Hannah Ashiokai Akrong, Vodafone Ghana’s HR Director, provides an insight into the ‘Spirit of Vodafone’ and how she keeps employee engagement ridi...
The ‘Spirit of Vodafone’ shines brightly in Ghana for both its employees and customers who are both navigating the ‘new normal’ brought on by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Hannah Ashiokai Akrong’s role as Human Resources Director of Vodafone Ghana finds her at the centre of keeping employees and clients connected as they all learn to work and live in a new landscape shaped by the pandemic and driven by digital technology.
Communication lies at the core of Vodafone Ghana which was launched 12 years ago and is the operating company of Vodafone Group Plc - one of the world’s leading technology communications companies.
Ashiokai said the digital transformation that Vodafone Ghana had been putting in place before the pandemic is now a ‘lifesaver’ for the company and its customers.
“When we started our transformation journey, it was about looking at our technology, our people, our systems, our processes so a lot of the things that we started putting in place have now been a lifesaver,” she said.
Vodafone is the only total communications solutions provider offering mobile, fixed lines, internet, voice and data and is currently the telecom company of choice for Ghanaians. It is the second-ranked operator in terms of market share in the sector and acquired 70 per cent shares in Ghana telecom with the government retaining 30 per of the shares.
When we started our transformation journey, it was about looking at our technology, our people, our systems, our processes so a lot of the things that we started putting in place have now been a lifesaver.
As a corporate body, the company is constantly building key relationships with the private sector, such as Glico Healthcare, and government as it continues to build the kind of innovative and responsive service for which the Vodafone Group is recognised worldwide.
“We're a fully fledged technology communications company that provides fixed lines, mobile voice, data, internet and mobile financial services to both individuals and business customers,” said Ashiokai from the company’s headquarters in Accra.
“We're a very purpose-led, driven organisation. Our business strategy includes a clear commitment to removing the barriers to digital access across the country and leveraging the power of technology through our networks and services to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as our strategic priorities.
“We have a very strong band for diversity and inclusion and celebrated International Women’s Day with a week of celebrations. Vodafone Ghana is very inclusive, especially towards giving women opportunities.
“To encourage more women into the industry we have an initiative called the Female Engineering Students Sponsorship Program (FESSP). Every year we partner with various universities across Ghana and to support young girls studying science and engineering programs in their third year. We pay the tuition and provide mentors within Vodafone Ghana and then give them an internship before they return for their final year.
“Through programs like that we're able to ensure that we have a healthy pipeline of female engineers who are coming into the organisation,” she said.
As an experienced HR Director, Ashiokai, who oversees a team of 28 and the welfare of more than 2,000 employees, recognises that your ‘employees are truly your greatest assets’.
“First of all, we hire the best in terms of fit and purpose and then we provide that enabling environment where they can develop their career and then thrive. We do that by providing a workplace where everyone can be themselves, a very inclusive culture. We constantly challenge our people and give them the opportunity to learn and grow in a really fast paced environment as innovation is a game changer.
“Employee engagement is extremely important for us. Our employee engagement scores continue to be above industry standards. That is because we take a very active interest in what our employees tell us. We do employee engagement surveys often and we act on them.
“We have this program called #YouSaidWeDid. I think that helps a lot in getting employees constantly to voice their thoughts knowing that something is going to be done about it.
“We have some of the best employee benefits including a four months parental leave policy for both males and females. This policy, which is first of its kind in the country, was rolled out in the past year. We also have a domestic violence policy, which gives employees who are in domestic violence type situations the right to take up to two weeks paid leave to seek help or deal with the situation.”
Ashiokai also pointed out that they also have the Vodafone Foundation, which is the corporate social responsibility (CSR) arm of the company, and known for really world-class programs such as Instant Schools and Healthline TV program.
“We have an initiative we call Kindred Month in which employees can bring a project from their communities that they want to support,” said Ashiokai who is sponsoring a maternity ward which has had the same beds for 33 years. “One of the employees was actually born on one of those beds,” she said.
“I truly believe this rallies our employees around our culture, spirit and provides a real sense of pride at belonging to the organisation.”
Connecting with employees during COVID-19
Vodafone Ghana acted fast to ensure their employees worked remotely when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country in February 2020. Staff were equipped with all the necessary tools to carry out their jobs and managers were trained in ‘deliberate check-ins’ to ensure the employees understood their weekly and monthly goals.
“We provided constant check-ins just to make sure that everybody was on track and stepped in when they needed help,” said Ashiokai.
“Mental wellbeing has become a key issue with employees working remotely. We put in place various webinars where a psychologist would talk to our employees and answer their questions.
“Our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) has been very important during this time, a confidential resource that employees can get the help they need.. To let our hair down, we have a virtual social hour where we enjoy comedy nights, virtual parties, cookery lessons or movie nights.”
According to Ashiokai the accelerated digital journey triggered by the pandemic created opportunities to use more innovative software.
“From an HR perspective, one of the transformations was the sourcing, interviewing and hiring of staff through HireVue which is a video hiring software tool which basically cuts down the process by about a half,” she said. We implemented that a few years back and it has been so useful during the pandemic.
“For me, it's all about making the employee experience and the candidates experience as smooth as possible, commented Ashiokai who has also used
Microsoft Teams, Skype and Facebook Workplace as collaborative tools.
Another excellent platform is Vodafone University which is a virtual university offering courses for employees development on everything from HR to Supply Chain. “I think all the technology that we put in place initially has now come together and is helping our employees work seamlessly from home or remotely.
“Vodafone, I am very proud to say, is a multi-award-winning organisation. We picked 21 awards last year including the Telecoms Company of the Year, and Brand of the Year at the Ghana Business Awards (GBA). Our CEO also emerged the Telecom CEO of Year at the Ghana Information Technology and Telecommunications Awards (GITTA)
Support for the community
Although Ashiokai mostly focuses on the internal HR side of Vodafone Ghana she is keen to highlight how the company has externally supported the community during the pandemic.
Vodafone was involved in the government contact tracing initiative and waived transfer charges for cashless payments through Vodafone cash at a time when people could not move due to lockdown.
“We haven't brought back those charges - a lot of work has been industry first which I am very proud of,” she said.
“Very early on, we set about looking at how we could support the communities in which we operate. We've done a lot of expansion and future-proofing of our network infrastructure and increased the network capacity to support that as there was a 50 per cent rise in data with people working from home and children doing virtual school from home.
“We also accelerated support for e-education by providing lots of free learning platforms and zero rated a lot of access to educational sites to give opportunities for the less privileged. We also promoted a widespread digital adoption for small and medium scale businesses.”
Partnership with Glico Healthcare
As employees faced the physical and mental challenges of working remotely during the pandemic, Ashiokai said the partnership with Glico Healthcare had become more important than ever.
“In the beginning everyone had so many questions about COVID-19 so Glico Healthcare sent their doctors to give a weekly talk including Q&A’s sessions to our employees which was really helpful and helped ease anxiety.
“We also sought their help in developing our corporate protocols and then when we had some employees who were affected by COVID, they helped us navigate the healthcare system and national protocols that had been put into place.
“We still periodically call on them to provide their expertise for what we call our HR Learning Series. That's a quarterly session with our employees on various topics from dealing with stress to other mental health and physical wellbeing issues. We really couldn't have asked for better partners at this difficult time and we appreciate their tremendous support.”
Future of the physical workplace
Vodafone Ghana is now focusing on the future of work and maneuvering the opportunities and challenges that it poses..
“It will be especially challenging for new employees who haven't had the opportunity to be in the office and see how employees interact and engage around our culture,” said Ashiokai.
“We see post-COVID as not fully going back to what we saw as normal, the majority of the time spent in the office. We are looking at the office more for collaboration, engagement activities and for new employees who need more supervision. It will also be used for teams to innovate as being face-to-face helps us better bounce ideas off each other. For us the future will probably be a combination of working from the office and remotely.”
How would you sum up life for an HR expert before and after the COVID-19 pandemic?
“I would say the opportunities and challenges that having the majority of your workforce working remotely bring. That's something we're dealing with now and need to address concretely as well post-COVID.”
A company is only as good as its employees. Could you sum this up from your experience at Vodafone Ghana?
“I believe it was Richard Branson, owner of Virgin, who said this. If employees are 100 per cent proud of the work they're doing, the developmental opportunities that you give them and if you give them the necessary tools to do their work, they will be proud of the brand which will ultimately impact revenue and growth.”
What advice would you give a prospective HR Director in the new normal?
“HR is at the centre of organisational change - so the agenda is led by us. Looking at the employee journey from hire to retire, we need to look at our systems and processes and make them more agile to improve the employee experience.
“We need to simplify a lot of our HR practices such as recruiting, onboarding, performance management and compensation and rewards and use the current digital tools that are available to bring a really rewarding employee and ultimately customer experience.”