Perils and profitability

Happy employees or Starbucks patrons?

Work has a profound influence upon us. Much more than a means of survival, it is a main source of self-esteem and lifetime relationships, not to mention the cumulative wealth of nations. In terms of time spent on the planet, work comprises the bulk of our lives. In work, we interact purposely with materials, tools, technologies and people. In work, we prove our worth to ourselves and derive our value as individuals. 

Through work we produce, as societies and a global community, that magic number called gross domestic product. Despite all other newfangled ways in which we measure quality of life in any nation — the widely used UN’s Human Development Index or the exotic Gross National Happiness Index introduced by the nation of Bhutan — per capita GDP is still the key determinant in measuring the success and comparative perception of countries. After the avoidance of total self-destruction, the world’s leading concerns remain GDP growth and job creation.  

So much for the good side 

“Labor is not a commodity”, emphasizes the International Labor Organization. This is a reminder that throughout the history of work, not only have people exploited others but also we as individuals have pressured ourselves, and our peers, make one of our most basic human endeavors a pain rather than a pleasure. 

Much of the agony surfaces at the workplace. Mobbing, labor fights, slavish fixation on status, titles and career symbols, and many other destructive patterns of behavior are linked to what we do and put ourselves through. 

Work-related diseases, explosive societal inequities and destructive impacts on families from widespread work-life disparities are all realities of developed economies. Beyond the cases of highly reported imbalances, however, quietly hovers a widespread phenomenon. It is an internal dissatisfaction and disengagement from work where individuals spend their days with the self-perception of being pigeonholed in this or that dead-end routine job.     

Human capital is the oldest, newest, and above all, most important and underdeveloped asset in any economy. The persistent ambiguity in the way we experience work and the humorous discrepancies between upside potentials and downside threats to meaningful labor make it even more important to improve the quality of our workplaces across cultures and better the work environments in the countries we call home. 

 

Uppers and downers

At first impression, the performance of UAE-based organizations in the Great Place to Work Institute’s (GPTWI) valuation process is a combination of consistence and improvement as only two new companies entered the top ten ranks. Both companies told Executive that they wanted to participate in the process in 2011 but felt that they were not ready at the time. 

As a rule does GPTWI does not divulge information if any dropped-out companies have withdrawn from the process. Yet, Executive has learned that one of the two, the Zayed University opted out of participation in the 2012 process, citing preoccupation with other strategic priorities and lack of time as the main reasons. The other, SHUUA Capital, has experienced a range of unfortunate events from layoffs to leadership changes.  

The lack of sizeable movement among the rankings in both years, however, seems to confirm that the quality of work in all companies that were ranked has remained relatively stable. By comparison, in the top 100 ranking in the United States, as a percent of the total, more than double move in or out of the rankings. 

The rate of turnover on the GPTWI lists is an important reminder to both companies enrolled in the process and seekers of employment opportunities that a place on the list in one year is not a reason for complacency with what has been gained or lost. 

 

A rewarding experience

But given that they were recognized as top companies, the organizations’ leaders interviewed by Executive for this report confirmed, with no exception, that they found the experience rewarding. 

 “We have learned a lot in participating [in the first list] last year. I was surprised that my team, the whole top [leadership] team, learned much more from GPTWI than I ever expected,” THE One’s CEO Thomas Lundgren said. 

The UAE subsidiaries of multinational companies with an employee feedback processes also said that the GPTWI trust index reaffirmed and expanded what they are learning from their in-house employee appreciation questionnaires. 

Microsoft Gulf’s General Manager Samer Abu-Ltaif phrased it by saying that while internal surveys were the main tool used to assess the company’s journey, “I consider the GPTWI a learning opportunity for us because the feedback helps us improve.”

Overall, the experience seemed to be an enhancer of positive competition on improving workplace quality and corporate cultures for participating companies in the UAE’s work environment. As two of the ten corporate leaders told Executive in identical words, “GPTWI raises the bar.”  

Mixed race, real results

Raising that bar may prove to be of substantial merit to the UAE and its ambitions to assume a greater role in the global business fabric. Aided by the country’s open employment policy, all companies in the top ten stated that the diversity of nationalities in their organizations greatly contributes to their work culture and is often an advantage that Dubai-based units of multinationals have over other units elsewhere. 

In the realm of gender equality, opportunities for women to shape corporate cultures in the UAE, not to mention in other countries in the Gulf, are still not easily found. An increase in the employment of women in decision-making roles might boost productivity and profitability of organizations as much as the diversity of different nationalities does, according to expert Fiona Dent of UK-based Ashridge Business School [see page 48]. 

Dent’s observation that the number of women in the UAE’s business schools has increased substantially from five years ago is confirmed by Talent Director Tamela Scotcher at OMG, one of GPTWI’s top ten companies to work for in the UAE and one of the three top companies for women to work in. “Traditionally, the CVs we received tended to have a male bias. This is no longer the case and it is now far more balanced between genders. It seems this applies not only to our industry [media] but also a range of other industries in the UAE. The emancipation of women and their empowerment is obvious in the workplace,” Scotcher told Executive. 

According to GPTWI UAE’s CEO Farrukh Kidwai, companies that realize excellent workplace cultures tend to outperform on profits because, when customers perceive a company as a great place to work, “your customer base is going up [and] your profits are going up.” 

On the side of employee motivation, pride in what one is doing works wonders, he added. “What does it do when you say you feel proud to be part of your organization? It means you give 110 percent and 110 percent translates into 220 percent for the organization.” [See page 46].

Gallup, the international research organization, corroborates the impact of workplace quality on the overall performance of companies in the Middle East. In research results published last month, the company said that employee empowerment in the UAE was at 25 percent, meaning one in four respondents said she/he feels completely empowered in their role when polled in the survey.

This ratio is “about right when benchmarked across the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] but it is quite low when compared with, for example, Western Europe,” commented behavioral economist Ehssan Abdallah, a senior practice consultant with Gallup Consulting Middle East and Africa. According to Abdallah, low empowerment results in decreased employee engagement; the psychological bond and psychological commitment of employees decreases which inevitably results in poor performance. “The compounding effect… is that poor performance will result in a poor customer experience. That decreased performance also has a direct link to employee health,” he said. “If my employer doesn’t look after me from an empowerment perspective, the likelihood of him not looking after my health is higher.” 

He believes the UAE is at the forefront of the GCC in addressing the issue of employee empowerment. “They are on the sharp edge of change when compared with other countries in the Middle East. Both UAE-owned companies and units of international organizations that are based here are realizing that by setting up a performance-based culture, they reap dividends.” 

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.

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