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If you’re familiar with the comic book character of The Batman, you’re perhaps also acquainted with Alfred Pennyworth, his trusted butler and sidekick. But what does this sidekick to a hooded vigilante figure have to do in this story about a UAE-based human resources (HR) tech platform called Alfii? Well, I’ll let its co-founder and CEO Yousef Albarqawi explain.”The name ‘Alfii’ has a few different meanings, but the original idea was inspired by Alfred, Batman’s butler, who helped make things happen for the world but was never in the forefront,” Albarqawi explains. “He provided all the help and support that was needed behind-the-scenes. Our name is an homage to that: the support system that makes great things happen.”
It was during his tenure as an operations leader, at early-stage ventures as well as global multinational firms such as Deliveroo, that Albarqawi first observed how overwhelmed and under-resourced HR professionals can be. That eventually led him towards the idea of creating Alfii, and he launched it along with two other co-founders: Dina Mohammad-Laity, a data scientist who has worked at renowned MENA firms such as Talabat and PropertyFinder, and Becky Jefferies, a brand-builder who previously led a MENA-wide marketing team at Uber. “I came to learn that many HR teams -some with a workforce of several thousand people- were still relying on spreadsheets or otherwise outdated and non-digitized systems to manage their HR processes and employee data,” Albarqawi recalls. “I also noticed that many companies invest in high-quality customer relationship management systems to bring customer data into one place and easily manage those relationships, but they lack an equivalent ‘single source of truth’ for managing their employees. And this was despite the fact that staffing costs are the single biggest cost item for most companies! That’s why I set out to build Alfii. I want to make sure all businesses -not just large enterprises- can help their people thrive.”
Set to go public in mid-December 2022, Alfii has now launched its private beta program across the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States and the United Kingdom. Its early version aims to simplify the core HR processes of recruiting, onboarding, document collection and management, as well as payroll. And once publicly launched, Albarqawi assures that any business can sign up on the Alfii platform and straightaway start using it. “As a business-to-business (B2B) software-as-a-service (SaaS) company, our business model is subscription-based, and pricing is structured on a per-seat/per-month basis,” he adds. “Further down the line, we will be tackling other aspects of workforce management, which will likely include benefits, leave and attendance, engagement, and learning and development. There will also be additional managed, value-add services that will be charged on a per-use basis. But more importantly, our model is optimized for startups and SMEs.”
Now, with SMEs accounting for 50% of the UAE’s gross domestic product, and the nation itself becoming a global startup hub, catering to this market may well lend significant value to Alfii. “If we can enable our region’s startups and SMEs to deliver people experiences that are just as good as, if not better than, their larger counterparts, then we’ve done our job- the beginning of it, anyway,” Albarqawi adds. The co-founder also makes it clear that a key reason for Alfii to target this specific market is because HR-related hurdles faced by smaller firms are extremely complicated. “Many large organizations are benefiting from enterprise-grade tools, but for most of the 5,000+ startups and 350,000+ SMEs in the UAE, adoption of these tools is still comparatively low,” he says. “On one hand, enterprise-grade solutions are either too complicated and expensive to integrate, they aren’t user-friendly, or they are highly fragmented to the point that a single business could be using up to 40 different tools to manage their workforce. On the other hand, SME-oriented solutions in the region have left a lot of room for disruption. To quote my co-founder, Dina: ‘It’s 2022. Why are people copy-pasting the same stuff every month? It makes me want to cry.'”
Yousef Albarqawi, co-founder and CEO, Alfii. Source: Alfii
That an HR team’s inefficiency often trickles into other areas of an organization is probably a fair assessment. But Mohammad-Laity, the co-founder of Alfii who’s also its Chief Technological Officer, offers a narrative here that isn’t highlighted very often within such a discourse. “We need to understand that what further amplifies the frustration for HR teams is that they actually care deeply about making a difference for people -that’s usually why they pursued a career in HR in the first place- but they rarely get to focus on the most rewarding and gratifying aspects of their job,” she says. “No matter how well-intentioned they are, they keep getting sidelined by paperwork and administrative tasks. By removing repetitive administrative tasks, we’re increasing the amount of time they can spend on meaningful work that is best handled by a human. This meaningful work directly impacts the entire team, due to the people-focused nature.”
Incorporating a human touch thus became a necessary facet of Alfii’s operations. But the key to doing this right lay in leveraging the power of technology wisely, says Mohammad-Laity. “Data is a big part of the way we’re addressing the human element,” she explains. “We’re designing our platform with a powerful back-end that can provide advanced analytics and deep insights surrounding employee satisfaction, engagement levels, and other important metrics to keep a pulse on their people. I like to say that data is the voice of humans at scale, and by designing the product in the way we have, with the development principles we have, we ensure that users’ data is central to how the product works and gets developed over time.”
Dina Mohammad-Laity, co-founder and CTO, Alfii. Source: Alfii
So, how does Alfii reduce the mundane and repetitive tasks for HR teams? “One example is our offering of a self-service experience for employees, wherein instead of asking their HR business partner for official documents (like a salary certificate, for example) or for updates to their personal data, they can help themselves directly through the platform,” Albarqawi says. “One of our favorite features is a customizable drag-and-drop template builder, which simplifies things like offer letters, employment contracts, employee policies, and so on. By integrating e-signatures into the workflow, new joiners and employees can sign documents digitally without leaving the platform. We’re therefore committed to putting out a product that people actually like using -just like our favorite apps- which is why every aspect of the user journey has a human touch; that’s a big part of our DNA as a brand.”
And as per the startup’s co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer Jefferies, the need for such people-centric features has become more significant in the post-pandemic world. “Despite the recent macroeconomic climate leading to layoffs and other challenges for businesses of all sizes and stages, it’s still clear that for companies to remain competitive in today’s work environment, they have to win on talent- and that’s why so many of them are consciously making a shift towards becoming people-centric organizations,” Jefferies says. “It may seem like a buzzword now, but we believe it’s here to stay. And considering most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work, that’s good news for all of us!”
Jefferies’ claims are backed by hard facts, of course. For example, Deloitte’s 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey highlighted that good work, life balance, and learning/development opportunities were now the top priorities when choosing an employer. And if other workplace shifts such as “The Great Resignation” and “quiet quitting” are anything to go by, it is evident that catering to this millennial-majority workforce will require businesses to rethink the human element of things. This, perhaps, is the right time to introduce the other meaning behind the startup’s name. “The word Alfii in Arabic also happens to mean ‘millennial,’ which is soon to be the world’s largest workforce segment,” Albarqawi explains. “The product we’re building is for the future of work that they’ll soon be the biggest part of!”
Becky Jefferies, co-founder and CMO, Alfii. Source: Alfii
Jefferies adds that having two female co-founders at the helm of Alfii is also one of its greatest strengths. “When it comes to how female leadership is helping to shape things at Alfii, one of the first things I would point to is the empathy factor,” she says. “Empathy is often viewed as one of the ‘superpowers’ women bring to the table, and given the importance of letting customer feedback drive product development, this gives us an edge that we’re constantly leaning into. We’ve spoken to hundreds of HR leaders across many different geographies, and being able to listen to, understand and relate to their pain points and challenges plays a big role in shaping our product offering. With that insight, we can purposefully design the platform for what HR teams need the most.”
With a public launch now right around the corner, the co-founding trio hope to see all their plans for Alfii convert into tangible results very soon. “Alfii’s ultimate vision is to help businesses build a more connected, higher-performing, and happier workforce,” Albarqawi says. “We want to do that by building the most user-centric and comprehensive people experience platform. It’s a big product vision that we intend to build well, and fast!”