Organizations need to access their people’s full potential to thrive in rapidly changing and increasingly competitive markets. This is especially relevant to Middle East businesses, which must develop new, dynamic strategies to seize the opportunities created by the region’s digitally-driven transformation, according to Randa Bahsoun, Leader, New world. New skills., PwC Middle East.
Yet accelerating the workplace’s digital journey carries tremendous execution risk, since organizations are often venturing into unknown territory. Our 2021 Future of Work and Skills Survey, launched in December 2021, identifies six “no-regrets” plays that businesses can take now to equip their people for a future powered by technology and innovation.
The global survey included more than 300 business and human resources (HR) leaders from UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt, providing a timely insight into where the region’s employers have started to take action – and where they have to move faster.
1- Anticipate and plan for the future
The challenge today is that the accelerating flow of new technologies which replace or disrupt traditional ways of working make it far harder for organizations to anticipate what the future will look like.
In this fluid context, it’s troubling that only 38% of Middle East respondents say they are developing their strategic, financial, and people plans in a coordinated way, and only 29% use a wide range of external data sources and viewpoints when considering their workforce strategy. Meanwhile, 36% cite cost pressures as the key barrier to taking a scenario-based approach to planning for multiple possible futures.
It’s doubly important to plan carefully for different scenarios. Leveraging insights from data and advanced analytics is critical, supported by dynamic planning capabilities at senior management level.
2- Build talent development and upskilling programs fit for the organization
Only 26% of the Middle East sample strongly agree that they use workforce analytics to predict and monitor skills gaps, implying that this is not a high priority for most of the region’s employers. It should be, given that the most acute of nine risk areas concerning talent development and upskilling is an inability to identify the skills the organization will need in the future due to technological change.
Respondents variously cite a lack of senior leadership capability, cost pressures and their organization’s culture for this shortcoming. Nonetheless, the Middle East findings indicate that employers are starting to get the message that digital upskilling and investment in talent are essential to remaining competitive. For example, almost half (42%) believe that re-skilling and continuous learning programs are very important to help workers remain employable.
3- Create organisational agility and resilience via the workforce
Replacing human work with technology is the reality that organizations across the globe are facing. Yet in the Middle East, only 24% of the survey strongly agree that their talent practices and processes are designed to nurture employee agility and adaptability, while only 25% strongly agree that they identify the potential organizational risks caused by decisions to replace human workers with technology.
Organizations that ignore this responsibility risk ending up with an anxious, distracted workforce, too worried about whether they will lose their jobs to new technologies to be fully productive.
4- Optimize workforce productivity and performance
Only 32% of Middle East respondents strongly agree that they can measure productivity and performance at an individual level, compared with 25% across the survey, indicating that this is a global challenge. At the same time, only 28% of the Middle East sample strongly agree that they give employees a high degree of autonomy in how they organize their work, while 33% strongly agree that they provide physical working environments and technology that enable all people to perform at their best.
Business leaders need to harness new technologies to improve systems and data management and processing, which in turn will enable them to minimize competing investments or priorities. It’s encouraging in this respect that 40% of Middle East respondents believe that giving employees a high degree of autonomy in how they organize their work is very important.
5- Prepare for and deploy technology with humans in mind
Many Middle East organizations still have plenty of ground to cover before making this crucial conceptual leap, with only 29% strongly agreeing that their workforce and technology strategies make the best use of human skills. A substantial minority – 25% – cite concerns around the potential consequences of taking action as the biggest obstacle to drawing on their workers’ input to improve or implement new technologies.
It’s worth remembering that the rising generation of younger Middle East workers are “digital natives”, who may already have significant technology skills and insights that employers can tap into. At a minimum, this generation is not generally afraid of new technologies; 63% of our GCC Hopes and Fears 2021 survey, which reflects the region’s youthful workforce, said that technology presented greater opportunities than risks for them personally.
6- Build trust in the organization
Like the rest of the global survey, most Middle East organizations have a long way to travel in this area. Only 36%, versus 30% globally, strongly agree that there is a high level of trust between workers and their direct supervisors. Yet mutual trust is essential for competitive success as transformation sweeps the region – not least because the best talent is portable in digital economies and will naturally gravitate towards employers who inspire confidence in their workforce.
To attract and retain the brightest recruits, organizations will need to reflect the values and aspirations of rapidly changing Middle East societies. Currently, only 29% of Middle East respondents strongly agree that their organization sets targets to close gaps in workforce diversity and pay disparities – although to be fair, this is slightly higher than the global survey average of 26%. It’s also disappointing that only 31% of the Middle East survey strongly agree that their organization makes environmental issues a strategic priority and part of its wider business management planning.
Technology and cultural change go hand-in-hand when building tomorrow’s workforce. It’s already evident that the most competitive Middle East business leaders are planning for this future by leaning into data to support decision-making around investments. They are also using new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics to help shape their people’s behavior by modeling changes in how work gets done.
The way forward for Middle East employers as regional transformation accelerates is to cast aside their doubts about the risks associated with new technologies when preparing their workers for digital upheaval. The bigger risk comes from standing still and losing their best talent to more agile rivals.