In this week’s Coffee With Y, Hassan Al Lawati talks to Maria Sarfarez Ahmed, the first Omani woman to be honoured at the prestigious MENAA business awards, and learns a little about her strategy for success.
The legendary British businessman Sir John Harvey-Jones once remarked that management was never a matter of ‘pulling levers’.
And in his role as a celebrated troubleshooter for companies, the sharp-suited guru conveyed his belief in the value of treating staff well.
It’s a philosophy that the HR professional Maria Sarfarez Ahmed can well relate to, and one that has enabled her to become the first Omani female to win a prestigious MENAA business award. Maria is the Country HR Manager at BRF, one of the world’s largest food processing and distribution companies.
And the welfare, guidance and nurturing of staff is one of her priorities.
However, Maria concedes: “In offices, we deal with all sorts of people and you can’t please everyone, all of the time.”
Ever-shifting work trends remain a challenge to many HR professionals who need to be innovative to keep employees happy in their jobs, says Maria.
Twelve years ago, Maria pioneered the concept of Employee Engagement in the bank she used to work in.
She says: “We were the first Employee Engagement department in Oman.
“Our main outcome was to retain employee welfare and keep them emotionally attached to the place they work in through providing them with exclusive services like discounts and family activities that include arts and crafts, movie nights and team-building games that teach the power of positive thinking.”
Her background includes more than 11 years’ experience in HR in a variety of industries including the banking sector, and oil and gas.
Thanks to her hard work, innovation and life motto “Skills can be acquired, but attitude cannot”, Maria was recently recognised at the MENAA awards 2018, which was held in the Burj Al Arab, Dubai, in December.
She won the “Customer Delight Award” along with the “Best Business Leaders Award”.
Out of 200 nominees, 40 winners were selected across the MENAA region, based on their excellence in their field.
Maria believes HR has now evolved from a formerly mostly administrative role to a key part of any major business operation.
But everyone knows that staff morale is a key component in a company’s success.
And how management tackles that is a litmus test of both its effectiveness and future strategy.
How do we boost morale in the office? And how do we measure it?
According to Maria, we can’t measure loyalty, but she has come across a reduction in sick-leave in some of her most recent positions.
“One way of measuring an employee’s satisfaction is the number of hours they actually spend in the office compared to the number of times they check out,” she says.
Maria says that the type of excuses offered for absences provide some indication of a person’s morale.
“A headache is not a sickness that prevents people from coming to the office. There are reasons why people suffer from a ‘headache’ and we need to understand that.”
So why do many companies in Oman not follow her example and set up employee-engagement initiatives?
“They do not believe in it. Any change is top to down. If the management does not see value in investing in HR, then there will be no progress.
“We need to change the culture here and try to test it is. It is okay to fail but at least we should try.”
Despite her success, Maria considers cultural factors to be the main challenge to her career.
“It takes people more time to accept others, and new changes.”
1) Be innovative! Try new things. A lot of people find it difficult in HR because they go by the book. You need to invent your own wheel!
2) Don’t stay in one place. Specialising is good but try to generalise your HR experience by working in all HR fields.
3) Be more accepting. I worked in a company where the HR door was locked. That is not ideal.
4) Flexibility. HR professionals need to be flexible and allowed to make changes. Many corporates have a very controlling policy procedure. To change people’s mindset, we need to change that.
5) At SMEs, you can do more. Even with fewer resources, SMEs are more accepting of change. It also costs less to engage with a smaller number of employees.