Employee engagement is described as the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace, and the extent to which they are emotionally invested in the success of the business. Engaged employees have a clear understanding of how their talent and energy adds value to their team and advances the goals of the organisation.  

A panel discussion at the 2022 Trialogue Business in Society Conference reflected on the art of employee engagement, and how it can contribute to organisational culture, motivation and sustainable value creation. 

Panellists included Gaopalelwa Mothoagae from Sasol, Rohan Sarma, knowledge and research head at India-based Samhita Social Ventures, and Trialogue director Cathy Duff. 

Engaging employees during difficult times 

Organisations in both the private and non-profit sectors have experienced challenging times in the past couple of years. In addition to Covid-19, the world has witnessed economic decline, natural disasters, social unrest and rising geopolitical tensions. This has resulted in pressure on employees and an increase in anxiety and other mental health challenges, negatively impacting employee engagement. The absence of personal interaction, given the shift to work-from-home arrangements, has also played a big role in eroding employee engagement. 

Duff provided context to this decline in employee engagement by sharing insights from research conducted by Trialogue in partnership with non-profit organisation forgood. In addition to surveying companies and non-profits organisations, the study included employees as respondents.  

Findings show that, while over 70% of large companies have employee volunteering programmes, many of these programmes shut down following the outbreak of Covid-19. Some companies would go on to introduce new online programmes while others shifted their existing volunteering programmes to virtual volunteering. This further impacted the levels of employee engagement.  

 Lessons from Sasol 

Gaopalelwa Mothoagae acknowledged the difficult times corporates and their employees have experienced. She then shared insights from Sasol, documenting the steps taken by the business to ensure an engaged workforce.  

She highlighted how the business began by reflecting on how it wants to show up for its stakeholders including employees, communities and government. “We took the time over the last couple of years to redefine our values to redefine our culture,” she explained.  

Mothoagae emphasised that in order to effectively engage employees, it is important to listen to them. Within Sasol, the tone is set right at the top, from the CEO through to various executive vice-presidents and down to the lowest level. “This allows us to cascade messaging down to our employees and ensure they are consistently engaged with our values and strategy,” she concluded.  

Insights from India 

India is an emerging market with many similarities to South Africa. The insights shared by Rohan Sarma presented an opportunity for practitioners in South Africa to reflect on employee engagement from a global perspective, without losing touch with the local context.  

Sarma began by echoing sentiments shared by the other panellists, highlighting the high levels of uncertainty in the operating environment. “I think this is very important for us to understand how this particular climate is changing the way business engages with society” he said. Sarma argued that it is important for practitioners to start talking about the science of employee engagement. This entails moving away from ad hoc employee engagement programmes to an evidence-based approach built on systems and a clear understanding of the interests and aspirations of employees. “Only then can employee engagement be sustainable,” he added.  

Sarma then cited research conducted over several decades by Gallop in the United States, which shows how employee engagement leads to increased business performances, which leads to increased profitability, productivity and customer loyalty.  

He concluded by highlighting that volunteering needs to be integrated with organisational functions, drawing examples from the public sector in India, where companies have risen to the occasion and have very elaborate employee volunteering programmes. “Some of them have employee clubs and other employees have even gone on to start their own non-profit organisations,” he added.  

Similarities can be drawn with South Africa and Sasol in particular, whose employees have also begun implementing initiatives that align with their personal values and enable them to remain in touch with their communities. 

Lessons for corporates 

  • Findings from the research conducted by Trialogue and forgood show that although many employees have not volunteered since 2020, nine out of 10 of them will be volunteering again in the future. 
  • Findings also show that the volunteering resulted in employees having a positive perception of their companies. Some 90% of employees that said they would recommend the company or its products services, and that the volunteering initiatives initiated by their company made them proud to work there. 
  • While there have been setbacks on the volunteering side, employees are expecting to engage again. In order for this engagement to be meaningful, corporates need to ensure an evidence-based approach and invest in the quality of engagement. 
  • For employee engagement to be effective, there need to be multiple levels of engagement with employees, and corporates should listen to employees through various platforms including surveys, ‘town hall’ meetings and regular internal communications. 
  • Evidence shows that the biggest driver of employee engagement is through effective management of the employee’s relationship with their direct managers. It is therefore important that employee engagement and messaging be channelled through managers. 

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