There is no doubt that UAE’s remarkable economic and social infrastructure has helped it to become one of the most influential countries in the region. With the 7th highest per capita income in the world, UAE thrives in the retail and service industry. However, one thing that may be thwarting organizational excellence is the lack of employee empowerment in UAE’s workplaces. From authoritarian to participatory, organizations bring many management practices into play, nevertheless devolution of authority and employee empowerment is the need of the hour.

Research from Gallup Consulting Middle East and Africa reveals that only one in four employees feel empowered in their role. The decision making is somewhat hierarchical in organizations, where either an executive approves of it or it is forwarded to a specialist. This automatically creates a service (response) lag and the customer is often made to wait, even for the most simplest of issues. From the virtual to physical world, there is no dearth of customer service touch points. Customer can reach a company through multiple channels, including but not limited to web self-service. However, what can really turn the tables is the reduction of red tape and entrustment of the decision making power to the employees i.e. managers sharing as much authority with subordinates.

Recent trends (developed economies) show an increased spending towards process engineers and people who can affect the quality and speed of organizational output. The idea is to introduce a more expedient approach to customer service, either through the use of comprehensive support systems or process re-engineering. This is the same reason why most organizations are now employing flatter more responsive structures. “By employing flatter structures, organizations can replicate an environment similar to that of a small, responsive business”, explained an entrepreneur at the Dubai Customer Service Week 2012.

The problem with the hierarchical built in UAE is that it isolates the customer service and support staff; “With no authority over their own work, it is almost impossible for them to accommodate atypical requests. This adds rigidity to the system and over dependence on policies and procedures”, shares Jalal Jami, a research analyst at Live Admins, UAE. He explains that this not only affects the motivation level, but also inhibits personal development, “Most CSRs (Customer Service Representatives) here (UAE) will outright refuse to assist you for anything out of the ordinary. They are used to a system, regular workflow, and cannot be bothered with anything else”. An Australian national who recently moved to Dubai, explains that she was hung up on several times because the CSR did not know how to resolve her issue, “In my business dealings I have always adopted an attitude of ‘if I don’t know the answer to your question, I will find out and let you know’. However, here I am told it is not possible and turned away. Service here is appalling”.

Customer Service at WegmansBy empowering and training an employee, organizations can effectively handle complex situation and service requests. One story from Wegman, a US based grocery and culinary store published an account of a woman who had to miss a family reunion due to her work schedule. She decided to call a Wegmans store near her parent’s house to order a cake, and pay for it over the phone. While Wegmans’ store policy dictates not to process payments over the phone. The employee did it anyway. The customer later sent in a thank you mail to the store manager, explaining how that slight discretion had made her day.

Employee empowerment may have several benefits, but it does come with some red flags. On the bright side it can heighten productivity, upsurge the depth of employees’ role in an organization, lead to intrinsic motivation. Employees can produce better quality of work being more engaged and at the same time organization structure can be flattened, requiring only a few middle management positions. Apart from this, many studies reveal that employee empowerment is squarely related to job satisfaction.

While on the murkier side, it has its own limitations. This entails monetary investments along with culture and structural changes. However, where employees have more responsibility, knowledge deficiency can lead to unsound decisions, while interpersonal relationships may also suffer due to conflicting opinions between managers and employees. Nevertheless, by encouraging empowerment, a business can become more adaptive (customer preference). It also promotes customer centric decision making and moves the company in the in the right direction. However, empowerment is not limited to increasing employee responsibilities; it requires giving the workers necessary training, coaching and most of all, the confidence to take initiative.

Employee empowerment credo had started pervading the corporate culture in west around 1980s. However, during the 90s, it was realized that several empowerment programs fail, when the power is wielded without sufficient knowledge. However today, employee empowerment is rapidly overtaking as the fundamental principle for the companies is to provide better service. Some big names like Apple, Wegman and Ritz Carlton, all owe their loyal customer base to the fact that they completely trust and empower their employees to do the right thing and be creative with their roles.

The reason why Wegman rules the $90 billion store brands industry is explained by media relations director, Jo Natale, “We empower our people to make decisions that improve their work and benefit our customers and our company”. Likewise, the reason why Apple continues to be the most successful retailer is that their managers enrich customer experiences by empowering them to do the right thing in any situation. Ritz Carlton, the Luxury Hotel Chain revealed, that they gave their employees a personal budget of $2000 to spend in any way that they felt was right to resolve the customer problems.

However in UAE, what we see is a discernible lack of employee empowerment. Findings from workplace study by Gallup Consulting revealed that employee empowerment is as low today as it was during the economic crisis. “One of the key areas where we see low empowerment having a major effect is the UAE consumer retail industry,” said Ghassan Khoury, a managing consultant at Gallup Consulting Middle East and Africa. “As primarily a customer-facing industry, there are many touch points between the brand and the consumer. The service employees provide is make-or-break whether customers will return or recommend their brand.” “It [empowerment] is not just the freedom to make decisions, but also having the time, training, materials, equipment, support, and ‘voice’ to do so,” he said.

Nevertheless, it isn’t something that can’t be rectified. According to Gallup’s research there are three key ways that can be used to improve empowerment at workplaces in the United Arab Emirates.

  • Creation of an environment that fosters empowerment and allows employees to be themselves while focusing on outcomes.
  • Imparting all the necessary knowledge and information to the employees.
  • Giving employees an opportunity to have a voice of their own at workplace.

Giving employees enough discretion to make support decisions and diffuse difficult situations has the potential to double paybacks. This makes the empowerment strategy as important in the 21st century as it was four decades ago. Today, employee empowerment is no more than just a buzzword in UAE service sector. However, with the right balance of authority and responsibility, it can all change for the better.