The Working Future In Gulf Cooperation Council Countries | Bain & Company

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The pandemic has undoubtedly triggered lasting changes when it comes to work. Many workers were part of a forced experiment in remote working that has shifted perceptions about such arrangements. Others found themselves in jobs that required them to personally confront the virus daily just to keep society running. All of us had cause to reflect on what we want our work to look like and what role we want it to play in our lives. According to a Bain & Company survey conducted by Dynata, 58% of workers across ten major economies feel the pandemic has forced them to rethink the balance between their work and their personal lives. In the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, this figure rises to around two in three workers based on results from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

But profound changes were starting to surface even before the pandemic. Concerns about the impacts of automation have surged as machine learning and related technologies have matured. The growth of gig work, supported by new digital platforms, has thrown the longevity of the traditional employment model into question. Flexible work arrangements have moved into the mainstream. Demands for firms to define a clear social purpose have prompted business leaders to embark on soul-searching journeys.


This pattern holds true for the GCC, where there are strong concerns that automation could lead to job losses and an appetite for home, rather than office, working. For governments this poses some big policy questions, to attract and retain talent in a region where many workers come from outside of the region—up to 90% in the UAE.


The relationship between workers and firms is changing radically, forcing leaders to rethink their approach to talent. In prior research, we have explored the dawn of a new era of business, one in which outrunning extinction demands not just scale, but also speed and customer intimacy. We call those who achieve this balance “scale insurgents.”


Yet our understanding of workers—their hopes and desires, their untapped potential, their emotional state—is often superficial.


The pandemic has also brought one reality into stark relief: The war for talent is not just about cultivating a pipeline of future company executives. Surging attrition rates suggest that many workers are using the pandemic-induced job disruption as an opportunity to reevaluate what they want from their work. As a result, many companies are struggling to fill shortages in key frontline roles, threatening their ability to return to full capacity when the crisis subsides. This could become a big issue in the GCC, with more than half of UAE workers planning to change jobs in 2021 (often for more money), according to a report by recruitment agency Hays.


As part of a broader global research program over the past year, we have looked at the steps firms and governments in the GCC need to take now to get ahead in the shifting war for talent.


We identified five key themes that are reshaping work, in the GCC and globally:


  • Motivations for work are changing. Gains in living standards over the past 150 years are allowing us to spend less of our time working but are raising expectations about what a job should provide.

  • Beliefs about what makes a “good job” are diverging. As attitudes toward work fragment, the average worker is no longer a useful approximation. We’ve identified six worker archetypes, each with a different set of priorities.

  • Automation is helping to rehumanize work. Distinctly human advantages—around problem solving, interpersonal connection, and creativity—are growing in importance as automation eliminates routine work.

  • Technological change is blurring the boundaries of the firm. Remote and gig work are on the rise, but they are challenging firm cohesion.

  • Younger generations are increasingly overwhelmed. Young people, especially in advanced economies, are under mounting psychological strain that spills over into their work lives.

Policy makers in the GCC must react to the changing nature of work, and of workers’ demands. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have launched successful programs to attract international companies and expertise. Now they must look to create the conditions to make skilled workers stay in the country, offering more flexible visa regimes for foreign workers and allowing them to combine remote with office working more easily. In addition, policy makers have the opportunity to create tailored policies to attract a new wave of talent across the different archetypes defined by having policies that target the value proposition that each seek.


This also has implications on the education and training system which must now adapt their offering to provide highly flexible programs and focus on developing the transferable skills of upcoming local talent. This can help to create a highly skilled local workforce, that can drive the economy forward supported by expertise from all around the world.