How two of Africa’s top companies keep their employees happy

With Google’s headquarters featuring a bowling alley, and software makers SAS Institute allowing unlimited sick days, what are companies in Africa doing to keep their employees happy?

MTN’s headquarters in Johannesburg

The CRF Institute’s annual Best Employers Certification Index for 2012/13 has recently identified financial services firm Old Mutual and telecommunications giant MTN as two of South Africa’s top employers. Both companies also have a presence in the rest of the continent.

So what makes a top employer? How we made it in Africa posed this question to Old Mutual and MTN to find out how businesses in Africa can become better employers.

Retaining, developing and sourcing skills

One of the vital issues facing businesses on the African continent is how to retain skilled employees. According to Themba Nyathi, the group human resources executive for MTN South Africa, the company segments its staff based on skill. “For example, we have categories for specialists and mission critical jobs,” explained Nyathi. “Each category gets paid differently based on employee segmentation. Skilled specialist staff gets paid higher than their managers.”

Old Mutual’s human resources director, Anisha Archary, said that the company also offers global career opportunities and facilities that make it possible for their employees to perform to the best of their ability. “Developing and retaining the best talent is so crucial to the company’s growth strategy that we look five years down the road to see what talent will be required. In addition, the top executive team holds talent discussions about employees from middle management and above. Potential high fliers are identified and placed on international development programmes and other leadership initiatives.”

Both companies also offer a variety of skills development programmes for their employees. “There is an abundance of opportunities for staff to improve their skills and broaden their knowledge. Training and development are delivered through the Old Mutual Business School, and opportunities to work abroad abound,” said Archary. “Old Mutual Emerging Markets’ growth strategy has led to a sharpened focus on talent identification, development and retention. With growth comes the demand for talented people to execute those growth strategies and for seamless transitions at management level as we expand… Through the Old Mutual Business School you can learn about anything from conflict management to how to speak Mandarin. Employees with leadership potential are invited to attend international development programmes.”

MTN also places emphasis on developing current employee skills. “We have the biggest graduate programme within the telecoms sector. We also have an extensive bursary programme for specialist skills,” said Nyathi. “We also send staff to highly specialist courses in Europe, China and India. Each staff member has a career path.”

Employee compensation

So, other than money, how do Old Mutual and MTN compensate their employees? For starters, both offer a variety of lifestyle benefits and packages that they can structure to their needs.

“Staff can choose how to structure leave, bonuses, work from home, and six months fully paid maternity leave,” said Nyathi. “Free food in the canteens and international job rotation programmes [are also offered].”

Old Mutual has an annual short-term incentive bonus, based on company and personal performance, which all employees are eligible for. According to Lynn Barbour, executive head for reward at Old Mutual Emerging Markets, there is now one variable pay pool across the entire emerging markets business. “Our strong variable pay component is based on the principle of sharing of success. As the business becomes successful, our employees share in that success.”

“The company offers its employees flexible working hours, medical aid, life assurance, retirement funding, maternity benefits as well as counselling and a wellbeing programme,” added Archary. “At its largest centre in Cape Town, supporting infrastructure includes a crèche, gym, canteen, shopping mall, sports facilities and access to financial services advice. We also have flagship workplace recognition programmes that every year rewards about 20 outstanding client-facing employees in customer services with a trip to Disney World.”

Old Mutual’s long-term incentives are paid in the form of shares, which are available to managers and also through the Black Economic Empowerment share scheme.

Working environment

Other than the perks and facilities offered, both companies have their own unique working culture, which they believe benefits their employees. Nyathi said that MTN embraces a highly informal less hierarchical structure, where there is less managerial control and formalities. “MTN’s culture is that of high innovation, ideas incubator and great personal freedom to generate the best processes and ideas. We established such a culture out of feedback from staff members. MTN is a leader in the ICT sector and in order to survive one has to embrace a culture that promotes less structures to facilitate the flow of ideas.”

Nyathi added that MTN has a very young technical workforce, offices with open space seating, flexible working hours, and “highly modern buildings with excellent rest places”.

According to Old Mutual’s Archary, the company’s open-plan facilities emphasises a teamwork environment. “Open debate is actively encouraged. For example, we regularly run café conversations across different parts of the business to ensure employees have a voice in our people practices.”