25 October 2016Last updated

Features | The big story

Do you love your office?

From acting on staff suggestions to ensuring a healthy work-life balance, rewarding excellence and providing fun options to wind down, Colin Drury uncovers the secrets to becoming a great place to work in the UAE

By Colin Drury
1 Apr 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Alamy

Anu Daga is the UAE human resources manager at logistics firm DHL and she’s being rather candid. ‘No one leaves university and says they really want to work for a courier company. Children don’t grow up dreaming of logistics. It’s not Google or Apple, we know that.’

Yet, despite this, DHL has recently been named the UAE’s number one company to work for. The firm topped an annual listing run by the US-based Great Places To Work Institute, for the third year running. It beat competition from more than 60 organisations, many in more glamorous industries such as media, finance and hospitality.

Judges were impressed by its staff gym, subsidised restaurants and relaxation rooms complete with duvet corners and PlayStation zones. They liked how, when the company moved to new offices in Meydan in 2014, some 90 per cent of all staff suggestions for the new complex, including ergonomic seating, were turned into reality. And they were dazzled by how often feedback from workers was acted upon.

In one case, delivery drivers who spend all day driving had become discontent at then having to wait half an hour for their closing debrief before they could go home. The company responded: it was made compulsory for debriefs to be done within five minutes of the driver arriving at headquarters.

‘The point is,’ says Anu, ‘we do everything we can to make this a fantastic company to be a part of, to put a smile on the faces of our staff. That’s partially because we know we need to be a great place to work to compete against other industries.

‘But this is also a firm that completely understands that happy staff means happy customers and happy customers mean more business. We understand our people is the greatest single resource we have.’

It is a logic that is fast becoming the orthodoxy in the UAE. Bosses are becoming increasingly aware that non-taxed wages, sunny climate and skyscraper offices won’t always be enough to attract the world’s best employees. There is a growing feeling that creating a brilliant work environment is essential to attracting top workers as well as keeping them motivated once in post.

‘There is definitely an understanding now among business leaders that creating a great workplace culture is vital to the success of a company,’ says Maha Zaatari, managing director of Great Places to Work in the UAE. ‘It gives them a competitive advantage in attracting talented staff and ensures they get the most out of them, because workers who are happy, engaged and who truly buy into the company philosophy will always go above and beyond.

‘This fits in with the Dubai government’s drive to make this a happy city. We spend eight hours a day in the workplace, so if we’re not content there, it’s very difficult to be content in general.’

Started in the US in 1981, Great Places To Work now runs listings in 42 countries. Companies volunteer to be audited and surveyed, but a list of the heavyweight organisations that take part – think Google, Microsoft and Marriott – proves that it’s considered a valuable exercise.


In the UAE, the list has been running for six years. Companies here are assessed through staff surveys, management questionnaires and random audits. Everything from camaraderie, fairness and staff respect to the hiring process and career progress opportunities are taken into account. Each company is then given a score and the top 20 are announced on a final list.

This year more than 60 companies took part, and after DHL, the other companies that made the top five are The One retail group, media firm Omnicom, Splash and The Estée Lauder Companies respectively.

‘Every company on the list should be proud of its achievements,’ says Maha. ‘What most have in common is that they all tend to prioritise their employees above all else. They engage and involve them in decision-making, are transparent and prioritise career progression. They have very clear core values and they ingrain these in the culture of the company.’

What exactly does that mean in practice? For example, Hyatt Hotels Corporation welcomes all new employees by giving them a free night in one of its hotels, including breakfast, evening meal and pampering sessions. ‘The idea is that staff can come to understand what makes for a great customer experience,’ says Maha.

Meanwhile, the bosses at Omnicom were concerned that staff felt obliged to work late. The CEO, says Maha, responded by sending an email stating they had to be out of the building by a certain time – or the doors would be locked for the night.

Hilti Emirates, a technology firm, was commended for organising team dinners and employee camps, while Weber Shandwick, a communications company, offers staff free yoga, social football, wellness workshops and nurse check-ups.


The key to establishing a happy workplace, and consequently a successful company, is valuing the people who work in it over everything else.

Other things that appeared to make workers happy include detailed staff newsletters, open-door management, feedback boxes across offices and thorough career development plans.

‘I think it’s about respect,’ says Raza Beig, CEO of Splash. ‘Staff want to know they’re not just seen as a resource but they’re valued, cared for and heard.

‘As a business, one of Splash’s greatest strengths is that from shop staff to warehouse workers, finance and marketing, we are united. And you can only be united if staff know you will go the extra mile for them. That is our focus.’

The 1,400-staff company’s initiatives include certificates for excellence, having senior members work on the shop floor once every six months, and promoting a healthy work-life balance.

‘We know employees can’t perform their best if they’re constantly jaded from working long hours,’ says Raza. ‘So we promote that balance heavily.’

The CEO is proof that if you’re loyal to your company and vice versa, you’ll be repaid in kind. He started off on the shop floor 23 years ago and worked his way up to his current position.

‘I’ve stayed here because I love it,’ he says. ‘Because I’ve always felt that what I do is valued. That’s more important to me than, say, going somewhere that might pay a little more. And I think that’s why we have such a low staff turnover. Because people like working here.’

Maha agrees.

‘Great workplaces take effort to create, but they are their own rewards,’ she says. ‘I have known people to take pay cuts to move to another company where they know they will be happier. The message is simple: great places to work make happy staff, and happy staff make great, successful companies.’

Top 20 places to work in the UAE

1. DHL (logistics)

2. The One (retail)

3. Omnicom (media)

4. Splash (fashion retail)

5. The Estée Lauder Companies (beauty)

6. EMC (IT)

7. Weber Shandwick (communications)

8. Hilti Emirates (technology)

9. Hilton Worldwide (hospitality)

10. FedEx (logistics)

11. WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff (engineering)

12. Hyatt (hospitality)

13. AstraZeneca Gulf (pharmaceutical)

14. Al Ghandi Auto Group (automotive)

15. Leminar (industrial)

16. Dulsco (HR)

17. Eros Group (technology)

18. Apparel Group (retail)

19. 3M (manufacturing)

20. UAE Exchange (finance)

By Colin Drury

By Colin Drury