Joe Chalouhi, an experienced HR executive with a global perspective, is very familiar with managing and motivating talent teams in the face of disruptive change. Through stints with storied companies like GE, Schneider Electric, and PepsiCo, Joe has always striven to deploy the most effective practices available, even if that means pushing change that can make some folks uncomfortable.
Joe took the time to chat with us during his latest gig as Group Chief Human Capital Officer at BEEAH Group, based out of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Being on the cutting edge of transformational best practices is the mission of BEEAH group, a public-private partnership dedicated to using sustainability and digitalization to build smarter cities, modern economies and higher standards of living.
What follows is an abridged version of our conversation.
Tell us a little about your career in Human Resources. Did you always want to work in HR?
Well, I started in Psychology. I started practicing for a few years before moving to Dubai about twenty-five years ago. I contracted with one of the hospitals here. After that I moved into HR, kind of changed careers, gave it a try, and I’ve been doing it for the last twenty years. I’ve been lucky to come out of Sydney and be based in Dubai, and to have the experience of all the countries I’ve lived in including Saudi, Paris, Turkey, Lebanon, working with some great companies like GE, PepsiCo, McDermott Oil and Gas, Areva. And now I’m still in Dubai and I’m leading HR for a semi-government company that deals with recycling and waste-to-energy and waste-to-hydrogen, going for zero waste-to-landfill, so it’s something different but it keeps getting exciting and I’ve been really lucky to be part of all of that.
“You’ve been seeing, I wouldn’t say a mass-migration, but a significant population starting to migrate where there is more stability, to countries that are showing growth and financial stability.”
How would you define recruiting and retention before Covid and then how did Covid change it?
Prior to Covid, in this market in this part of the world, it was quite busy. It’s a young market, a growth region. Oil is 50-60% of their revenue and they’re investing big-time in infrastructure, and they have a very high population of youth. So you can imagine being financially rich, security stable, a lot of investments to make, and lacking local talent. So attracting foreign talent was constant. If you look at the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which Dubai is a part of, 90% of their population is expats, Saudi Arabia 30-40%, Kuwait about the same amount. Qatar has a 200-300k population of Qataris and the rest of the millions are non-local so it’s a very cosmopolitan mix and it’s always been busy attracting talent to this region. You would screen, you would attract, you would get the visas, people would come, no issues. Even when you’d hire locally or when people were transferring company to company, that wasn’t an issue either. The rules are set, the guidelines are clear and the transfers and hiring processes are common practice.
The pandemic hits, companies scale back, and people get worried here because you’ve got to understand, in this part of the world, if you’re not a local national, you’re living so to speak on borrowed time because your sponsorship is provided by the company that you work for. If you have a sponsorship, it means you have some obligations. A lot of people started to buy property and investments, so they were really concerned and worried because companies began to scale back, restructuring, laying off a lot of people, not knowing how long this pandemic will go or what it was really all about. Some companies kept people, didn’t really lay off anyone and they either cut their salaries a little bit or they didn’t depending on their financial structure and practices.
During the pandemic time, recruitment was really at its lowest, because companies were just trying to maintain what they had and keep it. Big global supply chain impact, closing down, people not going out, purchase power reduced, and that flexibility and freedom wasn’t there anymore, so people were holding onto their dollars dearly. So there was little spend, which was really impacting the industry overall.
Post-pandemic, as we rise a little bit from the ashes so to speak, companies that were loyal to employees and vice versa came back. Companies that furloughed employees mostly came back. Then companies that really let go of a lot of people, like Emirates Airlines, now they’re re-hiring and recruiting.
Has it picked up to the way it was pre-pandemic, no. Is it as busy as it was before? What we’ve seen is a shift in geo-commerce. Saudi Arabia is booming now, Egypt is booming now, so people are really going after the money to those countries. You’ve been seeing, I wouldn’t say a mass-migration, but a significant population starting to migrate where there is more stability, to countries that are showing growth and financial stability.
Needless to mention, we’ve viewed the Great Resignation era, wondering if it really hit our part. The latest study by independent research showed that employees, even if they’re non-locals, are beginning to follow the trend of the Great Resignation. They found that the quality of life at home was much, much better than coming to the office, at the same level of deliverables. So recruitment is beginning to kind of take a different turn, and the bylaws in the countries have also changed accordingly, where they now allow part-time work, second job, work from home, where that really wasn’t the case before at all.
Recruitment had to adjust and adapt very quickly to manage all of this. How does the gig economy come into play, how do we get employees working remotely, how do we maximize and optimize all the resources that we have? And more importantly, how do we continue to retain and attract the talent that we don’t want to lose?
As busy as it was before, is it really changing in terms of method and approaches? Yes, now with more EVP [Employee Value Proposition] to offer to employees, from flexible working, to working from home, to a smorgasbord of benefits, etc. And that’s kind of where it is.
Have the challenges in this new reality been more technological or cultural?
I would say culture would be dominant, but then, again, when people started working remotely, companies were not prepared technically, so they didn’t have the infrastructure, proper IT, proper network, proper connection, proper office even set up. A lot of people here share with four or five different people in a room so there’s no privacy, no space. There’s a lot that’s different from the Western world so to speak. But I would say cultural as well. Companies were concerned that demand had dropped and supply-demand formulas had been tormented with big time. Moreover, people just wanted to survive and say, keep heads above water during the pandemic.
“So suddenly companies that are thirty or forty years old that never had that kind of culture of trust and empowerment and remote working and whatever, suddenly found themselves scrambling through and having to do that, knowing that it was the only way for them to survive.”
Regarding the technical challenges, who did better and who did worse?
You’ve got a lot of companies who always appreciated, if I speak from an IT perspective, all the sophisticated practices, where everything needed is online and everything is through apps and digitized. Those companies were more successful because everything was available without them having to be physically present. No manual processes, no policies, and procedures were very clear to implement. Moreover, they were digital and technical savvy, in terms of implementing remote work as part of the day to day. For example GE, even prior to the pandemic, they had remote working policies, they had clear setups for people to operate normally.
But it didn’t go well for companies who didn’t really have them, who basically thought that remote working should never happen. And culturally, they were not really prepared or mature for that matter to have that element of trust and confidence to support remote work, and they really wanted to hold onto their people closely.
That kind of took a back seat because the ones that failed couldn’t really change fast enough. And the ones who were able to keep their heads above water were the ones who had to adapt very, very quickly. So suddenly companies that are thirty or forty years old that never had that kind of culture of trust and empowerment and remote working and whatever, suddenly found themselves scrambling through and having to do that, knowing that it was the only way for them to survive. So you had companies who had their culture shifting overnight. And I’ve witnessed that here, but of course, the aftermath is, companies’ HR departments are trying to push to keep that because it’s proved, based on a lot of surveys, that it’s been successful.
“Other companies have already proven that if they’ve been working remotely over twelve to fourteen months, then they can do it forever.”
Tactically speaking, what are some of the things that have been working out for you, or that you’ve seen working out for other companies?
Companies are beginning, although not in full control yet, to really look at how they redefine the employee value proposition. They’re introducing flexible working, you see that more commonly now, with the option of working from home one or two days a week, or coming in early and leaving early. We’re beginning to see that more in employment contracts.
We’re beginning to see more of an emphasis on mental health and awareness programs and support. The pain hasn’t gone yet from the pandemic and mental health has proven to be a big need. It makes employees feel comfortable to see that companies are willing to provide that support because they really need it.
Moreover, some companies have gone further to say, you can permanently have remote working, so you don’t have to come to the office anymore, which we have experimented with. Other companies have already proven that if they’ve been working remotely over twelve to fourteen months, then they can do it forever. And that’s requiring more engagement and more definitions and more KPI [Key Performance Indicator] discussions.
So that’s what companies have been doing to make it more attractive for people to come join, to say hey, we understand, we understand what people went through in the pandemic. It’s not normal the 9-5 working hours anymore, it’s more flexible, it’s more you’re in control, but as long as those deliverables are made clear. And then to retain employees internally, and we are doing this as well, introducing more long term incentives, because we feel today that, if we don’t look after our people, then suddenly they might follow the great resignation, wanting more flexibility. So we’re trying to flex as much as possible and trying to promote a balanced culture between personal and work.
In terms of long term incentives, what has that looked like?
It’s mainly a cash incentive that you pay out after, say, three years. And of course we clearly define specifics and deliverables and objectives and KPIs, and also company performance. You give them that sense of engagement, so the longer they stay, the more they make.
“...we’re seeing that the workforce is really sticking and holding on to that, but some companies don’t really get it yet fully that they need to do it.”
What isn’t being talked enough about but should be?
I think the most important thing is that the workforce today is fundamentally different pre-pandemic and post-pandemic. We are coming out of the pandemic in a very different way than we went into it. Now we’re clear that we cannot underestimate employees' well-being, mental health, and that work-life balance, which is very classical, now we understand what it really means.
Because it doesn’t really make sense anymore where you can be working remotely for twelve months and yet deliver the same and sometimes overachieving, and at the same time having more time with your kids, being able to exercise, having a little work life balance, why would you need to come back to the mundane and the 9 to 5 and miss out on all that when you’re basically doing the same work? And we’re seeing that the workforce is really sticking and holding on to that, but some companies don’t really get it yet fully that they need to do it. And I can understand why. Either because they’re really not mature enough, they’re not really tech-savvy enough or if they don’t have that culture of flexing or adjusting. I believe this is here to stay, and if some companies don’t pick up on that, there are companies that have, and they’ve introduced it into their packages. Sooner or later you’ll have your employees drifting to those companies.
How does it look going forward?
I feel that most companies will follow suit in introducing flexible arrangements, and putting more emphasis on support services for families. Moreover, I feel that companies need to transform and I can see them looking at their values again and their culture. Where they didn’t have all these elements that would support all these changes post-pandemic, they just need to adapt quickly to it in order to create a supportive environment that would support all these changes.
With this Great Resignation, if it’s happening in the West, I can understand, if you decide to leave, you get in your car, you drive home, you open up a beer, you put your feet up, you can take your time. But here, you don't have that luxury. You’ve got thirty days to sell your cars, and take your kids out of school, and go back home to your home country, whether you have a home or you have a job. But even with that, people are still willing to do that, because they want to maintain that work-life balance.
Thank you Joe for lending us a global perspective that we can all relate to!
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