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Jimmy Joseph is an affable man. A 30-year career sits easy with him, the interest, passion and drive alive, keeping at bay the cynicism that quite often creeps in over the decades. He loves people, socializing and travelling, and this has proven invaluable to his work heading the hospitality technology division of a company headquartered in Dubai with offices in Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah, Doha and Riyadh.

He is also ambitious, both for himself and his company.

Jimmy Joseph

Now that Covid is more or less in retreat, it is all systems go at his office where a staff of 290 are going all out to make good on lost opportunities during the two-and-a-half years of the pandemic. It has certainly helped that during the lockdown, the company was proactive in supporting staff. No one was laid off, and everyone was paid in full. This has ensured staff loyalty.

If the world is embracing anti-ambition in droves, in pursuit of a better work-life balance, then Jimmy and his colleagues aren’t quite tuning in.

‘For me, there’s the interest, that extra energy to continue what I was doing [pre-pandemic], to compensate for the losses during Covid,’ he says. ‘We are opening new regions… so that certainly takes up more time, more travel.’

So, what about work-life balance? The world seems to be clamouring for it post-Covid, which delivered that much-needed jab — pun unintended — waking us up to our health, our families and the very transience of life.

‘Time management is key here,’ says Jimmy, who is from India, is married and has two sons. ‘I am not that great at it; in fact, I struggle.’ Nonetheless, it doesn’t stress him out unduly, and it’s not cause to rein in ambition. ‘It’s more of how we can try and accommodate both. That’s the way I see it. Because the more you try and control one side, certainly there will be implications on the other. So, you try and keep it the way it’s going and try to balance.’

That balance is often achieved by clubbing work with R&R. A business trip becomes an opportunity to meet extended family and friends. A lunch with staff doubles up as both work with socializing thrown in. A stressful week is followed by time off.

The UAE’s switch to the worldwide Saturday-Sunday weekend has also been a huge help, aligning the company with its global clients. ‘Our weekends are pretty much clear,’ says Jimmy, who has never been one for sports, preferring painting, fishing and reading during leisure. ‘We get more time. And there’s a visible change in our lifestyles.’

Out with the old, in with the new

Up until the pandemic, the region’s workforce largely followed a traditional workplace culture. The fact that a huge expat population depends on jobs to secure residency could be a factor that despite advances in technology old work norms went unquestioned. It took the pandemic to dent a work model that connects productivity with actual time spent in office being seen making calls and tapping on keyboards.

Let alone millennials who set great store on personal autonomy and independence at work and refuse to be micro-managed, even the generations above them now see as archaic, a work culture that insists on clocking in and out, remaining at desks beyond the expected work hours, and where requesting time off for child-care duties was seen in some sense as slacking off work.

These days, a hybrid model is far preferred, with some form of work from home (WFH). The writing is on the wall for employers. And managers who exhibit symptoms of productivity paranoia, will possibly need coaching to pivot.

What is your WFH policy?

Three years ago, it would have hardly seemed appropriate for a candidate at a job interview, to ask if he or she would be allowed to work from home. ‘Today candidates always ask us: ‘Is there work from home?’; ‘What is the work culture?’; ‘What is the WFH policy of your client.’ If the company doesn’t have one, they may not want to carry [the interview] forward,’ says Omer Zakaria, who manages Saudi Arabia and a part of the UAE business for a global head-hunting firm.

Omer Zakaria

WFH and a hybrid model of work are now ‘part and parcel of every organization’, he says, often tipping the scales when it comes to decision-making. ‘In terms of hiring, it has opened up the globe for us,’ Omer adds. ‘Many companies also offer employees the flexibility to work a few weeks from their home country every year. A lot of expats want to hear this.’

Omer believes the preference for a hybrid model of work is gender neutral. It cuts commute times, frees up an extra hour or two for either more work, time with the family, or possibly an exercise class.

What drives employees to the office would either be the need for a distraction-free zone, or to engage with colleagues.

‘But in general, you just got to strike the right balance,’ he concludes. ‘You work from home to make sure you are taking care of your work-life balance, but you also got to be in the office to make sure your colleagues know who you are, to build personal relations and to get stuff done.’

The future of work

Smart work, autonomy, independence, making a difference, having an impact — these are terms that resonate with the twenty-something demographic entering the job market. Among them is Atharv S. (name changed for privacy) who is just 10 months into his job with the product management team of a Dubai-based start-up.

Atharv, who is 25, has no qualms in admitting to being ambitious, and has reflected quite a bit on how he will go about realising his leadership aspirations — gaining competence in the field and building a good professional network being just two key elements in his roadmap of sorts.

For now, he feels he has made a great start because both in his current job, and the internship he did previously, he was fortunate to have good mentors. ‘I just want to learn as much as I can,’ he says.

The start-up crucible can be the perfect launchpad for a career, as it’s been so far for Atharv. (It could as easily turn into a nightmare.)

He is supported by a helpful team, offered opportunities to work on various tasks that may not strictly be part of his job profile, and the freedom to set his own pace. ‘I don’t think they have the luxury of micro-managing the staff. It’s too much drain on resources,’ says Atharv, who manages to make the time for his interests that include badminton and boxing, watching TV and travel.

It’s understandably difficult for start-ups to prioritise work-life balance, and Atharv is not complaining. After all, the leadership team consists of ‘seasoned finance professionals who have known hectic work schedules,’ he says. ‘One of the motivators for them in starting the company is to get a better work-life balance. And they are prioritizing that and communicating this to the employees. But since it’s a start up, you can’t really have that luxury right now.’

Can ambition eventually become toxic? ‘Yes, of course. There’s still that hustle culture in the start-up world, but in my organization there’s more emphasis on smart work; they don’t really give you points for just warming the chair.’

So, should we rein in ambition?

In this changing world of work, where a life outside office is no longer taken as an after-thought, is ambition good, bad or plain ugly?

Densil Vincent has 25 years of managerial, recruitment and mentoring experience in Dubai. He worked as regional head for a Japanese MNC before starting his own business that includes an audiovisual services and production division.

Densil believes that his ability to read people has helped him in recruitment, spotting talent with ‘the right attitude’ — a virtue that’s more or less non-negotiable for him.

Densil Vincent

He believes everything else will fall into place with that key element, motivating an individual to learn, innovate, set goals and go that bit extra to be able to stand out in a crowd.

‘Humans are the same pre- and post-Covid. And ambition was there and is there. It hasn’t gone anywhere. There are still people who are ambitious, people who want to be leaders,’ says Densil who mentors aspiring leaders these days more out of passion and a desire to give back.

However, the set who tick all the right boxes — ambition combined with right attitude, empathy and courage — are a rare breed. Densil believes they will be the ones to succeed in all spheres of life.

Is it possible for them to balance personal and professional life? Densil’s answer is a categoric yes. ‘It’s not all about hard work; it’s about smart work,’ he says. By which he means total focus while on the job, with the intent always being to innovate and arrive upon solutions that saves on time and effort minimizing the possibility of errors.

‘The majority of people have lost the sheen of ambition,’ says Densil. ‘They would rather just survive.’

Live, work thrive

A sudden illness, financial crises, accidents and bereavements often painfully lift us out of the sameness of life. Covid was that many times over. Having done its worst, it now offers us a chance to reimagine our lives, professional and personal. And in this new world, it’s ok to aspire. But there’s a way to do it. For this, you learn to first look inward, says career coach Kamran Tork, who has been working since inception with the Insead School of Business in Abu Dhabi, besides coaching companies and individuals. He found his calling in training, mentoring and coaching around 15 years ago after spending years unfulfilled at his job with a bank in Canada. Of Iranian origin, Kamran has lived and worked in the East, the West and Europe.

Kamran will tell you that a sure-fire way of pinpointing the right career path for oneself is by reflecting on the values that inwardly drive and fulfill us.

‘Generally speaking, we are not aware of our values,’ Kamran says. 

Kamran Tork

He provides the metaphor of leaning a ladder against a wall, going up a few rungs, realizing it’s the wrong wall, climbing back down to prop the ladder on another wall and repeating the same mistake. ‘Unfortunately, if we don’t invest in this inner aspect then that’s what we will be getting more of,’ he says. ‘Our actions are the results of our thoughts.. if the inner doesn’t change, then we will constantly be producing the same outwardly.’

If you are stuck in unfulfilling jobs, then Kamran’s advice would be to list one’s top five values in order of importance.

These could be autonomy and independence, monetary benefits, family life and creativity to name just a few. ‘It works as your inner compass,’ he said. ‘And if you are in an organization that doesn’t recognize and honour your values, then it just doesn’t work. More and more millennials are becoming aware of their inner world .. more conscious, and they vote with their resignation.’