It pays to look after your employees

Ruth Fletcher, the vice president of people at Careem, on how investing in wellbeing makes sound business sense
It pays to look after your employees
Careem keeps data tracking the levels of engagement of its employees on multiple levels in the organisation (Photo courtesy of Careem)
By Shayan Shakeel
Sun 21 Oct 2018 03:30 PM

How aware are companies of the fact the wellness makes business sense?

People are loosely aware that well-being makes financial sense. How Careem approaches it is that we don’t make an investment and expect to see a financial return, in terms of wellbeing. We think about it in the context of engagement, which is a productivity driver. Engagement – i.e. – happiness in our colleagues does correlate to business productivity because we track that data, and the correlation is too tight to ignore. So, our context is very much business output and productivity.

Can you give an example?

Every month we ask our colleagues how likely they are to recommend working at Careem. That gives us a net promoter score, which is an indicator of how engaged our colleagues are at work. Another data set we have is how our different markets and teams are performing across organisational objectives, whether commercial ones or ones that don’t directly impact top line. We then see, for instance, how high-performing teams or markets track to their levels of engagement. And we can see that they directly correlate.

An obvious question perhaps, but why is it important to have engaged employees?

In terms of business metrics, the key to retaining great talent is what leaders struggle with in organisations around the world. Levels of engagement also directly relate to churn and retention. We also believe it’s the right thing to do to have our employees engaged.

How is this belief reflected in your recruitment process?

Our recruitment process is very thorough, and is mostly behaviour and evidence-based in the interviewing and assessment phase. Our biggest filter is values-based alignment, and we go through evidence-based testing about that. People who align with our values are incredibly difficult to find. They’re a rare commodity, and that’s why engagement is important.

There is now a much larger and more dynamic regional talent pool and it’s quite idiosyncratic. We face different talent accession and retention challenges depending on which part of the network we are talking about. In the UAE, we have a mobile talent market, and it’s becoming increasingly easy to attract global talent.

And the secondary market is growing because more people see the UAE as an attractive place to work. Once they’re here, they’re not overly keen to repatriate back to where they’ve moved from.

But the workforce here is still transient?

Most people come with a two to three year plan, but end up staying longer, often because misconceptions have been alleviated. There are also tonnes of great career options here. It’s growing really fast and here are some really exciting organisations, particularly in the tech and start-up space. I’ve been here 13 or 14 years, and the last eight were in tech and start-up companies.

How do you actually improve employees’ working lives?

We do it in a number of ways, which depend on creating systems that give clarity and focus to their working lives. This frees them up to have autonomy around the way they work. We create very clear goals on a quarterly and half-yearly basis and share that very openly within the organisation. Individuals see through the noise and chaos and can really focus on what’s important to the organisation and can align their work to that.

In tandem, they have the autonomy to create that output. That alleviates stress and anxiety, gives freedom to operate and creates an opportunity to have work-life harmony. All that contributes to engagement metrics.

There are also polices like enhanced maternity leave. We followed suit with the government of Dubai’s pioneering initiative to have three months maternity leave.

We also have enhanced paternity pay. All of this creates inclusion and the ability for employees to choose how they want to work and how they want to work. We offer sabbaticals and extended time off for higher performers, because they’re the ones who may quite possibly be subjected to burnout. How can we create space for them to renew, recharge, refresh and return to the organisation?

And we also have doctors on-site who come once a month to our office so people can have GP appointments in the office and won’t need to book them outside. We run healthcare days in which we have clinicians do cholesterol, BMI and blood checks in the office.

Do you pay higher salaries than other companies?

Our rewards strategy is not to spend lots of money acquiring talent. Our rewards strategy is to encourage people to join because we are trying to fulfil a purpose. That’s why acquiring talent can be challenging. But, it’s also easier as well, because if you don’t believe in our purpose and don’t align with our values then it’s an automatic filter.

We cannot compete with some of the higher paying multinationals in this part of the world. So we compete on a value proposition and wellness is core to that value proposition.

Some of these initiatives don’t cost a lot of money. Our medical insurance premiums didn’t go up even though we have doctors on site, even though mental health and wellness services are now incorporated into our medical insurance.

Goal setting doesn’t cost a lot either. In the tech landscape, what overburdens and causes high degrees of stress are a lack of clarity on goals, or having to play multiple different roles with no clarity. Once you see how it aligns to company objectives, that has an impact on how stressed they are to be productive.

Why is it so hard for some companies to get this?

I think they are afraid to believe it. They think that if they loosen the reigns, the wheels will come off. That if they don’t keep up the pressure, productivity will fall. It’s a big bet. It’s one thing to see success with this in the press, but to see it with your own eyes is different.

I can understand why for business leaders it takes a leap of faith. For those organisations, I would encourage baby steps. Pick pilot initiatives. It doesn’t need be financially onerous, but measure the impact and monitor that. I certainly believe they’ll be able to see the impact on their organisation’s ability to compete in the market for talent.

Is this more relevant now given the changing demographics? What is average tenure?

If you’re not doing this, you will fall behind. The average age of Careem employees is 28. Their expectations around how we manage and nurture talent are really high. If they aren’t met, they will find an alternative employer. And it’s a very competitive landscape. We’ve doubled in employee growth over the last 12 months, so our average tenure is low at about one or two years.

Do you think you’ll be able to stick to this plan if Uber takes a stake in Careem?

Our focus is on building a great workplace culture at Careem and an organisation that will inspire the region. That’s pretty much our only obsession right now.  


Ruth Fletcher has been tasked with implementing company-wide initiatives for employees

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