The Most Pioneering Workplace In The Middle East

Written by in Bucket list
- 5 min read

If you were asked to nominate where in the world you might find progressive workplaces, where would you choose? Silicon Valley? Sweden? Holland? Well, we’ve travelled the world for over three years. And we have come to a simple conclusion: workplace pioneers can be found anywhere! And no location, culture, or industry is excluded.

We admit, however, that the Middle East had been a blind spot for us until recently. Then, we were invited to Dubai to visit their Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA).

An oasis of happiness and well-being

We discovered an oasis of happiness and wellbeing. KDHA is also the educational authority of the government of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Since 2007, they have overseen the development of private education there.

They are on a mission to transform traditional perceptions of education. They want to help the community make positive changes in how they live their lives. They believe that education should not be to prepare kids for a life of tests. Rather, it should prepare them for the tests of life.

Which is why KHDA places high value on well-being and academic performance. Which means their measures of student success are not just exam results but also how well they thrive in life.

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A better world starts with you

A key insight was that if they were to change the attitudes of others they should first change themselves. So, five years ago they embarked on a transformation journey, both as an organization and as people within it.

On our visit, we met Chairman (and team member) Dr. Abdulla Al Karam, and other team members Hajar Alansari, Hind Al Mualla, Jo Maher and Stephanie Price-Whittle.

Put your money where you mouth is

Five years ago, this team set out to build KHDA into a world leader in employee engagement and satisfaction. They aimed to create a “place of prosperity” for all.

By “place of prosperity”, they mean “an open, pleasant and healthy workplace that offers fun, a learning environment where opportunities are part of daily work, and where people are happy and engaged in all they do.”

But KHDA did not just talk about this. They experimented over several years with best practices, with structures, and with new ways of working. The result? They have become one of the most progressive employers in the region.

Governance by the people, for the people

But before experiments were started, KHDA employees were asked to share their views about the transformation journey. In a survey all were asked questions like ‘What is your perception of happiness?’, ‘What is your perception of well-being?’, and ‘What are the best ways to increase levels of happiness and well-being?’

The results led them to abandon conventional HR practices. Instead, they started experiments with management hacks. Here are three they have pioneered in the region:

1. Supportive leadership

They destroyed their cubicles and adopted a “no-door” concept for the office layout. This was to increase transparency, and create a barrier-and-status-free environment to encourage supportive behavior.

Nowadays, it’s hard to find any doors at KHDA. But a few glass-door rooms remain for sensitive meetings.

Interestingly, KHDA employees volunteered to take care of the redesign of their own offices! The results? Beautiful, collaborative spaces, and a profound sense of ownership by employees!

2. Networks of teams

They got rid of hierarchy and organized themselves into a flat and circular organization – inspired by the Holacracy model. The hierarchy made way for a self-managing team structure, where teams and employees started to take care of their own work, and each other.

Teams defined several roles that were necessary. Then employees were free to choose the role(s) they thought suited them best. After that, each employee enjoyed autonomy in fulfilling their role(s).

The results? Employees enjoyed more collaboration, transparency, efficiency, productivity and creativity.

3. Talent and mastery

Internal policies and processes were transformed, and responsibilities for work and tasks was shared on the basis of talents and interests. For example, they identified the fitness fanatics and sent them away for formal training. Now they help everyone else to be fitter and healthier.

This approach was repeated for artists, photographers, filmmakers, poets and writers. All of these now contribute to communication with clients and the community.

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The importance of communication

An important part of KHDA’s journey is the intense communication plan they adopted. All employees are actively involved, and updated via online and offline channels.

For starters, leadership organizes monthly, open-door Board Meetings in an auditorium-like environment. All employees are free to attend. The meetings are held in an informal setting to dissolve formal barriers.

Employees use social media to share learning, to discuss new experiments, and collect feedback about the transformation journey. They also hold regular knowledge-sharing sessions to discuss best practices and any progressive hacks they have discovered.

To top all this off, they organize feedback sessions for other stakeholders. During these sessions, representative stakeholders are invited to offer comments and propose new ideas on how the institute can better serve them.

These practices reflect a progressive and open mindset. And KHDA illustrates we are wrong to assume radical change is only to be seen in certain locations.

There are no geographical barriers to making work more fun!

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