When global professional services firm WSP completed its purchase of Parsons Brinckerhoff in October 2014 for around $1.3bn, the hard work had just begun. The new business was modelled on the best of both parties. And that meant the new company’s HR team had a rare, and daunting, opportunity: starting with a clean slate.

The integration work that followed was full of technical challenges, of course. But there was a desire too to create something that went further than the sum of its parts. “In integration terms, we consciously went quite quickly,” says Caroline Parsons, HR director for Middle East at WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff. “The organisation we wanted to build was the best of both, plus some bits that didn’t exist in either. It was a great opportunity for us to look and say ‘why do we do that?’”

One of the earliest steps was a full HR team workshop – something neither of the businesses had previously undertaken – where staff throughout the GCC reviewed their experiences and debated what they needed to do to get the new company through its first year. With HR’s house in order, Parsons felt it was time to make the Doha-headquartered business look and feel like one operation without ‘distracting’ employees.

The executive team was involved heavily from the outset, especially in benefit alignment work and grading. Monthly meetings reviewed everything from medical insurance to leave requirements, as well as reward, looking at the data the organisation held and taking on board leaders’ views on what kind of business WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff would be. This culminated in the launch of an integrated benefits and grading system in 2016.

From the outset, the broader aim was to create a high-trust, low-process culture to get the best from highly skilled employees and, among other things, reduce the number of approvals individuals felt they needed for a particular decision. “We trust our employees,” says Parsons. “Sometimes it might not work, but most of the time people will do the right thing – if you respect them enough to allow them to do the right thing.”

What WSP is really in search of is that elusive quality that turns a good company into a great one. It is perhaps the critical determinant of business success. While an exalted few thrive on the quality of their breakthrough ideas – think Facebook, Amazon or (further back in time) the Ford Motor Company – for most firms, beating the market means unleashing discretionary effort, offering superior customer service or just being better, faster and smarter than the opposition. What those businesses all have in common is empowered staff.

There are plenty of measures of employee satisfaction, from engagement surveys to Glassdoor and numerous award and certification schemes. But scratch deeper and you’ll find that those who score well on such measures also invariably outperform the market financially. The two go hand in hand; for example, a study from the UK’s University of Warwick in 2015 found that engaged employees were 12 per cent more productive, while 94 per cent of the companies voted the world’s most admired believe their performance can be attributed in large part to engagement, according to the Hay Group.

The Great Place to Work index claims to rank the most engaged workplaces in the Middle East. They are also all highly successful in financial terms. “The common trait in the organisations on our list is that leadership and managers spend time talking and listening to their staff,” says Maha Zaatari, managing director of Great Place to Work in the UAE. “They give them the time to understand their challenges, offer feedback on their performance, sit down and connect with them, and care for them as individuals.

“What makes company ‘A’ a great workplace does not necessarily make company ‘B’ one. They invest time in analysing the issue first, and they make sure they ask their staff: ‘What is it that you need to make you happier?’ Then they address it.”

Zaatari is critical of what might be called a “PlayStations and pool tables” approach to creating a high-performance workplace, noting that staff feedback from companies where such ‘cherries on top’ are introduced without the groundwork being in place finds communication between employees and managers lacking. “What you need to focus more on, to become a great workplace, is fixing the relationship between managers and staff,” she says. “Building trust so that, no matter what happens, the staff know they will stay in the organisation because they are cared for.”

Logistics giant DHL regularly tops polls of the best regional workplaces, and also saw 2015 revenue growth in its Express business of 12.4 per cent in the Middle East and Africa. Henry Fares, the company’s vice president of HR for MENA, says both can be attributed to making people the first ‘pillar’ of the firm’s strategy. “The motivated people pillar is everything and is our stepping stone for the success of DHL,” he says. “Everything is based around having motivated people and engaged employees.”

Fares talks about engagement as a two-step process – one that addresses both the rational and emotional. He believes it is easy for people to make a decision, but the commitment required to stick with it requires greater engagement: “This is why DHL keeps on reinforcing an emotional engagement, rather than simply the cognitive one," he says.

Fares advocates the power of open communication with colleagues, which helps each employee understand the value of what they do for the customer and lets them know they have access to leadership. A comprehensive reward and recognition programme also flags up when staff have performed well. “We don’t underestimate the power of recognition,” says Fares. “You want things to recur? Reinforce them; reward them.”

Add in programmes for continuous improvement and employee training, plus detailed measurement along the way, and DHL is able to track the impact of each initiative, act of engagement or development scheme. The deceptively simple explanation Fares offers for success is to do more of what gets you closer to your targets. But, of course, to do that you have to know what the targets are, and have a strategy to achieve them.

“High-performance cultures really start from the top,” says Thom Janssen, practice leader at Willis Towers Watson. “You need a strategy and a culture that supports that strategy and, most pivotally, to use leadership at various levels to drive that culture and align it with the strategy.”

Janssen suggests that high-performing companies set themselves apart by having a clear focus on the market, understanding and responding to market changes, and putting the customer first. Internally, high-performance cultures look at clearly identified employee value propositions. From that grounding, he says, they go on to create sustainable engagement in the workforce.

“Certain employees are not only happy but are really connected to the business – with their heads, their hearts and their feet,” says Janssen. “They believe in the organisation, its goals and objectives, they’re proud of the organisation and they go the extra mile to make sure it is successful.”

Such a level of engagement usually means businesses enable their employees – not just motivating them, but really giving them the tools and resources to perform to a consistently high degree, as well as looking after their wellbeing. While GCC companies generally have made progress in successfully communicating where they are going and how they will get there, as well as having line managers who can create effective teams, Janssen believes there is more to be done.

High performers are also prepared to offer autonomy, ditching the old parent-child model of management in favour of something more collaborative. At WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, that meant turfing out a two-page dress code and scrapping the need for a doctor’s note after just a couple of days’ sick leave. Other tangible signs of the new culture included a shift to open-plan offices with hot desks. The visibility and availability of the leadership team in this environment was noticed and featured positively in feedback from independent assessments. As a result, says Parsons, transparency has become normal and information about the business is readily available to employees.

Appraisal systems were changed too. Annual reviews weren’t doing the job in an organisation whose cycles follow client projects. Instead, the new normal is to have regular check-ins with line managers. “It’s going back to basics and connecting with each other,” says Parsons. “We’re encouraging people to check in more, but not in a way that is restrictive. We asked people to enrol in a briefing about it and 80 per cent of the workforce came along.”

Janssen adds: “We see that the most successful organisations are those that listen to their employees frequently – not just once a year – and really try and take the pulse of employee sentiment on management effectiveness and keep driving that agenda. We see more issues around empowerment, driving personal accountability and encouraging people to give their best.”

In a high-performing business, that partly comes down to recruiting the right people in the first place, and helping them reach their potential. To achieve this, hires need to show both rational and emotional engagement, says Mohamed Farid, managing director for the Middle East at talent consultancy CEB. It’s a distinction lost on many, and one that leads to a key personnel issue: mistakenly choosing the high-performing staff of today as the high potentials of tomorrow. “Only 15 per cent of high performers are high potentials,” says Farid. “What makes you good at your level does not make you good at the next level.”

CEB’s global research points to a combination of aspiration, ability and engagement as critical to getting high-potential individuals to develop successfully. But another stumbling block to their progress is the decision-making ability of their leadership, with only 25 per cent of senior business leaders globally using HR analytics for key talent decisions. “Actually, 70 per cent of any P&L, of any company, is in the human capital, but we don’t use any data to analyse what’s happening there,” says Farid.

CEB research suggests that subsequent results for high-potential development are patchy at best. Almost two-thirds of people identified as high potential are unhappy with their development experience, and half of the world’s HR professionals lack confidence in their organisation’s high-potential programme. Despite this, the rewards for getting it right are significant and companies that do so display common characteristics, Farid points out.

“If you have a strong talent management strategy and talent management frameworks in place, you find people are engaged and you get high results,” he says. “You also find very collaborative environments and people supporting each other. On the flip side, if you don’t have all those things in place, people just sort of come and go; they don’t connect to the business. You have to take care of them; you have to identify them; you have to develop them.”

Organisations that get all the ingredients right, from creating engagement, delivering effective communication and empowering their employees through both development and a high degree of trust, stand a better chance of hanging on to their talent. But not every firm, by definition, can be a high performer. If you’re not there yet, there’s no time to lose.

Is your office making you less productive?

Though it seems eminently logical that the physical space in which we work has a massive impact on our performance, the science of office design is relatively new. But employers that want to foster a culture of high performance should think carefully about function, style and how the specifics of the place you work meet the needs of the people who work there.

That doesn’t mean breaking out the beanbags and office slides. “If we are to get clever with layouts to get our workforce to be more productive, we have to get the basics right,” says Chris Seymour, regional development director at Mott MacDonald and co-chair of the Middle East Council for Offices. “The basics relate to what you can conveniently see in Maslow [the hierarchy of needs] – what some workspace experts call ‘hygiene factors’ – and these are around feeling safe, the temperature being correct, lighting and noise. Unless you get those things right, anything clever you try to do with the layout will be lost.”

Research released in May by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors showed that all is not well in Middle East offices. A majority of respondents (67 per cent) felt their productivity was being negatively affected by at least one aspect of their office environment, and more than 75 per cent said they needed more flexibility in their workspace. Typical complaints, usually stemming from open-plan offices, were noise disturbance and interruption, while a lack of environmental control left 37 per cent of people feeling out in the cold.

Unless you’re in the top job, the days of having your own office are on the way out, but the research pointed to a possible and increasingly popular solution: activity-based work spaces. While these flexible environments were found to be rare in the GCC, they were the most desired layout among respondents if they couldn’t have a space of their own. “Activity-based working is when the office is laid out in a manner that relates to the activity being undertaken,” says Seymour. “That might be collaborative or creative, or it might be about learning. The theory is that you move around these areas depending on what you’re doing.”

It is a mode of working that research says particularly suits generation Y, the children of the 80s and 90s who form an increasing proportion of the workforce. “It’s known to make people feel happier and more productive,” says Seymour. “What we found is that while generation Ys were saying ‘this is our preference’, you didn’t find people outside that generation saying they didn’t like it.”

Media Centre

If you’re a journalist or member of the press looking for more information or to speak to one of our experts, please contact our press team. 

Callout Image

Championing better work and working lives

About the CIPD

At the CIPD, we champion better work and working lives. We help organisations to thrive by focusing on their people, supporting economies and society for the future. We lead debate as the voice for everyone wanting a better world of work.