How we built a COVID-19 inspired productivity-based management system in one month: a guide for SMEs in Zambia

Julia Brown
Inside Infobwana
7 September 2020
This article gives the why and the how of our company’s productivity incentive process, which we developed and rolled out in July and August 2020. We hope other SMEs can learn lessons from our experience, as we all respond and adapt to the prevailing pandemic.

Matthew Toren, co-author of ‘Small Business, BIG Vision’, defines flexibility in business as "the ability for a company to make whatever internal changes are necessary to respond effectively to the changing outward environment, as quickly as possible.” Flexibility is key at this time. And flexibility is a quality SMEs tend to have ...

The journey towards productivity-based incentives

We had always wanted to reward the conscientious and gifted amongst our team, and to encourage those who were under-performing as well as those still in training.

And so we had considered introducing productivity-based incentives earlier, but had never got around to implementing the system.

Then COVID-19 struck, and in April 2020 Infobwana had no alternative but to ‘go remote’. This was necessary not only to conform with government guidelines on COVID-19 but also because the health and safety of our team is highly important to us.

Apart from a few core staff, all 15 of our team members worked from home 100% of the time for two months. In June, we asked them to come into the office one morning a week on a staggered basis. Since the middle of July, we’ve moved to Sales personnel coming in every day, and everyone else twice a week. We still avoid rush hour travel, practice social distancing, and encourage good hygiene and wearing of face masks.

But suddenly having everyone working from home was not without its challenges! As well as ongoing power cuts and erratic internet issues, there was the productivity factor. In general we felt we weren’t being as productive as before, but had no way of pinning this down. Conversely some individuals were being very productive, with their hard work not being fully recognised. And so last month we decided to move cautiously but purposefully towards a productivity-based management system.

Productivity or Performance?

There’s quite a debate around productivity versus performance. Which do you measure? Which do you reward? I’m quite settled on this, having laboured for years on the question of piecework versus daily rates for employees on our farm in Luansobe. My conclusion is piecework is best for everyone, but you have to watch the quality of the work. In other words, productivity incentives are best, but keep monitoring performance.

The thorny issue of productivity-related pay

The very use of the word ‘incentive’ implies there’s a reward coming. Not everyone is driven by monetary reward, but let’s just say most people are, especially in the current COVID-19 crisis.

How do you calculate pay rewards from productivity records? Our approach is to benchmark a rate for every task and then hard wire that rate into our CRM. Hard wiring is the easy part. It’s the benchmarking which is thorny. You need to be very careful - erring either way can be devastating.

If you say a task takes longer than it does and pay more than you should for it, your payroll bill will shoot up to an unsustainable level. If you say a task takes less time than it does and pay less that you should, you’ll have disgruntled, demoralised staff. And it wouldn’t be fair.

So we’re being very cautious about establishing task rates. For example, our Production Director is doing some of the production tasks himself and recording them with the time it is taking him; the Production team members are doing the same and then we’re comparing the results.

The thorny issue of performance

Remember that productivity has to go with performance. Every task has to be completed to an acceptable standard, else it’s not worth the money the company is paying for the job. At the same time, it’s the company’s responsibility to ensure that standards are met by putting in place adequate training and monitoring systems.

Infobwana has already implemented quality control mechanisms for content and images on our website; but we recognise we need to institute these for other aspects of our work.

We are so pleased we have a great team who are dedicated, willing to learn and happy to grow. This makes the transition smoother as we recognise this is about common growth and common good.

Creating the right environment

To develop a productivity-based management system, I advise moving away from off-line and ‘into the cloud’ as much as you can. This is so that team members can record their activity dynamically wherever they are, giving management a real-time bird’s-eye view of what’s going on, as well as an accurate way of measuring productivity.

Thankfully we already worked in the cloud. To give you some insight into how we do things, we use:

  • Salesforce, a robust cloud-based Customer Relations Management (CRM) software, which is well worth the money
  • Google Mail for business, its associated cloud Drive for files, and Hangout and Google Meet for internal chat, phone and video communications
  • Xero for our accounts, Canva and Photshop for design, and a suite of other cloud based services which are integrated into the technology that drives thebestofzambia.com
  • Even our product offering is in the cloud and we are working with clients more and more remotely through tools like online forms and a login system for our website

For your own business, you’ll need to look at what you should change in order to move towards a real-time approach, and take it step by step:

  • You could start with Google sheets, or Excel on Microsoft OneDrive, and develop from there. Or, if money is no object, you could use a customised locally hosted ERP system like Microsoft Dynamics or the comprehensive Oracle suite
  • Gmail is free for a single user, and many other software companies offer a free basic service
  • Look out for unique opportunities for cloud-based business processes presented by your particular product offering e.g. a shop can transition to Ecommerce, a farmer can use livestock recording software, a clothes manufacturer can procure raw materials online.

Developing the system and getting engagement

To develop an appropriate recording system, we extended some of the functionality of our CRM system (Salesforce). We also created three reports which detailed and then summarised daily tasks.

To get engagement it’s essential that you keep everyone informed, that you give them an opportunity to ask questions and contribute their comments, and that you are willing to change as a consequence.

In our case, we presented the proposed new system to our three different teams, one team at a time. We had discussions on how the change would affect them individually; and this resulted in some modifications being made. But we were able to quickly finalise something that everyone felt was workable.

Teething problems - transitioning the team

Once the system was in place and rolled out, we all began using it in earnest from the beginning of this month - August 2020. And that’s when the fun began! We found that we have a tendency not to value our time, or to sometimes over-value it:

  • Why did a Sales Executive only record 4 hours on Monday? He hadn’t recorded two client meetings.
  • Why did our Sales Manager only record 6 hours on Tuesday? He hadn’t thought of recording a management meeting.
  • Why did our Office Manager only record 2 hours on Wednesday? Her tasks didn’t reflect several hours preparing the payroll.
  • And why did our Customer Success Executive record 32 hours on Thursday? Instead of her task taking 2 hours per customer she had recorded it as taking 8 hours per customer!

I’m happy to report that we’re now settling into the system and there are fewer and fewer errors in our Productivity Incentive Report. But it has to be watched, with any identified issues quickly resolved.

Summary

Your productivity management requirements and opportunities will be unique. Be flexible! Be open to new ideas!

You will need to take time to understand the productivity challenges for your business, create the environment to implement the solutions you’ve settled on, set up the systems and, most importantly, you will need to manage, train and support your team as they transition.

The steps outlined in this article can help you and your team be more productive and performance-focussed whilst rewarding people fairly for their work. I wish you every success in your entrepreneurial journey, especially through these extremely challenging times.

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