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Professional Services Talent in the Middle East: Rethinking Norms

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HSBC's Professional Services roundtable explored how a paradigm shift in the global talent pool is fast rewriting hiring and working norms, plus how broader economic trends across MENAT may offer a helping hand.

Activity across Professional Services is fast ramping up – but so is the war for talent. “Battles are reaching a pitch never seen before,” as encapsulated by one delegate. Historically, employers held more power at the negotiating table. But the current talent shortage, plus the impact of COVID-19, means employees are increasingly gaining the upper hand. Consequently, companies’ HR teams are having to learn the new ropes – and fast.

Insights from HSBC’s Navigator 2021 survey revealed that more than 2,100 businesses across ten global markets in October highlighted the extremity of change afoot. For one, 67% see remote or hybrid working as crucial to growth. And just 5% believe remote working is not part of their future. This marks a radical change, as remote working was rarely an option before COVID-19. But the pandemic-triggered lockdowns have piqued employees’ appetite for flexible working and proven to many employers that it can work.

Delegates brainstormed how a new blended working week could work, settling on two days a week in the office for experienced staff and three days in the office for those needing more guidance. But every company must decide its own route. Some US companies are reluctant to “force” staff into the office for fear of litigation if staff contract COVID-19, delegates said, while other companies are opting to be entirely remote to save on expensive overheads. Still, companies willing to flex can benefit: 77% of higher-growth companies in the survey reported higher productivity levels for hybrid working.

The bigger picture

The pandemic is also leading many workers to seriously review their professional priorities. Historically, employees wanted to respect the company they worked for, but today they want to be active agents in making sure their company is taking the right social steps in order to gain their respect. This means many employees are currently in a state of flux. A third of the global workforce may resign in the next year, delegates said – and Professional Services are not immune.

Plus, potential and existing employees are putting a stronger spotlight on diversity and inclusion (DNI) and sustainability measures – both feeding into whether they will or will not join a company. These are undeniably critical measures that must be proactively pursued, but such accountability is putting some companies in the Professional Services’ sphere under intense hiring pressure. Small family businesses, for example, are struggling to find high quality talent as their environmental, social and governance (ESG) budget is considerably smaller than that of a Fortune 500 company.

Promises of strategic career advancement is also topping employees’ new wish list. Climbing the professional hierarchy has long been a key part of working life, but now employees want a detailed plan upfront on the skills they can learn and how they can apply them. Improving digital fluency – both for the employee and as a company – is increasingly in demand, for example.

Pressure points

Now, consider employees’ increasingly detailed criteria against the fact that 70% of the 2,100 companies surveyed by HSBC intend to increase their headcount. Clearly, this equation may leave less negotiating room on employers’ staff costs than many would like.

In this vein, some companies are becoming frustrated at what one delegated described as a “broken social contract.” Employees’ list of preferences is getting longer, yet many do not want to work the hours required to make this new business model profitable for companies. This trend is particularly noticeable in younger generations. This equation is especially noticeable in the legal sector as young employees seek inflated salaries for less hours than their experienced colleagues have worked, at the same time as law firms’ clients are expecting reduced fees.

Over the next year, delegates expect talent migration to home countries from the MENAT to increase, as workers with young families and experienced workers nearing retirement opt to “retreat to familiar ground.” One delegate said he already knows of five highly skilled lawyers who have reluctantly relocated to their home nations. Avoiding this “brain drain” is critical to supporting regional countries’ National Visions, many of which include creating globally competitive economic hubs.

“Bring it on”

This was delegates’ attitude towards supporting intra-regional competition across the MENAT and in turn, boosting the region’s competitiveness and attractiveness to talent. Seeing Arab Gulf nations, for example, actively compete to be the natural destination for capital and services incentivises employees to “cut their teeth” in regional companies. Of course, this month’s opening of EXPO 2020 in Dubai – with 25 million visitors anticipated and more than 190 nations participating – strongly plays into this.

Plus, broader economic tailwinds across the MENAT are certainly emerging, although large expansionary budgets are not expected until 2022. For one, several Arab Gulf countries' fiscal rationing efforts in 2020 are paying off as other regions – such as Central Europe and Russia – face increasing strain. Other upsides include a strengthening if varied vaccination rollout, stabilising oil prices and increasing investment interest in the MENAT from China, the US, UK, Turkey, Latin America and many others. One delegate said he is currently witnessing the most promising policy agenda in his 25 years of working in and around Middle Eastern economies. Delegates also highlighted the value of adopting more of a “free to fail” culture in the Middle East to incentivise more entrepreneurs and younger workers to relocate to the region, thus driving innovation.

Have no doubt that the industry is facing a “people crisis”, but that same stress and concern can fuel solutions. A realistic scenario will see today’s juggling act lead to a far more robust, innovative and satisfied work force in the 2020s. This equation would bode very well for Professional Services – a world characterised by its adaptability and resilience.

The abundance of optimism, opportunity, challenge and growing economic momentum is a striking factor in Professional Services across MENAT right now. However, it is running alongside a sense of near crisis with regards to talent attraction, attrition and cost.

Mike Littlewood | Regional Sector Head, Professional Services: MENAT, HSBC

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