Ramadan: Adapting Business through the Holy Month

Ramadan is set to start in the Muslim world on Tuesday 9th July 2013. 1.6 billion people, 23% of the world’s population will be greeting the holy month. Of these the majority will be observing 30 days of fasting and religious observations. Muslims feature much more at work today, whether in the same office or through dealing with countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and many more.

Fasting is usually the primary association with Ramadan; however the month involves a lot more exertion than refraining from food and water during daylight hours. Extra prayers, late nights and a heightened emphasis on patience and virtue are all part of experiencing the holy month which marks the month in which the Quran was revealed.

People outside the religion may see the annual observance as ‘business not as usual’. However, in truth business does continue. What is important is to understand the changes and new cycles people switch to as a result of Ramadan and how you can adapt your working practices to ensure any communication you need still happens. Not all Muslims will fast during Ramadan. The ill, pregnant, young, traveller and others are exempt. It would be safe however to assume that most adults, especially working adults, will be fasting.

Mainly due the fast, the working day almost gets flipped 180 degrees during Ramadan. Observants awake before dawn for breakfast. Prayers are read and depending on where in the world and what time it is, one may start their day or return to sleep. Companies, government and other organisations may change their working days as a result. The working day may start very early and finish in the early afternoon. This allows people to pray their afternoon prayers, sleep or stay out of the heat.

At sunset, people “break” their fast. This usually involves a quick meal, followed by prayer and then another meal or refreshments. Satiated and energised it is common for people to then go back to work for the evening. Nights are spent in the mosque for a special nightly congregational prayer.

And so the routine goes for 30 days other than the last 10 days which are seen as the most special third of the month. People tend to dedicate more of the night to extra prayers or deeds. In some countries and/or sectors, the last 10 days can even be given as compulsory holiday to ensure you engage with the last 10 days properly.

The month ends with the Eid ul-Fitr festival which is a holiday for 3 days but in many countries becomes a lot more extended. During this period, work stops in the majority of sectors especially government, education and public services.

It’s important to bear in mind that we are looking at a span of countries ranging from Morocco to Malaysia and everything in between and around it. Not every country will change to it in the same way. In Turkey you shouldn’t be surprised if see a local in Istanbul munching on a pizza at lunchtime; in Saudi Arabia it would be unheard of. In some countries, the education system changes the working day or holidays around fasting times, in others not. It’s always best to approach each country individually and find out a bit more from people you work with these how things might change.

If you work with the Muslim world it’s important to understand how to adapt your won working practices if there are goals or objectives you need to meet during the month. Through forward planning you will be able to still get the best out of people as long as you appreciate the changes. Here are tips for those thinking about travelling during Ramadan and for those that work remotely with clients or colleagues in the Muslim world.

7 Tips for Business Travellers

1. Respect that people are fasting; this goes beyond mere acknowledgment. Not eating, drinking, smoking or even chewing a gum in front of people is respectful. There will be places to eat such as restaurants or if you need to eat in the office, just be discreet. If you are offered a drink at a meeting assess what others are doing. If it appears most or all are fasting, politely decline.

2. The purpose of fasting is not met unless the person also reads his/her prayers; punctuality and congregational prayers become more the norm. Therefore be aware that meetings will be worked around if near the midday (zuhr) and afternoon (asr) prayers. This might impact when you can arrange meetings or result in interruptions or shortened meetings. Make sure any meetings you arrange are very early morning or in the evening.

3. It is wise re-confirm business meetings a day ahead or even on the day itself, even if it was scheduled only a few days previous. There could be a number of reasons why people could be late or have to reschedule plans. You may not be able to prevent the meeting being cancelled but you can still make your day productive. Plan B should always be ready. No matter how frustrating, don’t show it. Politely ask when the meeting can be rearranged.

4. Avoid travelling to Muslim countries with an aim serious or pressing objective during the last 10-12 days of the holy month. There are 2 main reasons: a) people are generally tired and feeling the effects of fasting, and b) the last 10 days are somewhat a “write off” as people dedicate themselves further to extra prayers and activities. Business grinds and people’s priorities turn away from work. Do anything you need to do in the first 2 weeks or after Eid u-fitr.

5. You may find that during Ramadan, where you once wore more casual clothing that the need to dress more modestly becomes apparent. Women especially should ensure they dress conservatively according to local norms and expectations.

6. Although it’s never a good idea, avoid any sort of heated discussions. Fasting for anywhere between 10-15 hours a day (depending on which time zone you are travelling to) requires lot of mental and physical strength and this does leave people feeling weak. No matter how much you want to vent your feelings, swallow them as otherwise it will lead to damaged relationships and loss of face.

7. If someone invites you for Iftar (the meal when the fast is broken), accept it. This shows a relationship is there to be built.  Expect a feast and not just a meal. It’s part of the Muslim religion to feed guests well and refusing to eat would simply be inconsiderate. Use this time as an opportunity to find out more about your host and Ramadan. It will serve you well.

An as an extra tip, if you are going out to meet people you are keen to build or cement relationships with, take them something sweet and traditional from your country. Whether biscuits, sweets of chocolate, offering it as a gift for them to celebrate Ramadan will win you lots of gold stars.

7 Tips for those Working Remotely

1. If you work with a team remotely in a country where fasting will take place, ask them to explain their revised working hours or to outline any possible changes to their practices. It’s highly unlikely that their performance and working hours would stay same during Ramadan, even if they plan it to be so. If managing remotely, show some flexibility if possible in changing their routines to get the best out of them during the day.

2. Work out time zones and any potential clashes. Since remote colleagues or clients are dispersed across the globe, expect them to be more productive during the early hours of the day and schedule important tasks accordingly. Skype meetings/calls should be made during early hours of the day to make most of their relatively higher energy levels. If you used to communicate at a time which is now their sunset, make sure you change things quick.

3. Be aware that deadlines and priorities change very easily in many parts of the Muslim world. This is normal outside of Ramadan and can be more concerning during the month when working times are out of sync leading to sparse communication. Try and plan ahead, confirming and communicating but always having a contingency plan.

4. If emails are not responded to, it isn’t out of discourtesy. If it’s more important, they are more likely to delay until a time they can properly consider their response. Do not feel surprised or obliged to reply if you receive emails in the early hours of the morning. People tend to stay up late and will often spend some time doing bits of work. The expectation is not there for you to reply there and then.

5. If you work to SLAs with your remote team, agree before Ramadan how those will continue to be met. Ramadan doesn’t mean “business as not usual” so communicate with your team or client how any changes or strategies will be used to ensure targets are still met.

6. It’s good to consider last 10 days of Ramadan and of course the Eid celebrations as the least productive. Look ahead at any milestones, tasks or meetings set in this timeframe and either delay, bring forward or re-frame them to avoid unwanted outcomes.

7. Patience is a virtue; if communication gets frustrating, inconsistent or lacks outcomes, remain patient. Do not demonstrate any negative feelings and avoid direct communication of these in conversation. It’s important to show you are flexible by working with your counterpart to solve challenges or issues. Understanding is expected.

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