Cultural creativity: How you can build a great place to work

Written by
Ron Thomas

21 Sep 2015

21 Sep 2015 • by Ron Thomas

What marks out the best companies in the GCC and how can you emulate them through building culture and engagement? Karam Filfilan asks Ron Thomas, CEO of Great Place to Work Gulf and formerly CHRO at the RGTS Group in Saudi Arabia, for the inside track.

What particular issues are companies in the Middle East facing?

The Middle East is dealing with a very young workforce, so retention is a key point. We have lots of graduates from top universities, but most want to work for government ministries rather than private business and are simply waiting for a role in the public sector to come up. This means that companies need to connect with new recruits within their first year to keep them motivated, or they will lose them.

How can businesses build this connection with employees?

One way is to build a brand around entrepreneurship, as this is a focus for graduates in the region. Highlight nationals who have succeeded in growing the business in certain areas and exemplify them as corporate entrepreneurs who have progressed. If you can show an individual that they can work in a division for you and develop the business using their own ideas, why would they need to set up on their own?

What makes a company a great place to work?

The most defining question you can ask someone through an engagement survey is: ‘Would you bring your mother, father or sibling to work here?’ Most of the time people will say ‘no chance’.

HR departments think they need to copy Google by installing gyms, day-care centres or extra facilities. It’s not about that. You need to connect with your employees on their issues.

I have an example of an HR leader who worked at a large hotel, where the vast majority of employees were menial workers from abroad, who got to visit their families only once every two years. During the summer, the hotel offers half-price deals for customers as business is very slow, but still has to pay the same costs in air-conditioning and cleaning and so on.

The HR leader came up with the idea of allowing the workers’ families to stay in the hotel over the summer for free, providing they could cover the cost of getting them there. The workers were so positive about the scheme that some were even in tears.

However, it wasn’t just about positive engagement. Prior to the scheme, the hotel had an annual staff turnover of around 65%, which ate up a huge portion of his budget. This fell to just 2% the year after the scheme was introduced. A gym wouldn’t have made a difference to this workforce, but by understanding his talent pool and industry and being creative, this idea did.

Whats the key to building employee engagement?

It’s all about people. Your talent is the key to unlocking success, but it’s important to note that there’s no manual, as each workforce is different. You need to analyse your culture, the skills of your talent and the strategy you’re trying to reach.

Leaders have traditionally been poor at talking about culture. They pretend to be interested when it suits them. I think this is something the next generation of leaders will be much better at, because they’re more collaborative and open to ideas. They’ll challenge the orthodoxy in organisations, and we’ll see much more engaged workforces and CEOs as a result of that.

Ron Thomas spoke at Naseba’s latest HR summit event in May 2015.