The United Nationalities of Work

Hearing the rank and file in the companies on the Great Places to Work (GPTW) list talk about their approaches to life at work is a humbling and exciting experience. And contagious. 


From a numerical angle, the cumulative headcount of the 15 great workplaces in the United Arab Emirates does not seem humongous at all. According to the data provided by companies via their culture audits and passed on by GPTW, the total number of employees among the 15 organizations in the UAE comes to 12,644 souls. 


See also: Full, interactive 2013 Great Places to Work in the UAE list


That is a miniscule bunch, whether gaged against the estimated 7 million or so working-age expatriates who reside in the UAE, or measured against the close to 1.9 million strong cumulative global workforce of the 15, mostly multinational, companies that made the list. 


Constituting a little over 0.6 percent of the global workforces of the 15 companies, and less than 0.2 percent of the UAE population on basis of the available figures, being an employee in a great workplace in the UAE qualifies as an exceedingly rare privilege. 


Such dabbling in numbers and ratios, however, makes it even more shocking that every single individual in the 12,644 is a story and a message that is too vast to capture. I met about 40 of them and it is ridiculous to think that this could be enough to begin tracing the human reality of it all. 


But in a slight bit of redemption there are some saving threads that keep the entire story collection a little more manageable.


There is the human commonality. Within the face-to-face interviews Executive conducted, some self-interests were put into proportion. Money was never cited as the prime factor for making a workplace great. This is not implying that there was some bacterium of unhealthy self-denial or a virus of pretense going around. The women and men, young and old, verbose and less so, in the great workplaces saw remuneration as important but not as key. As one group of three interviewees agreed among each other, “If you are not paid well, you get depressed. But if you get paid very well and you don’t love the job, you will also get depressed. It has to fit together.”  


Qualifiers for what makes a great workplace in several cases were stated to be “the team”, with a strong common feel of valuing the “appreciation, support, and understanding” that characterizes a real community. Belonging was definitely a highly valued category, but rather than representing those on the lower rungs of companies, responses that emphasized belonging came from people at many different and often advanced levels of presumed social standing.  


Diversity, more diversity


Then there is the dimension of diversity of identities and aspirations. To name but a few examples, I have conversed with a young Syrian lady who has her family in Aleppo to think of and says her dream job will be one where she can “evolve, use my talents or skills whatever they may be and be happy”; a middle aged Hawaiian who aims to build schools and an Egyptian go-getter who likes challenges and wants to be his country’s second secretary general of the United Nations. 


Diversity of nationalities and cultures in the UAE workplace seeks its equal in any city. At General Electric Middle East, more than 50 nationalities are represented in the workforce. Ratios of internationalism are high among managers, mid-level employees and job starters. Many interviewees praised the multi-culturalism of their work environment, although it also emerged in the conversations that diversification can become a need in the generally multi-national workplace if a certain layer of a workforce is tilted toward one nationality to the point of creating barriers against outsiders. On the emotional issue of emiratization, which is so politically charged that GPTW is not likely to develop a list of best workplaces for Emiratis in the next few years, there can be not only the known difficulties of attracting nationals into the private sector but that Emirati citizens inversely can feel mono-culturally fenced in when working in the usual reservations of employment for nationals.


The diversity of the UAE workforce can indeed be a double-edged sword, commented Ehhsan Abdallah, senior practice consultant at the Gallup organization: “If you are able to harness the diversity that you have — and good managers are able to — and are able to hire people from an array of different [cultural and ethnic] backgrounds, the rewards are massive.


“However, if you are not able to harness it, you create a culture of disengaged teams and associates and what can happen is that the culture becomes very cliquey — you can be almost making ghettos in your workplace. In this scenario, the negative impact can be double for a company because instead of having one poor performer, the disengagement spreads and becomes toxic,” said Abdallah, an expert on behavioral economics. 


A kingdom for equality


GPTW awarded recognition for being top workplaces for women to four companies — THE One, DHL, Marriott and Paramount (the latter is not in the Top 15). There were advancements of workplace gender equality visible at these and other companies in the Top 15. Some were outright surprising, such as the sponsorship of a “Women in Logistics Middle East” organization that is breaking new ground for female participation in this industry which is far from a ‘conventional domain’ of career women. Female and male employees at THE One shared their experiences of equality at all levels of the company. Microsoft has a new top-level female executive in the region, and others, such as media company OMG, are continuing to press toward gender parity in their ranks.  


On the other hand, counter narrations of disadvantages for women and slow-going in implementing more equality and fairness also came up quite regularly in conversations with employees at great workplaces. Most of these experiences originated in the wider society of the UAE and not in the workplace, but there were also comments such as one by a young joiner in the UAE operation of a multinational who said, “If I look at our company here, we have no single woman in top management. There is definitely space for improvement. Europe is fighting to empower women, the US is fighting with the same dilemma, and here is even a step behind those.” 




The social engagement of GPTW companies is noticeably high and as such a common factor in the corporate identities of the high-trust employers. This prevalence of corporate responsibility is much more than a bonus for society or a sideline perk. 


As Monique Ritacca-Herena, senior vice president, human resources & chief human resources officer- Asia, Middle East & Africa at PepsiCo, told Executive, people increasingly want to work for companies who share their values: “The foundation of our business is built upon performance with purpose, which is the idea that the short and long-term, sustainable success of the company can be aligned to what is good for society. It is the strategy in which performance is driven by purpose and purpose enhances performance,” she explained. 


The beauty of it is that social investment is also contagious. Sitting around a table at THE One, store manager Clare Abad gave an example of how the engagement works for her: “I know that when we sell one more sofa, we earn one more brick for the school [in India].” 


Rear Spoiler 


Engaging in conversations with the people in the great places to work is an intense exercise of communication with far too many peaks. It is something like an interplanetary view of a mountain range — far too much information to facilitate a microscopic approach. 


In this sense, it is necessary to question the importance of ranking differences between the great places to work. From the non-statistical plane of human communication there are 15 best places to listen, learn, and find interesting people that are captured on the GPTW list; in an uncharted territory of many more great workplaces that are waiting to be discovered.  And all can be developed. 

Thomas Schellen

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