maintain work-life balance, and holds high the adage that “You have to feel good so that you can do good.”
Some of Egypt’s former knowledge workers, including returning expatriates, are taking on new entrepreneurial ventures in entirely new fields. Sahar Mohammed had briefly lived in Saudi Arabia before the pandemic with her-then partner, working as a high school teacher, but when the relationship ended, she returned to Egypt to pursue her former passion of business development and entrepreneurship. Earlier in her career, she had been part of the founding team of a promising Cairo-based fashion start-up, an experience she speaks of with sincere joy and passion.
Applying her inventiveness and creativity to a vastly different hustle, Mohammed began working in restaurants, first as partner at a small breakfast venue in Dahab, and then as owner and manager of another eatery in the remote beach town. She says the realization that there might never be a better time was central to her decision of taking the leap to restaurant ownership. “During the pandemic, we had time to rethink our decisions, why we do things—reflecting on those big existential questions that keep us up at midnight—so I asked myself [before returning to Egypt], am I satisfied?” She describes, almost rhetorically. And while she received numerous job offers upon her return, Sahar found her true home in business ownership.
Mohamed Gharbia is an accomplished, young academic who has achieved much in his short career. After working as a teaching assistant at a university in his hometown of Alexandria for a few years and earning his MA in the UK, he decided to leave his job when a raise he felt deserving of was stalled. In the meantime, he received a more senior, financially rewarding offer from a Cairo-based organization he was excited to join, where he could develop his academic and research pursuits. He had also tired of his former employer’s traditional mindset, particularly under an increasingly digital reality that favours forward-thinking.
“I also wanted to be closer to the digital media industry [my specialization], and Cairo is the capital, it is the hub…So I took the step to move here,” Gharbia explains, having started his new role a month ago. “The pandemic has really put into perspective how fragile our existence is; our lifetime simply isn’t infinite, so I realized that I simply had to seek a faster way to climb the [career] ladder and achieve my dreams. My former employer couldn’t offer that because they’re simply too old-school and rigid to go with the times.”
The pandemic also pushed Gharbia to set goals that were more global, rather than local. In embracing a more internationally relevant mindset, he changed jobs to pursue a role that he felt had greater promise in a global market. “Digital media is the future…The old normal is forgotten; we’re all getting used to the new normal,” he says, and he has noticed that others in his networks are also building more globally minded careers post-pandemic.
Another post-pandemic trend is that the bracket of younger millennials and Gen-Zers are realizing just how financially lucrative content creation, vlogging and the world of social media influencers is, and attempting to follow in the footsteps of those who have benefitted from the pandemic’s online boom. “People, my age and younger, are experimenting with their phones and other devices, trying to make the most with what basic equipment they have, and hence we find this content overload—this surplus of content that we would never have enough time to consume,” Gharbia describes.
Just 58 percent of Egyptians have access to the internet at any frequency, even if as little as once a month, according to 2020 statistics in Arab Barometer, indicating that the digital divide has played out through the pandemic. Despite the importance of fast-tracking digital transformation, it’s likely that only an even smaller group can partially or fully adjust to the challenges posed by a post-pandemic workplace.
A shocking 73.5 percent of participants in a 2020 CAPMAS study reveal their incomes had declined because of the pandemic, while pressures on workers had increased. For professionals who aren’t in the vulnerable, informal work sector that is pushing their less privileged peers deeper into poverty, the pandemic’s stressful circumstances might have some career upsides, but that’s only representative of a small segment of the workforce.
In the U.S., the term “great resignation” was coined by a commonly cited statistic that as many as 95 percent of American workers were considering changing jobs, the vast majority of whom expressed an interest in changing industries. Closer to home, a parallel trend is taking place amongst a much smaller, well-educated group of Egypt’s relatively young professionals. As talented workers seek greater fulfilment by changing their expectations of the world of work, the white-collar workplace may be forever transformed by the shifts of the past year.