The mining and metals sector is on the mend after a few testing years. Market instability and declining commodity prices forced many companies to adopt alternative business models creating a new normal in which cost reductions, automation, and operational efficiency have become critical to success.

Revised compliance regulations, geopolitical risk, legal constraints on natural resource exploitation, shareholder agitation, and public scrutiny have further pushed change on mining firms. In the midst of this workers have had to deal with issues of job insecurity and seemingly limited future prospects, brought on by these external factors.

In terms of business models, procedures, and possible social and environmental externalities, many mining businesses and their employees are currently in uncharted terrain. Managing these uncertainties in a way that minimises the impact on mine productivity while acknowledging the socio-economic challenges workers and communities face is an important step companies need to take on the journey into the new normal.

Below we examine three trends that are shaping the dynamics in this sector and can have a significant impact on mine productivity.

Trend #1: Using engagement apps to create a sense of community

Mines often involve remote working conditions, with frontline employees travelling from other locations to live on site. Although these mineworkers return home occasionally, there is often a lingering sense of displacement for many workers.

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, the compulsion to belong and form relationships, closely follows basic critical essentials, such as food, shelter and safety. The hierarchy emphasises people’s desire for connection. This same longing, to bridge the distance between others, is reflected in workplace relationships, as is the negative effect of failing to encourage closer associations.

Connecting colleagues via a shared employee engagement platform goes a long way to building team morale, creating a sense of support and belonging, and increasing employee productivity. Community building within the workforce offsets the sense of isolation these employees experience as a result of being far from home.

Employee engagement is possible on a macro level, with general communication shared company-wide via an app. Helpful advice is delivered on shared issues, and feedback is received from employees which gives companies insight to translate into key strategies that improve the work lives of their employees.

On a granular level, communication can be tailored to individual employees, such as sending birthday wishes and positive feedback when an employee achieves a specific work milestone, further building a sense of community.

For migrant workers away from their homes for long periods, providing the means to build more meaningful and connected relationships with their managers and their colleagues minimises feelings of isolation and engenders a sense of community.

Trend #2: Deeper community citizenship

Typically, when a new mining project is scoped, the socioeconomic impacts on local populations and communities have a very narrow focus on the following:

● Anticipated community benefits based on the value of mineral production

● Quantification of local job creation

● Payroll considerations

● Economic impact on local external suppliers

● Revenue generation, which will support both provincial and national branches of the government

This focus is almost exclusive to the commercial advantages the new mineral extraction brings to the local community. The implication is that the mine brings revenue and costs the community nothing.

It does not consider how expanding local commercial transactions will affect local residents and businesses, both positively and negatively.

By only measuring the expansion of the commercial economy it means that the apparent ‘benefits’ will be considered in isolation.

But, there is a much broader range of impacts on residents and communities than the narrow commercial measurements take into account, including the following:

● Income distribution: poverty rates and large income differentials

● Quality of life issues for the community related to the surrounding environment

● Crime levels: increases in the instances and forms of crime

● Attraction and relocation to booming mining areas by bad actors

● Health ramifications for the local population: disability, morbidity, and mortality rates

● Substance abuse and associated social ills

● Educational requirements

● Non-traditional mine work schedules effects on the community and family unit

● Local infrastructure and services shortages as a result of the influx of mineworkers

● Disaffection amongst the indigenous populace of the area

● Shifting risk and responsibility away from organised labour and mining companies to the individual miner.

One of the reasons localised social impacts such as these are less frequently analysed, is that they are harder to quantify, especially in monetary terms.

But dismissing these social impacts as subjective does not give a full picture of the effects a mine can have on a local community. Ignoring them because they are more difficult to express in monetary terms places a zero value on them and can set a dangerous precedent as community leaders may view this as an attempt to delegitimise their concerns.

The unavoidable community-wide upheaval means it is important for mining companies to fulfil more than their commitments to their workforce and explore broader social obligations.

One solution is to establish a digital communications domain that will enable the company to proactively reach out to community stakeholders and workers, empowering them through every stage of the decision-making process.

Investment in digital engagement will offer two benefits:

  1. In times of crisis, you can deliver immediate communications to internal stakeholders at the click of a button (such as accidents, faulty machinery, or any work disruption) to advise on the correct action and protocol. This demonstrates transparency at an executive level and shows employees that you are open about a negative situation at work and the steps you take to keep them informed and protected. It is also an important tool in showing workers that the company sees them as more than production assets and recognises the impact some crises can have on them as individuals.
  2. It can offer the broader stakeholder community the chance to participate constructively in negotiations with management through forums and surveys, defusing potentially difficult and dangerous altercations.

Most importantly, digital engagement tools offer companies important listening tools to determine a community’s perceptions and attitudes toward their activities and provide insights on how future plans need to be adjusted to accommodate community expectation.

Trend #3: Mechanisation and the future of the human workforce

Improving mining operation efficiency is inextricably linked to increased mechanisation. As companies seek improved financial returns mechanisation is often seen as a future orientated solution that will minimise the role of workers.

Andrew Main, Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology’s, general manager: business development for Southern Africa, disagrees that the role of all workers will disappear.

“There is a drive to plan future mines around the mechanised offerings of today, and these operations will create new employment profiles at mine operations and the communities they operate in. The working conditions and opportunities to upskill employees will enhance sustainable employee relations. Mechanised mining also requires support services at and near the operations. All of these create additional opportunities for employment.”

For mines intending to introduce alternative mechanised processes, it is vital to communicate this in a way that reassures employees who might feel insecure in their positions. It also promotes opportunities for growth, which have not yet been fully explored.

Key Takeaways

Maintaining an open line of communication will be critical as mining firms attempt to restructure their workforce to meet future challenges. Employees in mining companies will need to learn new skills as technology and business models evolve.

Simultaneously, mining executives will have to reconsider how they interact with communities in order to comprehend the perspectives of surrounding communities on the influence mining activities will have on their society. At a minimum, communities need to be involved in the decision-making around the introduction and establishment of mines in their midst.

A strong focus on improving and deepening stakeholder and employee engagement will contribute to a productive and sustainable operating environment.

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