x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Survey finds the UAE's Top 10 plum assignments

Trust. Respect. Credibility. Fairness. Camaraderie. Pride. These are the intangibles the Top 10 companies in the UAE offer their employees.

THE One recently received an award as the sixth-best company to work for in the UAE. During a staff meeting, Erma Cabanero, left, Marietta Bagos and Tigist Woldemeskel react with laughter while participating in an exercise about listening. Delores Johnson / The National (w)
THE One recently received an award as the sixth-best company to work for in the UAE. During a staff meeting, Erma Cabanero, left, Marietta Bagos and Tigist Woldemeskel react with laughter while participating in an exercise about listening. Delores Johnson / The National (w)

It's Thursday afternoon and while others graft their way towards the weekend, Microsoft staff help themselves to free popcorn as they head into the cinema room for a movie. The technology giant celebrated International Women's Day last month by handing out cupcakes and giving all female members of staff a red rose.

It's no wonder that Microsoft topped the list of best companies in the UAE in a survey conducted by the Great Place to Work Institute (www.greatplacetowork.ae/) in Dubai.

"I cannot imagine working anywhere else at the moment," says Sadrul Khan, Microsoft's finance controller for the Gulf region.

"Other employers are always trying to poach us, but even if people throw more money at me, my priority is career development and having fun. It's a good deal here."

Mr Khan joined Microsoft in Australia five years ago and transferred to the UAE in 2008. His induction to the company left a lasting impression.

"One of the team leaders said something that still resonates in my mind. He mentioned that our greatest asset is people and when it is six o'clock our assets go home, and then our assets come back to work the next day.

"It's all about people, their welfare, empowering them to do their best."

Employees benefit from Microsoft's work-life balance charter, a road map for new recruits and an employee experience committee. Everyone gets three days a year to give back to the community.

It's the personal touches woven into the company culture that make Microsoft stand out and the accolade has been well received.

"There's a strong sense of pride," says Samer Ramez Abu-Ltaif, the general manager of Microsoft Gulf.

"And it is our responsibility to maintain an environment, which is exciting to work in. We foster creativity; we have activities, ice-cream days, health-check days. People can see they have a family here; there's good camaraderie."

Internationally, the Great Place to Work Institute surveys in 46 different countries and is the largest annual global workplace study of its kind.

The survey is confidential, giving employees the chance to say what they really think about the companies they work for.

Participants are directed to a website where they answer 58 closed questions, and then two questions allowing open feedback. Senior staff then contribute to a culture audit that looks at the management and HR structures.

Companies are measured against a range of criteria, including trust, respect, credibility, fairness, camaraderie and pride.

Michael Burchell, a partner and director of the Great Place to Work Institute, says the UAE's best companies - a 50:50 mix of local and global organisations - are just as good as the best elsewhere in the world.

"We survey 6,000 companies around the world and so we pull out the best of the best. I was thinking, OK we'll see what happens with the companies here, but the Top 10 would compete just fine with other countries."

Mr Burchell says other markets have something to learn from the way diversity is handled in the UAE.

"Employees here represent nationalities from all over the world and I do think these companies could be a good source of best practice for organisations in other countries.

"Companies elsewhere are struggling with issues of diversity, nationality or religion. In the survey, employees talked about how they really enjoy the people they work with here."

It's a cool evening at the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club, Bob Dylan is blaring from the speakers and employees from the interiors retail chain THE One have gathered for "The Kick Off".

The staff party is one element of a three-day event designed to assess the company's performance.

Clare Andow, a store manager, has been with THE One for 11 years. She's not surprised that it made the Top 10.

"I know it sounds cheesy, but I've got the best job in the world," she says. "I'm working with my family. We share everything - births, deaths, the good times, the bad. I can't imagine working anywhere else."

THE One Total Home Experience is about much more than selling home decor. Staff are involved in philanthropic programmes based on socially responsible investment in other countries. At the heart of THE One's success is its creator, Thomas Lundgren.

"Five minutes with Thomas," says Ms Andow, "and I believe I can change the world."

Mr Lundgren arrives at the black-and-white-themed bash in tatty blue jeans, having just returned from a visit to the United Nations to talk about his work. Is he pleased to be in the Top 10?

"I want to be number one. I always wanted to be the best.

"Six years ago, I said to everyone, 'There are four things that I think are the future of retail: emotional, spiritual, weightless and seamless'. They looked at me like I was crazy.

"Emotional because we don't sell products, we sell feelings, otherwise you are just at the bottom line and fighting about price.

"Spiritual because it must be about something more than just buying another sofa, it's about a contribution to society.

"Seamless is, of course, the machine. Everything must work, everyone helps each other, everyone wants to help each other and then it becomes weightless, everything is so easy.

"In psychology, they call that state being in the flow. Sometimes in life it feels like you are driving up a hill, nothing works, doesn't matter what you do. When you are in that weightless state, it is easy. That is where I want to be with the company."

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Mr Lundgren's philosophy is grounded in the community. At THE One, you are part of the tribe.

The company holds birthday parties every month, everyone has a personal-development plan and performance is measured by the company's core values - love, dare, live and believe. THE One supports a village in Kenya, where it has opened a school, provided a clean water system, teachers and books.

Mr Burchell says people in the UAE have high expectations.

"By and large, employees are looking for leaders they can trust, so they can communicate with them, they're confident they care about them as individuals. Also, they're looking for opportunities to grow and be recognised for their contributions - they want to win."

And he says there's room for improvement.

"When you look at the overall result, not just the best 10 companies, there are real clear concerns on the part of employees to be able to balance their work and personal life a little bit better.

"Employers need to have a very explicit conversation about the value of creating a great workplace and its impact on business success. Leaders need to be out on the front lines talking with their people, communicating vision and values, and how the organisation is aligned with that."

But it's also down to you. Employees need to make sure they do their research before taking a job, not just focusing on the salary.

"In the past couple of years, it has been such a frothy economic environment that people are willing to jump for an extra 50 dirhams and I can understand the desire of some folks to make as much money as they can.

"But is going through three to five years of your life in that kind of environment really good for you? Take the time, figure out the best workplace for you and go and find it. The money will come."

Sound advice, indeed.

pf@thenational.ae