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Thu 23 Apr 2020 11:06 AM

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How did the Middle East best workplaces respond to the Covid-19 Pandemic?

Keeping employee centric in the middle of the Covid-19 Pandemic is important, writes Michael Burchell CEO of Great Place to Work Middle East

How did the Middle East best workplaces respond to the Covid-19 Pandemic?

Michael Burchell is CEO, Great Place to Work Middle East.

Employers across the region are working to address the economic challenges that the outbreak of Covid-19 has had on their financial health.

Recently, Great Place to Work Middle East announced its annual ranking of the best workplaces in the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and it’s no surprise that those list in the top workplaces have been leading the way in their response to the crisis.

It is a curious moment to release a list of “great workplaces” when most organisations are considering lay-offs or other measures.   Great Place to Work research indicates that the best workplaces create and sustain high trust, as well as high-performing environments - in good times and in bad.  For example, the S&P 500 suffered a 35.5 percent decline in stock performance from 2007-2009.  That's a lot of companies losing a lot of value — but they didn’t all share evenly in the pain.  Companies whose key employee groups had very positive experiences posted a remarkable 14.4 percent gain.

In the UAE and in Saudi Arabia, retailers have had to change their business models significantly and reconsider their financial forecasts for the year - all in the space of less than a month. Retail giant Landmark Group – listed in both the UAE and KSA - has always made employees’ job security and health their top priority and the centre of all decisions they take. During these unsettling times, they have made employee health, safety and wellness a priority, along with enhanced communication.  For example, they have kept emergency food kits ready for the employees who may be quarantined, conducted exclusive emotional well-being and medical webinars for their employees, and created HR and Marshal Groups across their stores, warehouses and offices to ensure all employees are kept updated on the latest developments and reassured at all times. Nisha Jagtiani, Group Director, Landmark Group, posted a video for all employees assuring them that the employee have and will always be the group’s first priority.

Furniture retailer THE One, also listed high in the Great Places to Work, has placed communication with employees as central to their strategy for navigating the health and financial crisis.  Thomas Lundgren, THE One’s Founder & CEO, shared that communication in crisis is even more important. “We set directly up a system with ‘antennas’ to filter messages to everyone and all are in different WhatsApp groups. Daily messages from their Managers and Weekly from me.”

Like Landmark Group and Chalhoub Group, THE One communicates updates on the pandemic and the government’s response along with business news and information.  Transparent and open communication is critical says Lundgren, “You should not communicate false hope to your employees. Transparency is key. There is nothing more demoralizing than a round of layoffs if you have been reassuring them that they are all secure.”

As employers across the region consider their next steps, here are 7 important lessons offered by the best workplaces:

1. Consider how COVID-19 impacts everyone

The best companies to work for think about the emotional, psychological and physical well-being of every employee as well as their families and friends.  To come to a set of decisions on how to proceed, seek out the most comprehensive factual information from reliable sources such as from the World Health Organization.

2. Remove financial concerns

Great workplaces make sure people can keep working safely and comfortably in a manner that keeps them financially secure. The key here is to ensure health benefit costs can be minimized and reduce worker hours only as a last resort.

3. Prepare for economic downturn

These organizations are running financial models with recession assumptions to assure the business is prepared. They refine recession and post-recession strategies and determine the people that will be required to drive innovation by all.  As Thomas Lundgren noted, “make lasting cost savings because the world will never be the same and you should come out stronger than you went into this one.”

4. Review sick leave policies

It’s critical that employees minimize their risk of infection. An immediate review of sick leave policies can help you encourage them to do the right thing and stay home when they are ill — both for their own safety and for the safety of their colleagues.  This is critical to slow the spread of the virus and to assure that people are well cared for.

5. Avoid layoffs if at all possible

The best companies to work for make layoffs the absolute last resort. They plan months ahead and review costs and debt levels, so they can prepare to finance their way through the recession.  Workforce reductions should be made only when you have no other option, and they must be handled equitably and fairly.

6. Communicate openly

Leaders should share the why and how behind decisions whenever possible.  This enables employees to engage in more innovation and to keep a responsible mindset rather than letting fear and uncertainty lead to a victim mindset.

7. Listen

Leaders at the best workplaces ensure that management and HR are in sync, with multiple messaging channels to make sure they know what is going on in the minds and hearts of the people.

Michael Burchell is CEO, Great Place to Work Middle East

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