The holy month of Ramadan affects every aspect of a practicing Muslim’s personal and communal life. Business is no exception. And yet while companies and employers clearly need to adapt to accommodate the spiritual needs and obligations of their Muslim workforce, does this necessarily have to amount to a decrease in productivity?
“Maintaining productivity during Ramadan really is the main challenge facing companies and employers,” asserts Ramez Shehadi, vice principal and partner at business Booz & Co. Indeed a 2011 report found that the economies of Muslim majority countries — the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Conference — suffer approximately a 4 percent decrease in monthly gross domestic product for every hour deducted from the working day during the holy month. Shehadi highlights that a more fatigued workforce and a reduced overlap with global working days further compound this.
The same report, however, also found that 77 percent of respondents said they try to maintain the same level of productivity during Ramadan and feel that work should continue uninterrupted. The question is how to adapt to the changes experienced during Ramadan and to minimize the disruptions to business. According to one of the report’s authors, Mohammed Faris, founder and chief executive officer of ProductiveMuslim.com, “Unfortunately many employees enter Ramadan with a mindset that hinders productivity instead of trying to see how best to manage their energy levels in order to be productive.”
State regulation of the holy month
In most countries throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the governments’ involvement is limited to regulating changes in the hours of the working day. “There is a sort of freedom within structure,” Shehadi explains. “Government tends to establish the broad brush strokes that outline the parameters in which organization and people are expected to operate.”
Most of the region’s labor laws dictate that during Ramadan, the working hours of all employees shall be 36 hours per week, six hours per day. However in many cases there are carved out clauses that exempt people in managerial positions of authority. The laws also vary from country to country as to whether they apply to all employees or just Muslims who are fasting.
Rafi-Uddin Shikoh, chief executive and managing director of consultants DinarStandard and co-author of the aforementioned report, notes that in comparison to other Muslim majority countries, the GCC region tends to experience a greater reduction in actual work times than is necessary. “In the Gulf, while they want to make sure that the spiritual obligations of the employees are being met, we found that the approach is in many ways counterproductive by accommodating too much,” he says. “In some of the countries the work hours are effectively reduced to five hours a day.”
With regards to changes in the work hours there are numerous methods to circumvent or overcome disruptions to business. In an increasingly connected and mobile world many staff can work remotely to manage their workload around their religious obligations. “People are also taking work home more now during Ramadan,” says Shehadi, “which is easier in this increasingly connected and digitized world.”
Good communication, management and coordination are also key to keeping business on track. A large proportion of the GCC workforce is expatriate and non-Muslim, and their flexibility during Ramadan can smooth over some of the disruptions to the work flow. It is often understood that employees who are not fasting should not take annual leave during Ramadan and if necessary be present during times such as iftar, the breaking of the fast, or taraweeh (the evening prayers). If employed creatively this does not necessarily amount to an increased workload for them.
While working around the changes in work hours, employers also need to enable their employees to partake in religious activities, such as increased reading of the Koran, the breaking of the fast and extended and additional prayer times. However, there are a number of different methods that can, and often are, employed to minimize or even eliminate the impact on productivity throughout Ramadan.
Mixing business and religion
The iftar is the focal point of every day in Ramadan. While life pretty much comes to a standstill so those that have been fasting can congregate and feast together, this can in many ways be seen as an opportunity to do business. “There are more business iftars and suhoors [the early morning feast] happening where people come together to celebrate and do business,” says Booz’s Shehadi. “Because these are extended meals that go on much longer than a traditional half hour or hour lunch they are suitable for business discussions and for making business decisions.”
What’s more, by encouraging staff to break the fast together the iftar can increase camaraderie and bolster the sense of community in the workplace. Inviting non-Muslim members of the workforce to the iftar can also foster greater understanding and cohesion, which in turn facilitates a more productive work environment.
The charitable and communal atmosphere that is encouraged during Ramadan can be harnessed to develop the socio-economic contribution from companies. This is beneficial for both the morale of the workforce and the image and standing of the company within society. For example, many companies employ charity drives during Ramadan to make the most of the spirituality of the season. “Many of the good employers out there get their teams involved in the Ramadan tents for the breaking of the fast,” says Farrukh Kidwai, CEO and partner at the global research and consultancy Great Place to Work Institute. “This is a great way to build camaraderie and it really gives everyone a very good feeling.”
As well as managing the workforce employers can also manage, to their benefit, the workflow during the month of Ramadan. “Another area of added productivity is to push and front-load a lot of decisions, deliverables, workload and commitments to before, or just after, Ramadan,” says Shehadi. “This means there is a shuffling of expectations before and after to stop Ramadan becoming a bottleneck.”
Keeping connected globally
Working in the global village means that employers need not only think about managing a predominantly Muslim workforce during Ramadan, but also their working relations with partners, customers and clients in foreign, predominantly non-Muslim, countries. Again, communication is the key.
It is important to inform partners, colleagues and customers abroad as to the potential impact on business and to take into consideration Ramadan when planning projects, deliverables and business trips. Most people are sensitive and accommodating to the changing work environment during the holy month but that does not mean they are aware and informed.
Clear lines of communication, forewarning and even festive goodwill gestures go a long way to minimizing the risk of communication breakdown and all the hiccups that can ensue. “For professional Muslim employees, they should try their best to project a positive image about Ramadan and not use it as an excuse for unproductivity and non-delivery of service,” says ProductiveMuslim’s Faris.
Ramadan inevitably impacts on the work environment. And so it should. But if managed properly this impact need not be deleterious. Indeed, to the contrary, it can boost morale, productivity and enthusiasm within the workforce.
“Ramadan can be used as a platform to introduce Islamic work concept that are ingrained in the religion such as trustworthiness, honesty and stress management,” says Firas, “to both Muslim and non-Muslim employees.”