By Lewis Garrad and Nuno Gomes
ln a report released last year, the International Monetary Fund outlined its views for the changes needed to support the continued economic development of countries in the Middle East. In particular, the report points to volatile energy prices and the associated realignment of public spending in the region as drivers of a need for stronger private sector performance. With many organisations tightening their spending due to a turbulent economic climate, direct investments will be hard to come by and so in our view it’s likely that leaders will be turning to employees to find new ways to unlock performance and find new ways to grow.
With this context in mind, it’s useful to ask not only about where to look for new opportunities but also how to release them. In particular, it’s vital to understand the sort of barriers that people who work in the region experience when they are at work, as well as the way forward for building a more performance based and more enterprising culture.
It’s therefore important for organisations to consider the three factors that influence individual performance at work: talent (how good someone is), engagement (how much effort they commit) and circumstance (how lucky they are). Leaving aside the common tendency that many people have to overestimate the former and underestimate the latter, it becomes clear that improving engagement is probably a good bet when it comes to driving workforce performance as it’s likely to be the most open to influence by management interventions.
This helps to explain why so much interest has been generated around the topic of employee engagement in recent years. With many companies finding themselves in increasingly competitive environments, having a talented workforce is no longer enough. Engagement has become the lever that organisations must use to ensure they are optimising their people resources (otherwise they are simply relying on luck!). And yet, many companies still struggle to achieve the level of engagement they need as well as the subsequent improvements in performance they would expect. Why has engagement become such a challenge for so many organizations?
To answer this question, we took a look at the employee survey data we have collected from nearly 50 organisations in the region over the last 5 years. In total, we have surveyed more than 100,000 employees across most countries in the Middle East, giving us a tremendously powerful data set to explore. Reviewing that data, we found some remarkable consistency with other regions in the world but also some unique issues and challenges. We would summarise the main themes like this:
The constant pressures to transform organisations in order to keep up with emerging technologies and competitive pressures do not go unnoticed by employees. In our surveys, we find that, on average, 40% of employees feel their company isn’t keeping up with changes in its external business environment. This is significant because confidence in the future is a critical driver of keeping the workforce aligned and committed. This data point isn’t unique to the Middle East either. We also see employees in the USA, Europe and Asia showing similar levels of concern about how well their organisation is adapting to business change. To address this, many have doubled their innovation efforts or restructuring to become more agile and fluid. In Mercer’s most recent global talent trends study, 93% of senior leaders told us that they will be making some sort of organisation change over the next few years in order to keep up. Indeed, the future of work is coming quickly and with more change more often, leaders will need even greater levels of resilience to manage more frequent change.
While nearly all employees that we surveyed tell us that they are clear about the results expected of them, 40% say that they see substantial wasted time and effort where they work. Bureaucracy is endemic in many organisations and it’s common to find high levels of redundancy or unnecessary paper work. Whether it’s unnecessary levels of approvals, overly complicated processes, or ancient technology and tools, employees who find it difficult to get their work done effectively will eventually become disengaged and fed up. This has been made even worse in recent years as new technology often used in our personal life vastly outpaces the tools we are given in the office. Just think of how seamless communication has become with social media and mobile tools and how poorly that has been adopted by many companies. The contrast between what is available at home to streamline your life and what companies use to improve efficiency and get work done is significant. This has only raised employee expectations which heightens the sense of frustration.
Last, more than a third of employees say that their performance review is neither fair nor accurate. This is 10% worse than what we see in the USA and Europe. Compare this to the 93% of employees in the Middle East who say they are treated with respect and dignity at work and the contrast becomes very clear. This tells us that while the working culture of most companies is deeply respectful, a clear sign of cultural diversity in this part of the world, many people do not receive the feedback they need to really understand how they are doing. This leaves them feeling unfairly treated, disillusioned and demotivated. If organisations are truly going to address engagement and performance, then leaders need to be able to have more candid and open conversations (with each other and with employees) about what good really looks like. They then need to translate those ideas into meaningful actions and goals. Without this, employees will continue to feel that their workplace avoids saying what really needs to be said. The lack of strong performance management and clear feedback is even more detrimental in a time where people are looking for more meaningful careers in the region, local nationals and expats alike.
In conclusion, while many companies are experiencing challenges in their business environment, improvements in people and talent management still hold significant opportunities for driving higher levels of performance. In particular, addressing challenges associated with adapting to change, bureaucracy and managing individual performance can help organisations across the region most. To do this, it’s likely that leaders and HR professionals will need to approach issues with a new mindset; one that reflects the changing nature of work and the expectations that employees have.