Picture: 123RF/mklrnt
Picture: 123RF/mklrnt

For those of us with cushy office jobs who began working from home when Covid-19 hit, managers and owners of the firms we work for have many ways to reach us.

Overnight, Zoom transformed into the premier pandemic social network. Workers, students and even yoga teachers no longer arrange a meeting on a video call. That has been replaced with "I’ll Zoom you", as the app becomes the latest product to become a verb.

Yet communication platforms the world over serve mostly white-collar workers. What about blue-collar workers, for whom video conferencing or even e-mail are not options?

The pandemic gave us all a chance to celebrate and appreciate the work of frontline health, agriculture, transport and retail workers. But how do employees in sectors such as these stay engaged with managers and employers?

Already, many corporates are not good with communication. In SA, where volatile labour relations are an unfortunate reality, the trend is no different. Ralph Hamann, a professor at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, cites a breakdown in communication as one of the primary reasons for the 2012 Marikana tragedy and the subsequent platinum strike that shut down roughly 40% of the world’s platinum supply and cost the SA economy about R24bn.

There is a vast difference between workers who have a strong link with their employers and those who don’t. US analytics and management consulting firm Gallup says engaged employees "work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organisation forward."

Gallup says the average level of engagement among employees worldwide is a mere 15%.

Tech firm Wyzetalk hopes to bridge that gap. CEO Gys Kappers says direct communication with frontline and blue-collar workers can help to reduce the costs of absenteeism, staff turnover and low productivity for companies, while increasing engagement and improving morale.

Maintaining engagement with workers who have become the mainstay of the economy during the lockdown has become more important than ever. Kappers says a CEO recording a short video clip which is sent to workers can help to make employees feel a lot more involved, going against the disengaged nature of much of the world’s corporate communications.

Wyzetalk is a communication platform between employers and employees, specifically blue-collar workers who don’t typically have corporate e-mail addresses. This is the market the company is working to reach, through the millions of mobile devices that South Africans carry with them each day.

Other tech players seem to have realised the importance of large-scale but direct communication.

Notwithstanding a traditionally rocky relationship with drivers, ride-hailing platforms Uber and Bolt should be credited for having a direct line of communication built into their interface.

Gareth Taylor, country manager for Bolt, tells the FM the company uses the app for communication about safety and other issues with its network of more than 10,000 drivers across SA.

Samantha Fuller, Uber’s head of communications in Sub-Saharan Africa, says it has "several avenues for drivers to provide feedback and drivers have a number of other channels available to engage with Uber, including in-app support".

Unlike Uber and Bolt, some local companies with large workforces have chosen to outsource their communication to Wyzetalk.

The business, founded in 2012 and headquartered in the Netherlands, has about 650,000 users through its clients, which include miners De Beers and Anglo American. It operates in 20 countries, eight of which are in Africa.

However, its core business is in SA. Its platform was developed locally. Outside of mining, retailers Shoprite, Woolworths and Pick n Pay use the platform, as do RCL Foods, Pioneer Foods and Sun International.

Covid-19 increased demand for Wyzetalk’s services, says Kappers. Pre-pandemic, it had 5-million to 6-million communication sessions a month between employers and employees. This increased to 13-million during the lockdown.

The business hopes to secure funds to grow its footprint.

"We’re looking at a $10m-$15m capital raise in the first quarter of 2021," says Kappers, who was previously employed at Old Mutual.

He says the 2.5-billion frontline and non-desk workers around the world are its target market. In SA, Wyzetalk doesn’t really have a direct competitor; US-based SocialChorus is probably its biggest rival globally.

So far the company has received investment from Remgro’s venture and growth capital division, Invenfin, as well as Netherlands-based CNBB Venture Partners.

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