There’s a war going on for talent in the UAE and it means HR directors need to “keep up” today to recruit and keep staff for the future workplace.

The accounting, finance and technology recruitment agency Robert Half interviewed 75 Emirates-based HR directors and found that 40 per cent say the top challenge is the war for talent, closely followed by talent management at 39 per cent.

Almost four in 10 also said the trend for a mobile workplace had arrived in the UAE, while one third said another high-impact trend was the growth of multiple generations in the workplace.

“HR directors are adapting their recruitment methods to keep up with the future workplace,” says Gareth El Mettouri, an associate director at Robert Half UAE.

Millennials, he says, seek a rewarding career balanced with family commitments and will “not shy away” from negotiating these aspects when a job offer is made.

And he says that the UAE has “a way to go” to catch up on working from home and elsewhere; younger staff do not see, with the rise of social media and Skype, why they need to be in the office from 8am to 6pm.

But there is “more openness to flexibility” now in the country, Mr El Mettouri says. “Workplaces are changing to meet the evolving needs of professionals, so it’s important to continue initiatives that offer workers flexibility through mobile working.”

Another survey by the HR consultancy Aon Hewitt found that millennials – otherwise known as Generation Y, which it defines as the generation born from 1979 to 1990 – had significantly lower engagement than the older Generation X.

It was lower again for Generation Z, born after 1991 and just starting to enter the workforce.

It is vital for companies to turn this around, says Khalid Youssef, Aon Hewitt’s senior consultant for the Middle East and Africa in talent, rewards and performance: as the baby boomers retire, up to three quarters of the workforce will be made up of Generation Y and Z by 2021.

In average companies, Aon Hewitt found that just 61 per cent of older Generation X staff were engaged with their company, dropping to 58 per cent in Generation Y and a lowly 52 per cent in Generation Z.

That compared with 89, 83 and 82 per cent respectively in the best regional companies, such as DHL Express, Marriott International, McDonald’s UAE and Procter & Gamble Near East.

Rewards for millennials, Mr Youssef says, are about a whole “value proposition” – not just money but the company culture, growth and learning opportunities.

Good companies, mostly international, are starting to create customised programmes for their younger staff, he says, allowing for more regular feedback rather than annual surveys and more hands-on work shadowing rather than traditional week-long classroom on-boarding.

Middle East organisations are “lagging”, he admits, but hiring young Emiratis is forcing many to “look differently” on this and “move faster”.

Companies are investing much more in learning and development and compensation and benefits to hold on to their staff, Mr El Mettouri says.

“It’s better to keep your workforce and progress individuals through the ranks, instead of having to go back out and re-recruit every two to three years,” he says. “Candidates want to see a mapped-out progression.”

Part-funding of executive MBA programmes and professional certificates such as accountancy qualifications is becoming more common in the UAE, he says.

Claire Donnelly, a Dubai-based senior consultant at business consultancy MHC, agrees that millennials have “different expectations”, while “A players” are drawn to companies that allow them to “stretch, develop and hone their skills”.

One local client she mentions is a family business of baby boomers, looking to hand over the reins to millennials who bring a “tech-savvy and entrepreneurial approach” but “want and expect a flexible work-life balance”.

Another technology company has a workforce that has been with them for more than 10 years, with Generation X managers who recognise they need to provide a more flexible approach to recruit millennials.

Warsha Joshi, the founder and managing director of Dubai-based virtual assistant provider Platinum VA, agrees that the trend for mobile working is growing as “time poverty” becomes a big problem for midlevel executives.

She says that, as people live and work longer, “we will soon have five generations in the workplace” to “motivate, train and retain”.

Ms Donnelly warns that the cost of getting recruitment wrong could be 15 times the salary of a “mis-hire”. The solution, she says, is for companies to think ahead and cultivate a “virtual bench” of substitute staff, “softly” recruited over time.

The article was originally published in National.