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Cosmic Centaurs at the 2021 Khaleej Times Remote Workforce Summit

Updated: Mar 30

Cosmic Centaurs CEO & Founder Marilyn Zakhour was invited to moderate a panel at the 2021 Khaleej Times Remote Workforce Summit. The three incredible panelists speakers represented leading regional organizations from both the public and private sectors. The topic of this session in specific focuses on HR & Talent management strategies and how they have evolved over the last twelve months.


About the speakers

Hessa Al Ghurair, Senior Director of Human Capital at the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority. Hanna Nordell, the Chief People Officer at Talabat.

Damian Brown, the Group Head Of Talent Acquisition, Chalhoub Group.


Opening remarks

Marilyn opened the session with some data points about the UAE's remote work landscape. "Prior to Covid-19, the UAE had one of the lowest remote work participation rates in the world with just 10% of workers surveyed reporting that they worked from home 1-2 days per week. Fast forward to a recent Michael Page survey, this number has been multiplied by at least 5, reaching 61% in Dubai alone."


Remote recruitment

She continued, "underpinning all of this is the recruitment, and onboarding of talent remotely.

Today we'll discuss how our panelists have hired in distributed settings, the skills they believe are the most essential to leading remote teams, and the role of technology as a facilitator of productivity and collaboration in hybrid work models. Hessa, perhaps I will start with you, how has your recruitment strategy changed over the last 12 months? How likely are you to maintain remote hiring in your long-term strategy?"


"Everything has changed," she responded. "From recruitment to talent management, these changes forced us to adopt flexible working strategies. We've explored liquid or agile workforces, meaning we have become more open to having a blend of permanent, nonpermanent, contract, and freelance employees as well as part-time students. It's been about being more digital whether it's AI technology or even robots. But the question for us is 'How do we ensure it's aligned? How do we ensure everyone is engaged?"


Referencing a statistic about digital freelances, Marilyn adds, "According to the World Economic Forum, in 2020 the UAE saw a 197% increase in recruiting freelancers in the digital sector." Asking Damian, Marilyn says, "how has your workforce makeup changed if at all? Has Chalhoub also increased how many freelancers you hire and if so, has anything about that surprised you?"


He responded saying, "For us, we never looked at the countries where people outside of the UAE are based. It has never been an option for us because we always had people in the office. Previously we would offshore work to lower-cost locations. For example, we had 500 people in India, several hundred in Egypt and Jordan but due to COVID-19, we've started to look at Thailand for technology and data teams as well as other countries where we didn't have offices but can recruit from."


Damian referenced a study by BCG and The Network about whether remote employees would be willing to relocate, he said:

"5 years ago, 65% of people were open to country relocation but that has dropped by 15% now. We're seeing job seekers refusing to move around the world so we had to change our strategy to adapt."

Employee engagement in hybrid work models

"Research by Gallup tells us that highly engaged teams deliver 21% greater profitability compared to teams who do not exhibit ‘engaged’ behaviors," said Marilyn. "Engagement can be challenging when we are not co-located so I would like to ask Hanna, how has Talabat changed its approach to onboarding and engaging employees remotely?"


"Attracting talent comes first, but then it's about making sure they have the best experience possible. We're a technology company and an online service provider for food and groceries, a sector that grew significantly during the pandemic, so we've continued to scale from that point. We offered many full-time contracts while managing the resistance to relocate from prospective talent. With the added complication of competitors going remote-first and hiring, we're still studying whether a long-term remote-first setup is for us."


"Given that we needed to onboard from all around the world, we completely shifted our onboarding program. For local recruits, we gave them a personal experience. We made sure onboarding kits were delivered personally by our drivers. It was a nice initiative that allowed new joiners to connect to the drivers who are our frontline heroes. One thing we also learned is that we don't have to do everything face-to-face. When it came to engagement, learning, and L&D in general, we discovered that it is possible to conduct these remotely. Now 80% of our onboarding program is online, which is nice because we connect all new joiners across 8 countries in one onboarding session whereas before they may have only met people in their own country."


She continued, "the one thing our people really appreciated is how close we got to them as a company. We had monthly engagement surveys going around, we had questions about how people were feeling and asked what they needed more or less of. We moved from monthly to weekly town halls where we not only communicated things from a business perspective but also injected some fun things here and there."


Sharing a creative ritual idea that Talabat implemented, Hanna adds, "When it comes to virtual employee engagement we hosted "Talabat got talent". Each country went up against the others to compete and we had a comedian from Egypt, a singer from Dubai and teams voted on the winner. It's an example of the things we can do virtually. Where possible we also host small in-person events while abiding by the social distancing and safety standards."


Asking a similar question to Damian, Marilyn asks."I know at Chalhoub you integrated flexible work models, how do you design the employee engagement piece?"


"It's been all about communication, over-communication is key," he responded. "In April of last year, we told employees that their roles are secure and the organization is okay. While we were in complete lockdown we let them know that we wouldn't take decisions on resizing the workforce in the next three months."


"In regards to remote work, we are asking ourselves how to make it sustainable. We created a 27-page playbook on remote working. We integrated several trainings on Chalhoub University on what it means to work remotely, set boundaries, and design a home office. We even learned that our CEO never had an office at home because he compartmentalized; home was home, work was work."


"Now that the restrictions eased up a bit, we asked teams what their preferences are and whether they would rather work from home or work at the office. All the while, we're exploring how we can make people feel the culture of the organization because we value culture. It's why people come to Chalhoub, and the office is still the home of the culture and so we do want people to engage with each other and our company."


He continues, "psychological safety is another big one for us. We are working on mental well-being and psychological first-aid training. Specifically, we're providing this to managers. because many teams rely on them and we want to help them cope with that and manage that responsibility.


Upskilling employees for hybrid work models

"What skills are needed in order to ensure a successful transition to hybrid work models? Have you evolved your work models and processes and if so, how?" asked Marilyn.


Hessa responds saying, "The major skills gap I see is soft skills. Not just at the senior leadership level, but also across the organization. We're asking ourselves, what are the soft skills that will help us prepare ourselves for how we will get over the next set of challenges because COVID-19 is not the first or the last. We've specifically, been looking to train our people across all levels on emotional intelligence, resilience, flexibility, and creativity. We're also helping managers learn how to manage performance in distributed settings. For us, continuous learning is the key to adapting to change in the future."


On leadership

Taking a question from the audience, Marilyn asks, "How can organizations encourage their talent to move up or across departments to higher positions in hybrid work models?

Typically, those that are more visible are often promoted more often. How have you helped your leaders make sure they estimate and interact with people fairly?


"We are used to seeing people in order to recognize their efforts," said Hessa. "Employees meet up, they have coffee, discuss ideas and implement. They share the wins with their managers and that is conveyed to the leadership team. I think it's the role of the line manager to have one-to-one meetings and offer a platform for their teams to speak openly about achievements."


Damian echoed Hessa's sentiment adding, "That resonates quite a bit with me. The phrase I have heard so often is that even though we're not disconnected, we're more connected than ever before."


"Leaders know their teams. It's not about who shouts loudest. they can measure by objectives and not presenteesim. It is more about who is delivering, not who is in the office late at night."

Marilyn then asked Hanna about her advice for leaders. "What are the new leadership skills that you look for or advise leaders in your organization to develop?"



"We all needed to remember that we're only human," Hanna said. "Some of us are natural born leaders, others find it more challenging and do programs or read about leadership. Regardless, the pandemic forced us to remember the human element of leadership. What we have told people at Talabat is to tell your teams how you feel and be vulnerable. Everyone is going through the same thing and it was about connecting on that level with teams. We tell people it's okay not to be okay."


Hanna and her team believe that communication is key. "If you're on zoom, put your video on otherwise, you're just talking to another screen and you can't connect. You can't read their body language or see how they feel. Lastly, we hosted awareness sessions on identifying triggers of anxiety and depression because teams were relying on their leaders."


Taking another audience question, Marilyn referenced how Facebook adjusted employee salaries based on their location. She asked Damian, "do you pay the same amount for the same job no matter where they are?


"Today, the pay is the same and we're asking ourselves whether that will change in the future. Should we pay a commute or travel allowance to someone who isn't traveling? If so, that negates the way the package is structured. We're studying this and in an employee survey in June/July we asked people to tell us how many days a week they need to be in an office to fulfill their role - 40% said never. So if you never need to be in your office, why are we employing you in a country with one of the highest salaries in the world. Would we be better off repatriating you to your home country and modifying your package accordingly? I believe the role has value, and the person has value in that role so for now, these are all hypothetical questions - it's not on our agenda."


Powering remote work

Citing academic research, Marilyn says, "we know that employees are more positive about the change in the first three months and then it drops. Have you been able to te measure the happiness factor with your new work models and if so, what feedback do you have one year in? Hessa responded saying, "a pulse survey we recently conducted reported that people in general miss coming back to the office. They miss the physical interaction we want to facilitate these moments. Those who preferred to work from home all wanted internet or wifi support. So we're looking into this now to see how we can help people."


As a follow-up to this and as her final question, Marilyn says, "tech is an essential enabler of the new work models. " She asked Hanna, "how has technology driven your adoption of remote work models? Were you prepared because you are in tech? What surprised you most? "


"Even though we're a tech company, we were not ready," said Hanna. "We're young from a people operations perspective and just introduced our new system last year. So to go from fully in-house to fully remote, was a jump. What I have seen is that people use different tools, specifically those that they better connect with. We used Zoom and Miro boards for collaboration, Monday.com for project management, Slack for instant messaging, but again, all of these take upskilling."



The panel concluded with closing remarks by Marilyn and the Khaleej Times. Click here for more information about booking Marilyn for future speaking engagements and click here to learn more about our services.




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