S02 E04: Manager-driven Employee Engagement in New-age Organizations

Soumya Samuel
15 min read

In this brand-new episode of CultureClub, we chat with Soniya Goel, Lead – Learning & Development (L&D) and Organizational Development (OD) at Emami Agrotech Limited. Soniya brings with her over a decade of experience in the HR space and in this discussion touches upon the various ways in which managers contribute to engagement and discusses means to bridge the manager-driven engagement gap in new-age organizational formats.

Prior to Emami, Soniya worked with Maple Consulting Services and Aditya Birla Group. She has, in the span of her career, been actively involved in talent management, recruitment, learning & development, and more.

In our 30-minute interaction with her, Soniya shed light on how everything in HR is subject to suitability to an organization. There is never a one-size-fits-all. And she emphasizes this by saying that even though organizations without managers is a reality across various sectors, this doesn’t mean that this is the new-age organizational format that every company needs to follow. She goes on to suggest that every organization, regardless of the trend, should be able to choose an organizational structure that works best for them.

Furthermore, she talks about the difference in physical and digital workspaces while pointing out the pros and cons in both setups. For instance, while water-cooler conversations may have gone redundant, the stringent personal and professional boundaries are blurring in the digital setup, which can be seen as a good thing. In the same context, she added that empathy from managers has become one of the top expected qualities in the COVID era and rightly so. However, how much of these changes are here to stay and be the new normal, only time will tell.

To listen to the entire conversation with Soniya and the valuable insights she has to share, tune in to the episode right here. And for those of you who worry that they don’t have the time right away, just plug in and listen up whenever you are taking a much deserved break from work!


Senthil [00:00:30] Hi all, this is Senthil and this is CultureClub powered by CultureMonkey. We are interviewing a lot of people leaders, and this time, we are targeting the topic of the evolving role of the managers. Thanks a lot, Soniya and Ketan for joining today. Before we get to the actual session, I want to give a quick introduction of CultureMonkey. CultureMonkey is a full-stack employee engagement platform. It can be well talked about with a story of how it got created.

Senthil [00:01:05] I was an engineer for more than 10-11 years and I have worked across cities globally. I saw this engagement and culture as a problem in all my stints. Wherever I went, my point of view with the managers was not taken seriously and with all the multiple feedback sessions that I had with all my managers and the leaders, nothing moved. There was no anonymity for me to be open about what's going on and even if I managed to communicate, there was no action. It almost felt like all my feedback went into a black hole and there was never any closure and traceability.

Senthil [00:01:47] I always realized that happy employees deliver their maximum productivity. But I was not able to communicate this with all the managers I worked with. I just lost hope in this process. In 2017, I met Joseph, (the co-founder of CultureMonkey & Effy)  and we started a software consultancy company. We worked with a lot of smart engineers. We were very successful at work. We started to ask ourselves, why is this working? How is this working? We arrived at the fact that there is zero attrition of customers and employees. We were able to make every stakeholder happy in our company.

Senthil [00:02:41] That's when we realized our strength is our culture. So we said, why don't we take this and scale it? From a software consultancy company, we wanted to create SaaS software. We knew that we have to build a culture software. In 2018, we co-founded CultureMonkey. Now, we work with a lot of enterprise clients. It's so fulfilling to realize that we can solve the same problem that I faced with more than seventy-five thousand unique employees and we have more than 2.5 million individual data points in just two years. With all the data points that we had, we arrived at this particular theme where engagement can be personalized only by managers.

Senthil [00:03:35] So that is why this season we have this topic of the evolving role of managers. And while we were doing all this, we realized we were always technical folks and advanced in that aspect, but last year we realized that only technology cannot solve this problem. We need to associate ourselves with a lot of people leaders, people scientists and culture champions. That's when we met Ketan and we've learned a lot in terms of the problems that are going on in all these organizations. That's the story of CultureMonkey, CultureClub and how we are here. So back to you Ketan. Let's get this started. I'm very excited about all the great points that Soniya is going to talk about today.

Ketan [00:04:48] Thank you so much, Senthil. I remember when I used the CultureMonkey product and that's when I thought I can add value there. Thank you so much and Soniya, special thanks to you. We've been trying to work this schedule for the last few months. And finally, we've been able to grab you. For our audience a little bit about Sonia. Right now she is the lead L&D and OD at Emami Agrotech Limited. She's based out of Calcutta. Prior to that, she worked with Maple consulting services, I think this was also in Calcutta. And prior to that, she had a long stint with the Aditya Birla group across multiple roles.

Ketan [00:05:33] My connection with Soniya takes me back to 2006 when we both joined ABG from Campus. Soniya is an alumnus of SCMHRD 2006, and that's where we bumped into each other. We were the first two people in the first batch to reach and be sent to the flagship plant, which is Hindalco, Renukoot. So that's where we had a good interaction. We had a common boss and worked on a common project. We had a tremendous two months exposure in the plant and then I continued in retail and she continued with the head office.

Ketan [00:06:11] Then Soniya joined Ultratech in the group itself. Then she moved within the group in the young talent management portfolios. So basically she started managing people like me, the entire portfolio at the group level and then she went on a break and now she's back here. Thank you so much for joining. For our audience, we could begin with a little bit more about you and your organization and your role.

Soniya [00:06:57] Thank you, Ketan and Senthil for having me here today and as you said, we've been trying to work out a date for some time and the pleasure is all mine that finally we are doing this. I'm glad that you are the one on the other side asking me questions. I couldn't have summarized my journey better than what you have already done. After a break, I have got back to the corporate world and I am happy to be associated with Emami Agrotech Limited.

Soniya [00:07:45] There are very few organizations that look at candidate post-break only on merit. So that is what this organization did for me and I am glad to be able to represent them and talk to you all about the experience that I've had with the organization in the last year. Currently, I lead the L&D and OD verticals within the HR functions for Emami Agrotech. I also take care of campus hiring, which has always been a constant in my life. So that's about me.

Ketan [00:08:26] So that brings me straight to the first question. The topic today and the theme that is running right now is about sustaining and growing employee engagement and the evolving role of managers. The first question that we have for you is, do you think that organizations without managers could be a reality of the future?

Soniya [00:09:08] Let me start by busting that belief right here Ketan. It is no longer a reality that could be possible in future, it is already there. Maybe not so much in the Indian context, but if you do basic research around it, there are enough and more organizations that are already working on a format where they do not have any managers in the organization. What is even more interesting is you find these organizations across sectors.

Soniya [00:09:44] A gaming organization that is more commonly recognizable to us as the makers of Counter-Strike have been following this model for years. In the manufacturing sector, there is an organization called Morningstar which deals with tomato processing and they also follow this model. Many organizations have been doing it very successfully for quite some time. This is not a recent phenomenon. However, it is not widely practised. Currently, it is still a minority organization structure. Not pervasive in terms of sector and geography. So that is one part of it.

Soniya [00:10:51] There is no one size fits all kind of structure. So we cannot say that this is the kind of structure that is the reality of the future. It may be a reality for some people. I mean, how can we say that this is what works for my organization. To make that decision, we need to see what it is that a manager brings to the table. You take a step back and answer that basic question and then see whether an organization can make do without those things.

Soniya [00:11:44]  For example, a manager to my mind wears different hats. Not only the person could be a coach or a mentor to the team, but the person will also bring a much more mature and experienced point of view to almost everything. He is a person who shows direction at a very broad level. The manager in some cases is also a stock keeper or gatekeeper to see whether we are aligned. So that is a more transactional role of manager day-to-day. At the personal level, reward and recognition is also something that the manager touches. A good word from our manager is probably the most powerful tool for motivation.

Soniya [00:12:34] So to that extent, those are the things that a manager does bring to the table. If you look at these organizations who are following the new management structure, they do find other ways to channelize these things. So that's the question that every organization needs to ask themselves and see whether that structure works for them.

Ketan [00:12:57] Interesting, so things that I'm gathering from your conversation is, one you are saying companies across geographies and various industries are doing it. Second, what I hear you say is, this has to be contextual and the most important piece you are saying is organizations need to define what they expect out of the manager of that role.

Ketan [00:13:46] Why do you think that the world has been divided on the impact a manager has on employee engagement? I remember in my first stint with the Aditya Birla Group, we were doing an organizational health study and the Gallup report popped up saying that 70% of people leave because of their managers. While that has been a Gallup data, I've been trying to tell that and drill it down to the organization. But still, I've seen organizations where engagement becomes a headache of HR folks. So why do you think the world has been divided on the impact the manager has on employee engagement?

Soniya [00:14:32] So the public opinion of the world is divided on almost everything, Ketan. So there are two sides to every coin. On a serious note, every narrative has a context. The narrative can differ depending on the context that we are coming from. My context says to see what the manager can do to impact employee engagement. Let us look at what are the facets of employee engagement that a manager can tap.

Soniya [00:15:25]  An individual is there in an organization to work. So the question that would come from the employee engagement point of view will always be, why am I here? So that definition of why is best defined by the manager in terms of the work context and connection. What is it that I am doing here which translates into a defined role? What is expected of you in terms of timelines and deliverables? All of these are best defined by a manager. Again, In terms of engagement, reward and recognition are the basic pillars of engagement.

Soniya [00:16:13] A manager may not be able to help in the reward part, but in terms of recognition, the manager can do a lot. It need not be tangible in terms of a certificate, a simple appreciation can achieve far more than an annual recognition. So a manager can tap the recognition part of engagement very well. I'm having a series of conversations with our high potential talent within the organization, and the common thread that I see emerging from these conversations is, we are very happy with the leadership.

Soniya [00:17:21] It also translates into personal and professional growth for them. All these ties back to the basic tenets of engagement and your manager are the face of the engagement in any organization. So to that extent, the world may be divided. I am clear that the manager is very pivotal to employee engagement.

Ketan [00:18:01] Last year has changed many of the philosophies that people were carrying about how organizations work and how people work, especially with the world going remote. My sense is we don't have answers to most of them as of now. It'll evolve with time, new theories and philosophies would come into place. But do you think that these recent changes in the workplaces, especially with the workplace going overly digital has impacted the expectation of leaders with the managers in the organization? Do you think there has been a shift in the expectation from managers in the digital world?

Soniya [00:19:00] When we speak about the digitization of the workspace, we need to break it up. The widespread digitization was forced and became necessary because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having said that, we have to look at digitization in the context of COVID-19. We also need to look at it as something that will probably be here to stay in the post-covid era. In the backdrop of the pandemic, the employees do expect more empathy from the manager and the leadership team. Empathy has emerged as a strong need.

Soniya [00:20:09] My current manager often says that this is the first time the organization is concerned about what is happening in the employee's family to a large degree. Never have people asked these questions in the past. So, that has been posed by the pandemic. In the post-covid era, some of it will be there to stay, for example, organizations would want to continue work from home, at least partially.

Soniya [00:21:03] So in that aspect, the organization's expectations from a manager don't change. I mean, the bottom line is, we need the results to be there and the deliverables to be met. It doesn't matter whether you work at a physical workspace or a digitized workspace, the results will remain the same. That basic ask is always going to be there. When you are in a digitized workspace, the need for a formal follow-up and review becomes much more frequent. We cannot shy away from the fact that in the physical workspace a lot of informal catching up and follow-up does happen, which is difficult to replicate in a digitized workspace.

Senthil [00:22:46] I have a view here, I've been in conversations with an ed-tech company and we were discussing abroad education and degrees post covid. In pre-covid the students went to university, they went to a different country and the experience was different. The way they conducted the course was different.

Senthil [00:23:36] But right now, these students are taking the course from home. And the person I was talking to had a lot of stats about how detrimental and undesirable it has become for the students. In a workplace, it's a bit easier because all you have to do is deliver your work, reach your milestone and close your work.

Ketan [00:24:31] When the lockdown was announced, the number of webinars shot up and the participants were good. Now, in most webinars, attendance has gone down significantly. I know people who prefer personal meetings. The balance is important. I'm a firm believer in human connection. Yeah, I guess hybrid workspace is going to continue. I started going to the office at least once a week and when I go there, I'm fully charged up.

Ketan [00:25:43] That brings me to another dimension of managers perspectives. The workplace is also getting younger. What are the things that the millennials and Gen Zs expect from the managers? What are the things that managers should be changing and evolving?

Soniya [00:26:25] This topic is very close to my heart because I've always been involved with campus hiring and managing the interns. I believe that this is a resource that has immense potential but they need to be managed differently. A typical millennial or Gen Z or Gen Y would be a person who will always come across as having a greater risk appetite, as someone who is curious to taking that extra step and trying new things or experimenting with a new idea. They will always be more demanding in terms of rewards.

Soniya [00:27:38] The trick to having an engaged millennial is by connecting with them at their bandwidth. They are the resources who have immense learnability and once you have their loyalty, you will have an equal turnaround time in terms of getting your work done faster. So those are the traits that define the millennial or Gen Y or Gen Z group.

Soniya [00:28:11] In terms of dealing, you should connect with them on their bandwidth, secure that buy-in and then invest time in developing them and making them come around to your way of thinking and working. You will find a happy medium. An engaged millennial is probably the most productive resource that you will have.

Ketan [00:28:46] Interesting, I like what you said about matching the bandwidth. The message that you're passing is to understand them, connect with them and then because there's so much potential and fire that they have, you can get extraordinary results as a manager. So for all those managers who are managing the millennials or Gen Zs, that one is for you.

Senthil [00:29:22] One fact about the millennials, more than 75% of millennials work more than 40 hours per week. As Soniya said, if you make them passionate about what they're doing, they'd deliver for you. So I agree with that.

Ketan [00:29:48] Fantastic.That brings me to the final question. So do you think that the engagement of the future would see a shift towards personalization rather than one size fits all? I remember you said something about the one size fits all is not going to work in the first question. Do you think that the shift is there or it's already started to happen or may not happen? If you think it'll happen, what do you think organizations can do to enable the manager's journey?.

Soniya [00:30:43] We are past the stage of data analytics and the best word today is  Artificial Intelligence. A lot is going on behind social media screens. I feel the same logic applies to employee engagement. Artificial Intelligence is all about personalizing your feed for you and the same thing does apply to employee engagement in a way because we are moving towards a world where we need to make engagement as personalized and as individualized as we can.

Soniya [00:31:42] The best way to ensure individual and personalized engagement is by having engagement run through your managers. When you look at it from the employee's angle, managers are the front runners and the face of employee engagement. If you are engaged with your manager, you are engaged with the organization. So we need to invest far more in that space and sensitizing the managers as to how to go about doing it.

Ketan [00:32:44] I'm with you Soniya that personalization is the future. The expectation from managers has shot up. The onset of remote working or digital or AI can enable them and also force them to move in that direction. So thank you so much for that.  

Ketan [00:33:18] That brings me to five more questions, these are rapid-fire questions. The first question for you is, if not HR as a profession, what would you have chosen?

Soniya [00:33:41] I would be a Baker.

Ketan [00:33:46] The second one, between cooking, cleaning and mopping during the lockdown, which was easier?

Soniya [00:33:56] Cooking  

Ketan [00:34:05]  What's the next goal you are chasing? It could be a personal goal or a professional goal?

Soniya [00:34:13] On the professional side, I want to train as a coach. On the personal side, I want to start learning salsa.  

Ketan [00:34:26] One book that had the maximum impact on you that you would want the audience to read?

Soniya [00:34:32] I'm reading a book that is written by Santhosh Babu on coaching conversations.

Ketan [00:34:44] One thing that you would thank COVID for?

Soniya [00:35:00] My family is contemporary and willing to chip in. I was triple hacking as a professional, as a mother and as a homemaker and everybody started chipping in a little bit more. So that’s something I want to thank COVID for.

Ketan [00:35:22] Yeah, that's it from my side, it was super amazing having a chat with you and thank you again for joining in. Senthil over to you.

Soniya [00:35:32] Thanks a lot. It was a great session. The perspectives you had for those five questions was new in terms of digitization. You also talked about the Gallup report saying employees don't leave organizations, employees leave managers. Now, what happens when managers leave? What is your view on that?

Soniya [00:36:34] If you had a good run with your manager, you will feel that you need some time to readjust and restart the game. If you are genuine enough to share what your manager meant to you, you have a coach for life.

Senthil [00:38:05] Thanks a lot. Today, we get to know the importance of managers from a culture angle. It's interesting because there are many other dimensions to managers and many other KPIs. But this particular topic and the points that we can take out from leaders like you Soniya, it's amazing. So thanks a lot for the session.