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Centaur Stage Ep. 15 - Flexible work in action with Damian Brown

Centaur Stage is a weekly video series where we explore bold ideas about the future of work and learning. Each Thursday afternoon, on LinkedIn Live, at 2:30 PM UAE-time, Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs is joined by some incredible guests to share insights, opinions, and perspectives about the future of how we work and learn.

In this discussion, Marilyn and Damian discuss how Chalhoub Group shifted to integrating flexible work best practices into their work model and what Damian and his team have learned in relation to remote hiring, onboarding, and creating a corporate culture in hybrid work environments. Watch the full episode here.

About Damian Brown

Damian Brown is the Group Head of Talent Acquisition at Chalhoub Group. In his role at Chalhoub Group, an organization with 12,000 employees across 8 Countries Damian is responsible for both digitizing, simplifying, and humanizing the talent acquisition processes whilst also leading Diversity and inclusion for the Group


He is passionate about the space having spent 22 years in ‘Talent’ spanning Agency Recruitment, Executive Search, RPO, HR Consulting, and in-house Talent Acquisition, the last 11 years of which are based in the Middle East.

Damian’s career has also spanned both entrepreneurial startups, FTSE100 organizations such as Capita, and Fortune500 companies like Adecco Group and IBM (where Damian’s interest in Digital Transformation across HR grew). His remit has included off-shoring, automation, EVP creation, and reminding his teams to have fun.

Flexible work models in action

Well before the pandemic changed our perspective on remote working, firms were looking at developing more resilient working models. But shifting perspectives on the potential for flexibility was slow. Now that the world has changed, we can explore the positive and negative aspects of flexible work models.

According to EY, there are a number of structural and cultural barriers preventing organizations from adopting flexible work models today. These include restrictive policies, inadequate infrastructures, the culture of presenteeism, and client requirements.

But on the other side, increased flexibility could positively impact organizations and employees by:

  • Increasing employee productivity, engagement levels, and wellbeing

  • Reducing costs from turnover, sick days, and emergency leave

  • Building business resilience and enhancing brand and reputation

Chalhoub Group was one of the first to announce that they would be implementing measures to integrate remote work practices for their teams. Marilyn asks Damian to share how the last 12 months have been for Chalhoub.

“Tough, different, scary, exciting,” said Damian. “I came into the business as a remote onboarder because the country and city were closed. So my laptop was delivered to my house and I got working remotely. Straight away we noticed that as an organization we weren't set up for remote work. My first-day welcome drinks were set up on Microsoft Teams but more widely, we just were not ready. There were amazing people in the HR Leadership team in creating a playbook exploring what remote work looks like including how to set up a home office, what managers should or shouldn't do, and how employees can switch off and set boundaries."

He continued, "it's been really interesting because rather than just create a playbook, we created a bunch of training around the playbook to activate it and to get the manager buy-in. There were a lot of people who measured using presenteeism - the jackets on the back of the chair. People in tech were used to agile ways of working, they had Kanban boards and daily standups and I remember the horrifying look on some of my colleagues face when I suggested the daily standup. Changing those ways of working, integrating the new culture without touching the DNA was the biggest challenge. Our DNA as an organization has always been people-centric. We all of a sudden had to shift to explain to managers who to manage through deliverables and a checklist. Rather than a bi-monthly sit-down with teams, we encouraged them to check in weekly if not daily. We asked them to check in on their people and their mental health."

Sharing a story about how they got there, Damian says. "It was a labor of love putting together a remote work policy. In June last year, we presented these policies to our Executive committee. We went around the room asking if people wanted to implement remote work policies and they asked if we should postpone this until September of 2021. We felt that we shouldn't because we had all these people working remotely and we needed to get them some support. Our CEO said that he never had a home office. If he needed to work he would come to work, and that when he was at home, he was 'home'. He felt that employees wouldn't have the separation between work and personal life and felt it would be better if we returned to the office (COVID-19 restrictions were lifted) and when they re-set, HR can launch the remote work policy. Through this, we learned that the resistance to a remote work policy being rolled out was just because leaders wanted balance and for their people to switch off. Ultimately, sense prevailed and we rolled out the program. Lots of new things came in and we allowed people to work from anywhere in the world for one month in the year. We had a huge take up on that program. We had a teammate in New Zealand with a 7 hour time difference and yet they still managed to keep core hours. Another colleague went to the UK in November and we suddenly embraced all these new ways of working pretty quickly."

Marilyn responds saying, “The reason why I wanted you to share the story is because it highlights how we assume people's positions about change. What's really interesting in the work we do with our clients, is that leaders say they are not against change. Older companies especially, know that the world has changed time and time again. But they need to express their real worries and fundamental questions. They deserve to be thought about, rather than just copying what other organizations are doing. Hearing these fears is so important to help us design work models that work.”


"When we last spoke at the Khaleej Times Remote Workforce Summit last month, you briefly touched on upskilling teams. Can you tell us what are the top 3 skills you believe are essential to thriving in flexible work models?" Marilyn asked.

“One of the very practical things is the ability to use new tools. We have a plethora of tools on our desktop and most of us have not opened them before that. Mural and Miro were a godsend to many in the management teams. To the companies and the workforce who were craving these breakouts. We didn't know how to do it when we were not in a room with sticky notes. We showed people how to use these collaboration tools, training was a big thing.

The second was a mindset shift to genuine trust. Presenteeism is the idea that if managers can see you, they can trust you. But that shouldn't mean if they can't see you then they don't trust you. It means there was never genuine trust to start with. How to really build trust and foster trust between managers and their teams is key"

"Lastly, I’m a big advocate of agile ways of working. The concept of having standups and entering a social contract with your peers and managers and saying out loud what you will do in a morning meeting. These small things switch and help build trust with each other.”

Measuring productivity

Taking a question From the audience, Marilyn asks “What has been the impact of the remote work program on productivity and employee engagement and how are you measuring those things”

Damian responds saying, “Productivity has gone up. Using feedback from my colleagues, we have not seen productivity be a challenge. The fear of burnout is what has grown for us. Everyone dropped their commuting time and replaced it with added working time. People have less reflection time in their day too. We’ve seen the impact on the human element and we’re starting to worry about it. Are people switching off? A lot of that comes from leading by example. If you send an email at 11 o'clock at night, you’re sending a message that it's okay to work that late.

In terms of measuring the impact, we ran surveys at the beginning of COVID-19 to ask how many days a week people needed to be in the office to fulfill their role. 40% said ‘never’ and we thought to ourselves, why are we employing them all in the highest cost location in the world with high housing allowances when you don’t even need to be here? When we re-sent the survey, the number changed a lot. People wanted to be around each other.

The head of Level Shoes said she wants the workplace to be a place where they can have fun and bond with their colleagues. Some teams come in one day a week, others are in 5 days a week because they need human contact. My talent acquisition team still does interviews in person so they’re in the office quite a bit. Some teams are remote and it's driven us to consider locations we’ve never thought of before. We have someone on our data team based in Thailand. We onboarded them remotely and subsequently, we built a team around that person. If you asked us 9 months ago, it would have never happened, but we’ve adapted and it's been based on feedback from the business. We ask what’s working, is the productivity there, and are people engaged”

What's really incredible about the way that you are approaching this, is that you’re showing a lot of flexibility and humanity in your approach. You recognize the differences; some people want to be together, others don’t, some are in Thailand and you are dealing with all of these situations. It's beautiful to see this at scale. This may come naturally to smaller teams but it's truly inspiring to see it at a scale like Chalhoub, said Marilyn.

She continues asking, “How do you think that this individualization of the work model will impact the way you work after the pandemic is behind us. Will you redesign the offices?

He responds saying, “Absolutely! It's out there. Individualization whether in Talent acquisition or in the employee experience, has been the holy grail for so many organizations. We’ve been accelerating towards that quickly. We didn't do it on purpose - it was an accident. But it helped that our DNA as an organization was very people-centric. It is always people first. And it's not a sticky note on the wall, it's who we are. It's about what's best for people, every division. We’re still a retailer, we still have people in stores and those people are amazing, they helped with delivery through the warehouse. They felt part of the entire ecosystem and they supported our e-commerce activities, sometimes delivering packages in their own cars.

If you’ve got your culture right, you can individualize. Going forward we’ll see more companies individualize how they operate. I saw reports of PWC announcing Summer Fridays, others are trying 4-day work weeks. They are looking for different things that work for them. As an organization, if you can embrace that, it's the most important thing. It all culminated for us in an amazing annual seminar we had last month. In 2020 we had the Coca-Cola Arena and brought in everyone from across the group. In 2021, we switched and went digital. We had a TedX production over 2 days and true to TedX format with small segways between sessions. We had 3,500 people log on, it was more inclusive than before and we had more of the organization together. The feedback was amazing and that was the internal comms team who did that and it highlights what you can do with remote and with digital and how you can still push the culture without being co-located at annual seminars or other events."

Commenting on that individualization piece Marilyn said “Coming from marketing, I’ve been on both sides. The human (internal) side and the external communications side. Marketers have been trying to personalize the way they engage with customers down to individual preferences. One of our clients was having an issue with internal communications because the team that we were supporting them with doesn’t check their emails. We suggested a survey to understand their channel preferences but they were worried teams would choose phone calls which are inefficient. We assured them that we can use technologies that automate this part of the process. It's funny how we know how to communicate our brand to thousands of people we’ve never met, but we can’t communicate culture with hundreds or thousands of people we have multiple touch points with on a daily basis. What's your view on how you guys are continuing to do that?

“Communicate, communicate, communicate. No one can over-communicate in this current climate. There are so many channels, 80% of our teams work in a warehouse or stores. How are they going to check their emails, log in to the intranet, etc? So we deployed new technologies and we now have WhatsApp and SMS groups because that is how they want to hear from us. Where possible, we physically bring people together. We have a program called ‘one team one culture’ in these trainings around our DNA and leadership programs around our core behaviors and cultural awareness that we want our leaders to have. Uptake was slow, 4-5 weeks in only 20% of our population had completed it. Our HR and people team started doing these as group sessions in stores, in warehouses. We created pop-ups and we animated these sessions. Technology enables it but you have to get creative about what you do with the technology. It's not about sending Whatsapps and hoping it resonates. The more and more we automate the more I fear we lose the humanization. They go hand in hand. You can’t completely automate the onboarding experience, because someone still has to speak to other people to order a device for you. Your system won't do that for you. It can remind you but we need the human to do the activity so I'm always cautious about trying to automate or digitize too much. It should be there to assist a human, not replace the human.”

Psychological safety

Taking one more audience question “How do you measure the psychological safety of the teams?”

“We had a number of programs," said Damian. “At the beginning of COVID-19, we invited Lighthouse Arabia to come in and work with us. We did a lot of work with our management from how to spot issues with their teams and how to deal with being an 'agony aunt'. We also put a number of services in place. We had a helpline for our employees or their families. They could call anonymously and get support from psychologists or coaches about anything from financial worries or health concerns. It was run outside of the organization but for the organization. These were the earlier interventions we put in place in April - June last year when the pandemic was taking the world by storm.

Since then, from the data in terms of the number of calls we got per day, which countries were more or less likely to phone in, we were able to see what training we needed for teams. We created mental health first-aiders in different countries. They were able to support people and help people, look out for the signs and provide a safe environment for people to talk about their worries. It wasn't easy. We ran it as a volunteer job and people wanted to support each other. And so many people signed up for this and that helps reinstate the culture more."

One last question

And finally, our last question for the session. Damian was asked to complete the following sentence: The future of work is....

“The future of work is balanced. I know I mentioned it earlier, but the future of work is definitely balanced. Organizations have had psychological safety and wellbeing on their agenda now for the last decade. It's certainly at the top of the agenda for most companies. So balance is where we’re going.

The 5 day week came into being 100 years ago when Ford motor company gave off a full weekend and we’ve been working like that for 100 years but we have so much automation and tech and digitization so the 4 day week can’t be very far away.

The other side of balance will be around automation and humanization. One without the other doesn't work. The best analogy I have is this: The technology we have in an aircraft, A pilot can't fly the A380 on its own, they need a lot of tech to get a smooth journey. Likewise, an A380 cant take flight without a pilot.

So in all work environments, there’s a blend of how we integrate the technology that is available to us and the humanization around it to make sure we have service and experience."

Other Centaur Stage Episodes

Episode 14: Watch Marilyn's discussion with Hamza Khan about the future of the office or read the key insights here.

Episode 13: Watch Marilyn's discussion about scaling an e-commerce business with Rami Khale, or read the key insights here.

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