The recent amendments to UAE labour law, which will make it possible for the first time for employees to switch jobs at their own behest and will provide them with protection from unwarranted dismissal, are, it’s fair to say, a hot topic among HR directors in the region. At conferences and meetings, and behind closed doors inside organisations, leaders are nervously considering the potential costs, the effect on recruitment and the implications for workforce planning.

The changes are also weighing on the mind of Minelle Gholami (above), people director of Emrill, one of the largest facilities management businesses in the GCC. For her, however, the prevailing emotion is far less downbeat. “I’m happy about it,” says Gholami, as she meets People Management on a cool Sunday afternoon, a stone’s throw from Emrill’s headquarters in downtown Dubai. “It will allow for a lot more movement of labour in the market. It will increase the competition for talent, so from an HR perspective we all have to make sure we’re doing what we can to hold on to people through good practices and satisfying, fulfilling employment rather than restricting their movement.”

It’s an unusual sentiment to hear from a sector that has been beset by more than its fair share of controversy over employment rights and working conditions. Facilities management (FM) is associated with a high turnover of labour and doggedly low pay. But Emrill, founded in 2002, has been consistently determined to buck the trend. With more than 6,600 employees spanning 38 nationalities, it looks after key infrastructure, corporate buildings and private residences across the UAE, deploying a small army of plumbers, security staff, caretakers and cleaners.

Like others in the sector, Emrill recruits from overseas, principally India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Unlike some rivals, it has a dedication to employee welfare that goes way beyond corporate soundbites, with a team of 20 people dedicated to the topic, a larger cohort than the broader HR team. “I’m very proud to say we provide exceptional welfare,” says Gholami, who joined the business in 2011. “We place a great deal of importance on people. We understand they make big sacrifices to come and work here away from their families, so we try and provide them with a supportive, nurturing environment. There is a real duty of care on our part.”

She talks about the rigorous induction processes, spanning corporate values, soft skills and trade-specific competencies. But the business is equally dedicated to quality accommodation and recreation facilities, including sports clubs and social activities, and organised tours to acclimatise workers with their new surroundings and their colleagues. This is a recognition, says Gholami, that the company’s responsibilities span more than working hours, with homesickness a pervasive problem: “[Our staff] come from less developed parts of the world and moving to a big city like Dubai is a shock to the system. There’s also the challenge of the weather, which a lot of people aren’t used to. It means everyone here is thinking about health and wellbeing.”

It also means recruitment is as much about character as technical capability. Emrill looks for people who are “hard-working, collaborative and have the drive to continuously improve”. It holds open days in target territories, backed by rigorous testing and assessment. But it also identifies from day one where people have the potential to develop beyond their allotted role. Emrill has better-than-average retention rates and has also has continuously set targets for internal promotion. In 2016, it hopes that 20 per cent of its employee population will move into a better role.

“People may have been selected to meet a certain criteria, but if they exceed that criteria and there is potential in the business to move them, we will do that,” says Gholami. Fast-trackers are assigned a mentor or buddy, and liaise with the HR centre of excellence to receive tailored training and development opportunities. “We’ve had some interesting high fliers in the business – people who have joined in low-skilled jobs but might have had experience of working in offices, for example. Or people who’ve come in as a concierge but have landed an admin job within six months… Every employee has three [annual] performance reviews and with high potentials we want to stretch and challenge them at those junctures.”

Such structures are mirrored by the enhanced value proposition in HR itself. Gholami says Emrill’s HR approach has “changed a lot” in recent years, a process that started with ensuring policy was equitably and consistently applied across the business. “We’ve gone from making sure the administration part of HR is set, to developing more business partnerships and evolving quite a strategic role,” she says. Part of that is a seat on the executive board: “I have the ability to influence business decisions and plans, and my team plays a closer role supporting both managers and employees than ever before.”

Big data, though an overused buzz phrase, seems to be playing a tangible part in this progression. Gholami’s team has dashboards covering all areas of selection, performance and retention, as well as engagement. This clearly helps in decision-making – she gives the example of identifying that uneven shift patterns correlate directly with low engagement levels – but it also gives the entire HR team exposure to senior management and the confidence to present to the business. In FM, says Gholami, where KPIs and SLAs rule the roost, metrics are a language the entire organisation speaks, and being conversant has helped broaden understanding of what strong HR can do for the bottom line.

Not that the process has been easy. “It takes a lot of culture change,” says Gholami. “Traditionally, both in the region and in this business, HR was a department that booked travel and managed payroll. It has taken a lot of working alongside managers and supporting them in engaging their staff, managing performance, understanding the challenges on sites and talking about how HR analytics could help them improve things. That sort of mindset change takes time.”

Understanding your business and where it wants to move to in the near future is the first step, says Gholami. She is heartened both by Emrill’s progress and the increasing importance and strategic competence of HR professionals across the GCC. Having previously worked in the UK, and having lectured in HR at the American University in the Emirates, she is well placed to assess the development of the function locally.

All of which brings us back to welfare, and the role new legislation may play in that agenda. “The changes to labour laws have allowed for employees to have more rights, and the labour courts are also paying more attention to rights,” says Gholami. “It’s really made everyone wake up and smell the coffee. If we want to attract and retain the right talent, we need the right practices.

“There is a spotlight in the region on issues that have been raised in Qatar around workers’ rights. There is a generalisation from outside the region that labour rights aren’t really cared for, but I think businesses are making very big steps to provide people with welfare.” If the rest of the FM sector is as determined as Emrill, you can understand where such optimism comes from.

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