Communication, Community and the Critical Role of HR
Interview with Sana Jubaili, UAE
Sana Jubaili realises that it’s natural for CEOs and CFOs to be in the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, she also believes that HR – those behind the curtain ensuring that teams and team members have all they need to succeed – will play just as critical a role in helping family businesses navigate the pandemic. In other words, despite the immensity of the challenges we’re all currently facing, it’s HR’s time to shine.
As the Head of HR in the UAE for power solutions provider Jubaili Bros, Sana Jubaili has been at the forefront of initiatives to keep the over-40-year-old family firm’s around 1,300 employees safe, connected and motivated. Operating through a decentralised model, the company’s main hubs, which are located in Lebanon, Nigeria and the UAE, have had to overcome distinctive, market-specific obstacles as they continue to serve their customers, interests and people. The company faced the same confusion and difficulties as others during the pandemic’s first few months, but by making their workforce a priority and taking key transitional steps with their employees, Jubaili Bros accomplished what family firms all seek to achieve: a sense community where everyone involved feels like they’re part of the family.
Q: How did you address the initial challenges associated with the pandemic?
During the early days of COVID-19, there was a burst of information, most of it scary, with no easy way to establish what was accurate and what wasn’t. At that time, we didn’t know if masks were necessary for everyone or just medical professionals, and there was conflicting information about disinfectants. So, the first big challenge we faced was trying to find the correct information to build our approach from.
The second challenge was in transitioning our teams to a work-from-home model. We only had two weeks at the most to implement our system, which meant buying laptops, getting them connected, and ensuring we had the proper guidelines and security protocols in place.
Working through the pervasive fear that defined those first few months was another challenge. People were justifiably afraid to come to work because of what they heard from the media and other sources; plus, we had our first employee test positive near the end of March, which created a tremendous amount of anxiety.
Our employees were concerned about their health and the health of their families, and we were empathetic.
Even though the infected employee worked in an isolated area, we made the decision to close all of our factories so that everyone would feel safe and comfortable.
Q: What else did you do to ensure your employees felt safe?
Communication was key. Firstly, we made sure every single employee had access to a company communication channel – WhatsApp in this case. Secondly, we ensured that the lines of communication were kept clear, and that we were strategic about our messaging.
We wanted to provide employees with accurate information on how to protect themselves, so we provided timely updates about government regulations or what was happening within the company. If an employee tested positive for COVID-19, we addressed it quickly without causing fear, and using these channels.
Another important step was identifying sources of risk and mitigating them as best we could. The public transportation that most of our employees used on their commute to work was considered a possible infection threat, so we made alternative arrangements for them through private buses with a 50 per cent capacity limit.
We also implemented social distancing. Because it can be difficult to maintain safe working distances in a factory environment, we went with a shift system. Finally, we did absolutely everything we could to help employees with challenges regarding their living situations or accommodations.
Q: How did you continue to motivate your employees even through such uncertainty?
I think this is where family businesses have the upper hand, because there is a feeling that we are all a family and a community.
Supervisors had to take on that emotional responsibility and convey the message that employee safety is always the priority. We also sent every employee a health kit containing bags with sanitising wipes, Clorox spray and an information package.
Sometimes, it’s the small things that are most important: reassuring employees about their salaries and showing our appreciation for their hard work helped to create engagement through the crisis.
Q: Your family business operates across three very different geographies: Lebanon, the UAE and Nigeria. How has the experience differed from country to country?
In Lebanon, a financial crisis started sometime around October. The two crises combined resulted in an extreme devaluation of the currency, which created challenges with payments. Similarly, Nigeria has had to deal with COVID-19 while also coping with the plummeting price of oil.
Each country had to look inward and make decisions based on what they thought the next nine months would bring.
It was clear to us that we couldn’t create any sweeping policies for the company; instead, we had to work according to guiding principles that the management team for each country could base decisions on.
Q: What advice would you give to other family businesses based on what you’ve experienced?
First, do not underestimate the importance of decision-making and letting your values drive your decisions, not fear of the unknown. I would also recommend using a decentralised decision-making process, because each market reacts differently during a crisis, and making market-specific choices leads to proactive decisions. And, as I mentioned earlier, communication should be a prominent theme in any organisation, especially during a crisis.
Lastly, I believe a strong management team is essential to any crisis plan or strategy. Insightful, thoughtful and confident leadership is where everything begins and ultimately flows from. There is no substitute for dedicated and competent people who can take action and implement strategies to see an organisation through the difficult periods.
Sana Jubaili is a 3rd generation family member working in Jubaili Bros, a Lebanese family business which was established over 40 years ago and is a leading provider of power solutions throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia
Sana started her professional career working with non-profit organizations in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East. In 2014 she shifted her passion for working with people from a developmental context to a corporate one by joining the family business, focusing on HR and CSR.
She is currently working as an HR Manager and also sits on the Board of Directors and is involved in group-level projects relating to strategy, governance and HR.