Samer Samman

    • Chief Human Resources Officer

    • King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)


    Samer joined KAUST in 2015 as an Investment Manager in the Innovation Fund within the Innovation & Economic Development department. He has over 18 years of experience which brings a great variety of operations, investment and business experience having worked in a number of different industries both
    outside of Human Resources and KAUST, both locally and internationally including Saudi Aramco and Cargill.

    Working from home has been around for a while in some organizations but COVID-19 accelerated digital technologies and transformations that made WFH possible for even more employees in the workforce. I believe there will be a permanent increase in a new hybrid model of home and office working. All employers will need to respond and adapt to the change in working arrangements to retain, engage and support its top talent, who will demand a degree of flexibility in the way they work.

    Organizations will need to rethink their approach to performance and how this is evaluated as remote and flexible working focuses on people’s outputs and impacts rather than their presence in the work environment. They will also need to be clearer when it is best to have people onsite together for collaboration and mental well-being – ‘awaydays’ could actually mean people coming into the office rather than being out of them.

    Organizations may also need to think about their total reward package and how this may need to change to work for people living a hybrid office/remote life – people may be willing to trade take home pay for work flexibility for example or trade holiday for better access to leisure facilities and retail discounts.

    Managers will be instrumental in supporting employees through the new ways of working. Some managers are taking on a challenge they’ve never faced before: managing teams remotely, supporting mental and physical wellbeing remotely, and managing performance remotely. We are investing time and resources in building capability and upskilling managers to meet the demands and expectations of remote working; through the implementation of leadership principles and developing key people skills.

    In many ways, HR doesn’t need to help the workforce adapt because it already has through necessity. What HR can do is to facilitate sessions for teams to identify what they have learnt from dealing with COVID-19 – what have they gained from this period that they would like to continue within in the ‘new normal’ beyond the pandemic, and what would they happily return to from the ‘old normal’ once things have improved. Many people in the workforce would consider it a missed opportunity if little changes as a result of the pandemic and HR are in a very strong position to make sure this opportunity is not lost on us.

    COVID-19 has taught us many things, most notably the importance of identifying top talent with diverse skills, have an organization structure that is agile and resilient.

    If I could summarize the top three learnings for us as a University, it would be that:

    1. Working set hours, being present in the office, and developing ‘open plan’ spaces for greater collaboration is now a thing of the past. We have seen the benefits of flexible working and remote working and that our previous model could actually negatively impact productivity, morale and the way we communicate.
    2. Remote Working is doable. Despite our fears that we see a reduction in productivity, or that we could never implement such working arrangements due to the institutes culture, we were wrong. In fact, we have seen the benefits of remote working with increased productivity, wellness, innovation and engagement.
    3. Investing in technology is critical. Fortunately, we had started our digital transformation two years ago, so we were ready and able to adapt overnight. However, not everything was seamless, and we know we have some way to go. COVID-19 and the new blended way of working has fortunately shone the spotlight on the importance of digital/online working and we will accelerate our efforts in this area.
      Human beings are very adaptable, despite the received wisdom that people don’t like change, and when something becomes a necessity rather than a possibility people find a way.

    As said, HR are in a very strong position to be taking the lead during this crisis as understanding and enabling people is our expertise. One thing we can do is to get the input from our employees and managers that have been living through the adaptations to COVID-19 and what they have found has worked well, and should be continued, and what hasn’t worked so well and we’d be glad to leave behind with the pandemic, or we need to find a better way to adapt to it longer term.

    Employees and managers will need help managing performance when ‘seeing and hearing people’ is not an effective way of measuring people’s contribution (spoiler – it never was, but we are human so substituting ‘presence’ as a rule of thumb to mean ‘performance’ is understandable). They will both, therefore, need to be clear what ‘outputs’ and ‘impact’ look like in a job, which demands more thought than checking if someone is in the workplace during – or beyond – the normal working hours.

    Employees and managers will also need to be clearer about boundaries. Most people are more comfortable and confident when they know where the boundaries are – in the normal workplace the office setting and working hours have set these boundaries although technology and the nature of service and knowledge work has blurred these considerably. With the expected increase in flexible and remote working brought on by COVID-19, these boundaries largely disappear. This makes it difficult for an employee to know when they should be available to their manager or customers and can therefore lead to a huge erosion of their personal time and great anxiety. For a manager they may feel that because the person is working from home and working flexibly, then they should always be available to respond to calls or emails – ‘after all, what else are they doing’, might be their thinking. Clarify what is expected – and what is also reasonable – will be of great use to an employee and manager.

    Helping to make explicit the mindsets that can hinder an improved new normal, and then adapting these mindsets to ones that suit the future, is something that HR are in a better position to do than any other function in an organization: other functions are probably expecting them to step up and do this, in fact.

    COVID-19 provided an unprecedented opportunity for HR. At KAUST our HR team was part of every key decision or COVID-19 policy implemented. People impacts were the main consideration of every decision taken by the institute. People’s well-being was seen as the priority.

    HR professionals should now leverage off this platform and lead the way in designing and embedding the new ways of working, new ways of thinking, develop their own skills, capability, agility and resilience. HR’s role has never been more important, and we will have a positive influence and impact on the fourth industrial revolution.

    It is perhaps sobering to realize that few, if any, HR professionals could have said they were prepared for something like COVID-19 and certainly wouldn’t have predicted it. In fact, if we had said to our organization leaders beforehand that we wanted to ‘shape a new world of work through the use of more remote working and flexibly working’ they would probably have laughed. Yet in the course of a few short weeks the laughable became the reality. What distinguished ‘good HR’ during this period was how well they responded to this rather than merely reacted to it.

    So, it may be as the future unfolds. It will be very difficult to predict what is likely to happen beyond broad generalizations based on extrapolating patterns from the past into the future – the climate will warm up; technology will likely have a bigger impact and demographics may change the makeup of the workforce.

    For HR then this may mean we need to get very good at responding quickly and effectively to changes and trends in the world, whether they are benign or not, and guiding our organizations on what this means for our people. To do this well of course requires more capability than less, but we have already shown over the last few months that we can.

    About Samer Samman:

    Samer has held a number of positions within KAUST Human Resources function including Manager of HR support services and Director of People Services, a key position that interfaces and has impact right across KAUST overseeing all people activities including recruitment, relocation, employee services, and HR
    systems and technology.

    Samer serves as an independent director in the compensation & nomination committee and the investment committee of a publicly listed company on the Saudi Stock Exchange. He also served as board member and observer on several startup companies.

    Samer has a BA of Mechanical Engineering from the University of Kansas and a Master’s degree in Public Administration, Economic Policy Management from Columbia University.