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Centaur Stage - Ep. 5: Does Remote Work Create More Opportunity for Refugee Talent with Rama Chakaki

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 episode, Marilyn and Rama Chakaki debate whether remote work creates more or less opportunity for refugee talent. The insightful conversation sheds light on the challenges facing organizations, employees, and refugees and offers solutions to overcome these barriers.

About Rama Chakaki

Rama Chakaki has 25 years of technical and communications experience in social development for Arab youth. She is currently Chief Operations Officer of Aixplain, a stealth startup in the AI space based in Silicon Valley. She is also the Founder of the, a venture philanthropy fund investing in youth programs and technology startups, and Founder of edSeed, her philanthropic crowdfunding platform for refugee students seeking funding and mentorship for higher education.

Rama is also a partner at two social impact startups, Mint+Laurel, a personal care and homeware brand empowering artists from the MENA region, and AYA Animations, a values-based edutainment production house. More recently, she became an equity partner at Transform VC, a startup studio, VC investment, and advisory firm. She is a TEDx speaker, an MIT Solver, an avid reader, and has been appointed the title of ‘master chef’ by her two children whom she says are her proudest achievement.

About the topic

At Cosmic Centaurs, we have talked a lot about how COVID-19 accelerated the rate at which organizations adopted and implemented more flexible work models. One thing we also see a lot of commentary around is how remote work in specific, allows hiring managers to broaden their prospective talent pool.

According to research by the Boston Consulting Group, increasing diversity in an organization has a direct effect on the bottom line. A study of 1700 companies across 8 countries, found that companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenue due to innovation. More diverse, inclusive companies also see higher levels of employee engagement and improved performance. Of course, a more inclusive work culture begins with people - your current and future employees.

Recruiters filling remote positions can seek out talent beyond the geographical boundaries of the city or country where company offices are located. Given geography is often linked to socio-economic status, ethnicity, and educational background, this means recruiters can tap into marginalized talent pools where enthusiasm and drive are rife.

However, the data shows that in areas where marginalized communities are present, knowledge economy jobs are scarce. Refugees and displaced people are among the most marginalized in their communities and as of 2019, there were almost 80 million forcibly displaced people around the world of which 26 million are refugees around half of whom are under the age of 18. They have continuously faced challenges finding work in their host countries where structural and legal limitations prevent them from becoming active contributors to the economy. (UNHCR)

In this episode, Rama and Marilyn debated whether remote work provides more or less opportunity for refugee talent. The debate was structured around 5 motions: culture, process, systems, people, and structure. These themes are part of Cosmic Centaurs proprietary framework: The Omnichannel Organization™

Motion 1: People

Remote work settings make it difficult for refugee talent to be visible. Given refugees are part of a marginalized and underrepresented group of people, it becomes even harder to be ‘seen’ in a work setting that is distributed.

Almost instantly, Rama disagreed with this motion saying, “It actually makes it easier.” She continues, “First let's put the population in context, 80 million is larger than the population of the UK or France and it's about the same size as the population of Turkey or Iran. We're talking about a country-size population and they are dispersed. If you include youth displaced by conflict then that's a much bigger scope, like youth in Lebanon or other areas. They are actually helped by remote work because the online space is far more democratic and open than the actual places they may reside in. I mean, democratic, not in the sense of politics, but in the sense of access to the job markets, because of the challenges that host countries may have. Oftentimes refugees are not able to tap into the local job market and therefore the virtual one is much more easily accessible to them, provided they know how to get to it and provided they have the skills for it. That's just another dimension that we would have to tackle and a lot of organizations are working with refugee populations and youth impacted by conflict to bring them closer to this virtual setting and enable them to gain access to remote work.”

In her dissent to Rama’s points, Marilyn quotes her husband saying, “Actually, the office is a great equalizer. When you're at the office, you can be the same as everybody else and you can perform in the same way. With remote work, a lot of other restrictions arise. Do they have a space to work from where they’re not disturbed? Do they have to contribute to household chores all the time? Are they constantly interrupted? They may ask themselves when I appear on a zoom call, what do I look like? And do I know how to behave in these settings? So in that sense, I think that can be a negative for people that come from these backgrounds because they don't have access to great internet, or laptops and it adds to the number of things that they need to provide or to have provided to them in order to simply just be able to perform the job.”

She adds, “When I was working in Lebanon, it was difficult to hire Palestinians who had been in Lebanon their whole life. They were born there and it is home for them, but it was always very complex to hire them. I just wonder if, beyond that hiring hurdle, remote work doesn't then become a little more difficult for people from that background?” she asks Rama. “I wonder what your view is on that.”

“I think you make a valid point that workspaces are equalizers,” says Rama in her counter-argument. “Especially if companies have proper orientation programs that put everyone on the same footing. For the past five years at The VIP Fund, we've looked at what refugee youth or youth impacted by conflict are missing to be able to get online. We started addressing emotional intelligence, skills, presentation skills, search skills, to help broaden their knowledge base and match what their counterparts may have elsewhere. A lot of them were unaware of the tools available to them to work remotely such as Nabbesh, Upwork, or others. Once you give them that orientation and open up their eyes to what's available, in addition to training them on remote work tools like Slack and others, then they are on equal footing as someone who's in the same office space. Luckily we live in an age where these online tools make it so easy that even your virtual background can hide wherever you may be. If you feel that it's not the right setting. There are other hurdles, but, from the sense of having refugee talent feel like they are just anybody else in the room, you really can't tell the difference provided they get the right training and orientation.”

Motion 2: Culture

Remote work settings are not ideal for helping refugee talent acclimate to company culture. Without explicit, intentional inclusion initiatives, distance reinforces people’s tendency to favor those who are similar to them and further ostracizes refugee talent that may already feel this way given their forced displacement from their home countries.

Rama agrees with this motion saying, “I agree. However, I think that this is an age-old problem because that same problem existed for women before they entered the workplace. Before they were embraced in workplaces and the workplaces became friendly to women, and we're still trying to figure this out."

For refugees, it's the exact same thing. It's about culture. People and cultures usually gravitate towards what's known and familiar, and you have to make it known that you are inclusive and then highlight who you want to include and how you want to work on including them.

"In the AI space that I'm working in now, we're tackling the same issue. AI tends to be very exclusive and we're working on democratizing it in our company. With the refugee population and youth impacted by conflict, there are a lot of biases because people don't know them. Companies don’t know if they can work (legally speaking), whether they know how to work or if they have the skillset? Our job at the VIP fund and for other organizations that are doing this is to showcase refugees and conflict-impacted youth for who they are with their talents, with their experiences, the richness of their emotional journeys, and the resilience that they bring, that a lot of others like us may not have.”

Rama continues, “All of a sudden you find that they're elevated beyond the status of an employee who may have the same skill set and is in the same country, because of all these other skills that their experience has brought for them. Of course, there are still some challenges. Sometimes there are language barriers or nuanced cultural misunderstandings, but I truly believe that an organization that wants to do it can create the orientation programs or partner with nonprofits that have these programs to upskill refugee talent. “

“I agree with you, it isn't it is an age-old problem,” says Marilyn. She continues, “it's a problem, even for people who don't come from complex backgrounds. Anyone these days who is being onboarded remotely is finding it hard. But beyond the onboarding, a lot of the barriers of how you normally would have networked with people in the office, like going to lunch or going out to socialize, are no longer a problem. So if you couldn't have afforded to go to the same place as your colleagues or if your mom makes you lunch every day and you don't want to make her sad by not having it, these barriers are now eliminated and your ability to network again, provided of course that you're empowered to do so, means that now you're able to connect with anybody. It removes that barrier of where you sit or who you are "allowed" to speak to. Perhaps that's a good way for people to connect with the cultures of their organizations and be able to build a broader network than what they could have built if they had been at the office. While they miss all of those implicit clues about the culture, perhaps building a broader network can be a way to compensate for that. I think the biggest challenge is needing a leveling of the emotional intelligence and the readiness of the soft skills and removing the barriers of feeling like they are different or that they are less than and it's very challenging.”

Motion 3: Systems

The reliance on technology and internet connectivity makes remote work unattainable for displaced talent. Refugees living in camps or in host countries where such resources are inaccessible cannot actively contribute or create value for organizations.

Rama agrees with this motion, saying, “Yes! The technology barrier is actually hugely disappointing. When I was much younger and working in this field, it was so exciting to think that the internet would be something that anybody and everybody can access. To see how exclusive it's become is really disheartening. I know that there are a lot of organizations working on making it open and available, but there are also a lot of organizations that are deliberately confounding the process and making it harder for refugees and others.”

Sharing an experience from the global pandemic Rama adds, “In one of the countries where we operate with refugees inside of a camp, it took us six months to get permits to give a higher bandwidth internet for students that are required to go to university and required to study online during COVID-19. It took us an equal amount of time to find an organization that would bring in laptops to the students. Those barriers have to be removed because it makes no sense. Education is a basic human right alongside access to technology, especially when you are forced to be in a refugee camp environment. This obviously extends to power grids as well, a lot of our students have power outages. They have eight hours of classes a day, but only five hours of electricity and there's no way for them to actually study at the same pace or rate as others. If you remove those barriers, the abundance of online resources and the language services are just amazing, but you have to be able to solve that first-mile challenge, which is access to basic internet, electricity, and hardware.”

edSeed scholars at Zaatari Refugee Camp with technology to power their remote work and learning

Marilyn adds: “Something I’m hopeful that will perhaps come as a solution is that now with everybody working from home, companies are revisiting their benefits and what they provide their employees. We had a client where an employee didn't have a camera on her computer at home and so they bought that for her. She could have bought it for herself, but it shows how companies are now getting to the point where they're rethinking the benefits and they need to provide so employees have good working remote conditions and that's not something they would have bothered with before. Previously they provided employees with desk space and a computer. Now they're having to rethink this.

Perhaps that's something that can now extend to people who can’t afford it. It will become part of the package. Companies will make sure employees have good bandwidth, a camera, a good sound system, a computer that works, even some basics, like electricity. I recently spoke to somebody in Australia who is working on helping companies provide batteries to their remote workers so that they can store energy and use it for longer. Not necessarily because the power isn't available, but simply as a backup for business continuity. Maybe some of these initiatives can really support in that sense to provide that access to employees who need it. "

Adding her perspective, Rama says, “Only when the big players in the tech sector, like the Googles and Facebooks and Microsofts of the world, start looking at the refugee population as a unit or like a country that they have to provide for just as they would provide for other countries, will we actually see some disruption in this space. Until those big players do, it's the smaller companies who are struggling with this idea and evaluating whether it is worth for them to go out of their way to provide these services for one two or even ten employees.”

“The good news is that the data shows it is worth it!” says Marilyn. “Sun Microsystems did a study where they were trying to figure out whether, on the whole, people save money if employees work from home and the company provides whatever's needed for them to be able to. The answer is an overwhelming yes. Not to mention the positive impact on the environment and so on.”

Motion 4: Processes

Refugee talent will need to quickly adapt to new remote work models and processes for which they may not have the basic skills. Companies will have to review all processes offering training and upskilling where needed.

Agreeing with this motion, Rama says, “While, again, most of the work conducted will be very similar, whether you're working with a remote, employee in Downtown Dubai or a remote employee in Zaatari Refugee Camp, some of the processes that need changing are in the beginning. How do you start, induct, train, and bring someone onboard these are the biggest challenges. Once those challenges are overcome, then things become quite systematic for us. The first challenge that will come up is how to pay employees and figure out that already convoluted process. The second would be making sure they have connectivity and other essentials. A third includes some of the nuanced differences such as whether this person has the experience and the depth of experience to work in a field that requires access to certain technologies or information that they may not have. Perhaps the most important is knowing that refugees have gone through traumatic events and they do suffer from PTSD. Companies must make sure there is a heightened awareness for that, even if on the surface the employee seems like they're on par with everyone else, they may not know when there's a trigger that can cause an emotional disruption to arise. Organizations should be mindful of that and have HR procedures ready to deal with these instances. Last but not least, sometimes certain refugee populations are on the move and it's not within their control. As an employer, you have to be thinking about that. What if, there's a critical disruption and this person has to move? What backups do they have in place to make sure that it doesn't disrupt the rest of the workflow?

Marilyn who could not disagree with this response says, “Those are really incredible points, and some of them I'd never considered. Perhaps I'll just point out to those who might be hiring that these populations are - by virtue of their experiences- incredibly crafty and are good at finding solutions to themselves. Yesterday a friend told me he started guitar lessons and his instructor was in Syria. He is taught on Zoom and charges $10. They found a way to pay him. Theses candidates may also be just as nimble and smart. Refugee talent has had to figure out a lot more complex things, and if employers give them a chance and the right support, they'll find a way to be active contributors.”

Sharing a thought-provoking concept, Rama agrees with Marilyn’s point saying,

“Oftentimes the approach to humanitarian relief is really counterproductive because it leads to subsidized degradation. The longer you have people sitting and just receiving aid and not giving them the opportunity to work like anybody else, the worse their situation becomes for them and for their host countries. This is how you end up with some refugee camps that have 70% unemployment rates, which is a disaster for the economy that's hosting them."

She continues, "Whereas if you open up these opportunities for them to leverage their skills - and they are incredibly resourceful and capable- then you bring them into your economy and you raise the economy, instead of having this degradation happen year upon year. So the opposite is very true - they can flourish if offered employment opportunities.”

Motion 5: Structure

Remote work does not necessarily create more opportunities for refugees given the structural limitations preventing companies from employing them in the first place. Host countries may deny organizations from offering work permits to talent, block access to payment channels or health insurance coverage.

Rama agreed with the final motion. She said, “thank you for bringing that point up. It seriously has been the biggest continuous and consistent challenge. There was great promise at the beginning with cryptocurrencies, that they would be a great alternative to banking and allow people access to payments. Unfortunately, they haven't come through yet, at least not in the mass scale that is required. Companies are having to figure out channels and back channels and paying through NGOs and sometimes incurring as much as 40% overhead just to pay someone because the NGOs that are intermediaries are forcing that. It’s a huge debate I heard recently on a podcast by Steven Levitt co-founder of the Freakonomics Consulting Group. It's a serious debate because it's preventing some 80 million people from gaining access to jobs to payments through them. Thankfully we still have money transfer channels and with the right, paperwork, and creativity you're able to pay through them. Oftentimes there are payments in kind. For example, if you are providing a technology service like coding, a company may pay for your education. They are not giving the talent money, but they are paying for a degree that will advance you. Young talent especially is keen for the experience or a letter of recommendation for future employers, or also for immigration processes, because that's something they need that can really help them. The more of us that are doing it for every one or two or three people, then the momentum will build. If you hire five refugees and do the extra work that is required, the momentum will build up and the bigger organizations, even governments will take notice.”

One last question

As with all participants, Marilyn asked Rama to complete the following sentence: the future of work is...

“The future of work is virtual,” said Rama. “With everything that's happening with technology we began seeing it, but it's going to be mass adoption of virtual work where, with very few exceptions, we're just all working online.

We're using smart devices to access our work, whether it's glasses or tablets or others, and just be, get used to it and get comfortable with it because we're here to stay online.”

Donate Today

This episode with Rama has inspired us to share a few ways you can support refugee youth and talent in securing the essentials they need for remote work. Below are two organizations we will be contributing to, and we hope that you will do the same - every little bit helps!

A philanthropic crowdfunding platform for refugee students seeking funding and mentorship for higher education.

Codi a combination between a coding boot camp and a leadership program based in Beirut and Tripoli. Its aim is to get underprivileged youth to participate in the growing needs of the local ICT sector.

Other episodes of Centaur Stage

Episode 1: Watch Marilyn's debate with Iulia Istrate on corporate culture in distributed settings, or read the key insights here.

Episode 2: Watch or read the key insights from Marilyn's discussion with Ziyad Rahhal exploring what it means to lead in today’s world, how his approach to leadership has evolved, and why empathy is not the same as compassion. The conversation also shed light on LinkedIn’s bold mission, how it's growing its products to create more value for its users and why the term ‘customer-centricity’ has new meaning for sales and marketing professionals.

Episode 3: Watch or read the insights from Marilyn's discussion with Dr. Myriam Hadnes about the art of virtual facilitation, how to make workshops work, and her recent ‘Never Done Before’ Festival.

Episode 4: Watch or read the insights from Marilyn's discussion with INSEAD's Jose Santos all about agile teaching. The conversation reveals what Joe learned, how it’s changed his approach to teaching and his newfound perception of agile methodologies.


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