Like other companies, employees of Mubadala, a global investment firm based in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, began working remotely in March. During the Emirates’ lockdown, the government sanitized public spaces, instituted nightly curfews (with SMS reminders to residents), ramped up testing and launched a contact tracing app (required for all residents and people visiting the area). After the number of COVID-19 cases began to decline in the UAE in early June, the Emirates relaxed restrictions on gathering in public places and organizations started to consider returning to offices.
Mubadala, along with other companies in Abu Dhabi, began to develop its return-to-the-office plans. The result has been a gradual return plan that leans heavily on government-established protocols, new safety procedures developed by Mubadala’s Crisis Team and, more importantly, feedback from employees. While Mubadala is an organization with over 30 different nationalities, the culture of the Emirates is strong, as can be seen by many employees living with their elderly parents in multi-generational homes, making it more challenging to weigh the risks of returning to work in a pandemic.
Mubadala’s Crisis Team, led by the company’s Deputy CEO, along with representatives from Communications, Business Services (handling office configuration, HVAC, sanitation, etc.), HR and Business Continuity, among others, met twice a week after the health crisis began. The Communications team played an integral role in this process by quickly launching a dedicated section on the Mubadala intranet providing COVID news, useful links and FAQs, sending weekly emails by the Deputy CEO to all employees and conducting regular employee surveys to provide the team and other senior leaders a regular pulse of the organization.
The Crisis Team developed its return-to-the-office plans with the intent of ensuring a safe return by limiting the number of employees who would be in the office at the same time while exploring a way to reintroduce some level of normalcy. Mubadala initially created three rotations of employees but soon realized this was not much different from “working from home” and therefore shifted to two groups. Anyone pregnant, above age 60, anxious or who had an underlying medical condition was exempted from the rotation group. As part of the onboarding, employees had to sign a Declaration of Care form stating that they understood the company’s protocols for safety. These included, but were not limited to:
- Procedures for masks and hand sanitizer (employees could remove their masks once they got to their desks if they were separated by enough space from others).
- Quarantining for 14 days if hosting someone from outside of the country.
- Requirements for entering the building (including showing their required monthly COVID test result was still valid via the Emirates’ contact tracing app).
- Directives on what to do if they felt sick.
The Communications team partnered with Business Services to create branded signage reminding employees of procedures and indicating which areas of the building were off-limits.
While Mubadala compared its plans to companies in UAE, they strove to balance the needs of the business with the needs of employees. Through ongoing surveys, the company learned that employees wanted to take the return to the office gradually. Before COVID, the company worried about causing survey fatigue among employees; instead, employees now were eager to see how their feedback was reflected in company decisions.
Keeping employees engaged was the second element of the process. The company continued its regular communications from the Deputy CEO to inform employees about return-to-the-office plans and announce other activities (such as virtual training, virtual leadership forums, a virtual gym and opportunities to volunteer and donate to the local medical community to help families suffering, among others).
Mubadala’s deliberate, employee-centric approach generated results that went well beyond ensuring a safe workplace. Employees indicated they felt:
- A greater trust and confidence of senior leaders.
- The company had been asking the right questions through its surveys.
- The regular sources of communication kept them well informed.
- The company policies about the return-to-the-office plan made them feel safe and protected.
- Employees felt empowered and therefore were accountable and productive.
A few themes emerge that other companies should consider to ensure a successful return-to-the-office plan:
- Build upon efforts led by government agencies to protect everyone’s health.
- Ensure that the crisis management team includes a leader senior enough to carry the weight of decisions.
- Act quickly to communicate what you know through multiple channels.
- Brief the management team and HR partners ahead of communicating with employees so that they are not caught off guard by employee questions.
- Realize that if you are going to ask for employee feedback, you need to find a way to use it. Regularly report on survey results and any questions submitted by employees.