12 Tactics To Help MENA SMEs Navigate Employee Engagement Challenges In A Digital-First World

The onus is now on the management to introduce work methods and policies that nurture emotional connections between employees and their workplaces, and motivate them to remain committed to the company for the long-term.

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By Veena Satish


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During the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns, shifting to a remote working model was imperative for most businesses, and many have since continued the practice as a welfare initiative. Ironically, there is an emerging concern over the social-emotional issue of an isolated working style, and this is especially true for new hires and expats living and working in their host countries in the MEA region, because they hold jobs (law, banking, architecture, or community service) that bar remote working from their home countries.

A UN report says that as of 2020, there were 35 million international migrants in the GCC region. Over 80% of the population in the UAE and Qatar, 70% in Kuwait, and 55% in Bahrain are international migrants. Although a large population of low-wage laborers departed to their home countries, there were several tech-related jobs that demanded employees work from home in their host countries during the pandemic and thereafter.

For companies bringing in the digital work mode, it was more than just providing the right infrastructure at home, or meeting the technology challenges. It has a lot to do with smoothening people-related issues. The onus is now on the management to introduce work methods and policies that nurture emotional connections between employees and their workplaces, and motivate them to remain committed to the company for the long-term. Here are some recommendations on how to improve employee engagement in such scenarios:

1. Bring in the new four-day-a-week work arrangements In the UAE, several private sector companies have followed the UK-style of working and initiated the four or four-and-a-half-day work week. Employees feel that the longer weekend reinvigorates and revitalizes them for the next week. It also allows them to catch up on all pending personal work, thus making them more focused on work through the next week. In fact, some HR experts say that a shorter work week increases productivity, and brings more benefits to the business and employees.

2. Encourage hybrid set-ups A hybrid work mode offers employees the best of both worlds: to allot their work for at-office and at-home, according to their convenience. What makes this model a big hit is that it is not a rigid workstyle approach, and it can be easily modified to suit the needs of companies, teams, and employees.

3. Raise productivity through digital interventions HR has to build a culture that empowers and encourages employees to balance their work and private lives. This calls for leaving behind archaic management practices behind and embracing a new mindset, which alone can create sustainable workplaces where employees feel engaged and satisfied.

4. Help set up physical workspaces HR should take a supportive approach by equipping remote workers with proper physical infrastructure at home, and ensure they have easy access to an organization's digital resources. While providing a laptop and internet connectivity at home is a fundamental requirement, productivity and collaboration are enhanced when companies invest in technologies like cloud applications and collaboration software.

5. Foster a digital culture HR can play a key role in instilling a digital culture within the company. Senior-level management having regular breakout rooms for team meetings and one-to-one chats helps in micro goal setting; a way to keep employees engaged.

6. Invest in learning and development (L&D) When HR invests in the learning and development of its employees, it is a movement towards an encouraging employment engagement. Another factor that contributes to employee engagement is constructive feedback, making it a wholesome learning organization. Frequent team meetings, even if it's online, gives continuous feedback to employees that helps them to continuously improve their work.

Related: UAE-Based Tech Startup Alfii Launches With A Private Beta Program Aimed At Solving HR Issues For Small Businesses

7. Support social relationships HR should help diminish the sense of isolation that employees experience by having regular get-togethers and coffee chats online. Management should be advised not to insist on long hours of work that lead to health issues. Employees whose emotional connection to the organization is strengthened are more likely to stay longer in the organization.

8. Encourage office conversations HR should advise managers to keep response times to a minimum, as "being mute" leads to discomfort in a remote working situation. Having frequent check-ins and transparent conversations between managers and employees help as employees feel included in what is happening within the organization.

9. Be more inclusive with new hires HR can try to bring in the new assignees to office to familiarize them with the office workspace. This will eliminate mind blocks created by lack of face-to-face time and social relationships with work colleagues.

10. Help employees find a work-life balance Striking a healthy work-life balance is more challenging than ever before. Human resources (HR) can help employees find the work-life balance by bringing in a culture of mutual trust. They should create an open culture for learning, and even making allowances for "mistakes." This will make employees more responsible, and make them more engaged and fulfilled at work.

11. Encourage digital detoxes Sometimes, it's good to disengage from devices for a good digital detox. This gives employees a better perspective of work and life. For instance, HR can advise employees not to check work-related emails on weekends and holidays.

12. Offer counselling support HR can provide counselling support by organizing regular mental wellness programs. Encouraging an open culture where seniors talk about their battles with stress and burnouts -and how to overcome such issues- genuinely help employees going through similar experiences. Companies can create mental health toolkits that employees access from anywhere, anytime.

More than anything, the management has to lead by example. Senior leaders have to be role models, and inspire others to follow suit. They have to encourage the use of digital technologies for better output and better work-life balance. These supportive management approaches have proven to be constructive, because the main motivation for employees to work and stay at a workplace is their work-life experience, when they build social relations with colleagues, and feel engaged, even if it's online.

In a remote work environment for expat workers living alone, HR can intervene and assist in building emotional connections for better mental health, and, of course, higher productivity These HR interventions will not only boost employee engagement, but also help companies tide over the current transition crises to a hybrid mode of working, and, of course, retain their expat employees longer.

Related: Putting People First: The Future Of HR In "The New Normal"

Veena Satish

VP - People & Culture, MoEngage

Veena Satish is VP - People & Culture at MoEngage, an insights-led customer engagement platform, built for customer-obsessed marketers and product owners. 


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