When my husband was offered a three-year posting in Riyadh, I was immediately tempted by the adventure. In my opinion, the Saudis are one of the most welcoming, friendly and generous nations in the world. I say so out of experience, having lived and worked in six countries across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
I had the opportunity to become the Head of Communication for the Riyadh Metro Project. As a woman in Saudi Arabia, the role involved multiple practical challenges, some of which would never cross the minds of communicators in other parts of the world… I was given a small office where my door had to be closed at all times; if colleagues needed to speak to me, they knocked and left the door open during their time in my office. I learnt the subtle art of balance by coming down a 25-metre building shaft while wearing the abaya (also known as burqa). I eventually obtained overalls and boots from the health and safety department, which enabled me to lift the abaya when coming up and down the stairs (not the easiest manoeuvre when I was pregnant)…
The toughest challenge was to hide whenever the media or VIPs visited the sites. Looking at the bigger picture – and remembering that I am doing this for my fellow colleagues who are proud to be part of the project and for the future females to join the project – helped me overcome the frustration.
“Looking at the bigger picture – and remembering that I am doing this for my fellow colleagues who are proud to be part of the project and for the future females to join the project – helped me overcome the frustrations.”
Luckily, my role involved some very exciting professional challenges. The Riyadh Metro Project is the single largest metro project in the world, with six lines, 85 stations and 176 km of track being built in one go – and a budget of $22 billion. 29 companies are working alongside one another to deliver this gigantic project described as ‘second to none’. In total, the project has 30,000 male-only employees, speaking 22 languages and from 42 countries. 60% of employees are illiterate and site-based. In a country where there is virtually no public transportation system, the Riyadh metro will have a significant impact not only on the economy, but also on society.
My mission was an arduous one: to unite a very fragmented organisation behind a common purpose, removing silos and increasing the project’s external communication exposure – all of this without a team!
My starting point was to redefine the existing mission, vision, and values in a way that every employee could relate to. The first step was to get the leadership team on board – not a simple job when any decision requires unanimity from eight members of the board!
A key aspect of my strategy was to ensure that colleagues understand that they are part of something much bigger and have a chance to hear from different parts of the organisation. Every two months, we organised an exhibition across all our sites and offices showcasing site progression and featuring stories from different lines or sites.
I wanted to humanise our work and what we stand for, so I introduced an initiative named “Humans of the Riyadh Metro”. Being under tremendous pressure to deliver the project in five years, our colleagues spend a huge amount of time together (working ten hours a day, six days a week). Yet for some reason they know very little about each other. I adapted the Humans of New York approach (www.humansofnewyork.com), which features random people and asks them about their life and passions. We started with people based at our headquarters, asking them to tell us about their life outside of work, linking it back to our values and featuring their stories in our e-newsletter. After just a few stories, it became so successful that we struggled to cope with the number of stories and requests coming in every week, sometimes from people who hardly spoke any English.
To reach our illiterate colleagues, we developed infographics containing characters from the top three cultures and languages used including Hindi, Urdu and English. The infographics, that were changed monthly, included stories about the project and were located in the toilets and living quarters. Digital signage was present in their social quarters containing videos of our communication champions speaking, again, in the three languages and providing updates and key messages on the project.
“My mission was an arduous one: to unite a very fragmented organisation behind a common purpose, removing silos and increasing the project’s external communication exposure – all of this without a team”
Another employee engagement tactic was to enable our employees to meet the public and discuss how the metro will affect their lives. In one year, we invited around 2,500 people from high schools, universities, government organisations and other stakeholders to come and meet colleagues from different lines. The feedback was so positive that we decided to schedule weekly site visits for employees.
For our monthly project update to the Governor of Riyadh, I explored a few innovative options. Once, we transformed the tunnel into a cinema (Cinemas did not exist in Saudi Arabia until 2018) and played a video outlining the project’s progress, as opposed to the leadership team presenting using PowerPoint.
Biography: Gihan Hyde
Gihan started her 20-year career in Marketing and Advertising then moved to PR before finding her true passion in the form of internal communication. She has a global and multi-sectorial experience spanning from financial services, to construction, to professional services, to FMCG to government. She specialises in bringing order to chaos and building non-existent internal communication departments and aligning them to the organisation’s business model. @Gehanam