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Productive workplace cultures – when collaboration is the secret ingredient, by Sage MEA’s Gerhard Hartman

By Gerhard Hartman, Vice President, Medium Business, Sage Africa & Middle East.

Ten months into the Covid-19 pandemic, most organisations and their employees have settled into new digital ways of working and collaborating.

Although the crisis is not yet behind us, businesses should seize this opportunity to evaluate their performance through a new lens – and to reshape themselves into more resilient, flexible and productive organisations.

It is an opportunity for business leaders to use the lessons from the early work-from-home experiment and their own rapid pivot to digital channels to build a better business – one that is more human, able to leverage technology more effectively, and is ready to experiment and grow.

The starting point is the workforce and how it stays engaged. What can we learn from the stress test we have endured because of the coronavirus crisis?

For some organisations, employees are spending more time in front of screens while being less productive. Others have seen an increase in productivity and performance. The difference, I believe, lies in the level of support from management at a time when many people are struggling with the demands of being employees, partners and parents.

The answer lies in a dual strategy that focuses on people and processes.

If an organisation assumes its people are motivated purely by a salary, or that its processes don’t need adjustment to shape a more productive environment, then it is making significant but common errors. Why? Because no organisation can define processes without taking employees and managers on the same journey.

Productivity is primarily about the output: how many items come off the line, the number of customer calls made, and which KPIs are targeted. However, focusing only on output leads companies to regard their employees as drones. Though driving employees hard may initially deliver higher output, the quality of the output may suffer. In addition, issues such as staff attrition may impact productivity in the longer term.

What’s more, unhappy and demotivated employees will struggle to offer a great customer experience. Happy workforces lead to satisfied customers. In customer-centric business culture, that satisfaction relates directly to ultimately meeting customer needs. The result is a virtuous circle: satisfied customers lead to satisfied employees who, in turn, lead to satisfied customers.

Building a productive culture

The synergy between happy customers and a happy workforce is enabled through processes, hence focusing on people and processes will certainly improve productivity. Several ingredients play a crucial role in improving productivity. One of the first is to recognise the significance of culture in fostering customer-centricity, accountability and productivity.

The second crucial ingredient is a sound business strategy, which helps define output and success, and also oversees the culture and processes – the way business is transacted. In doing so, the strategy helps determine the outcomes a business needs to achieve. This approach reveals the possible choices and their consequences.

One approach is to change a process and automate it. However, doing so may impact an individual’s job, and they will need to be upskilled to take on new tasks and roles. It should be a two-way street. Managers can say what needs to change, but it’s the employee on the ground who uses the process. Therefore, they need to be able to provide feedback.

Change isn’t always easy. Some people might resist improvements because they need to make efforts to adapt to the change. Many of us can easily combine the comfortable with the necessary. The secret to high and continued productivity is to always remain people-centric. It doesn’t mean being led by employees, but to listen to their needs, and invest in their buy-in to the strategy and vision.

Four steps to a productive culture:

1. Look for inefficiencies: Where are the bottlenecks? Unpack processes and roles, and consider better ways to do things, such as automation.

2. What are the problems? Are you dealing with a workforce problem, a process problem, or a management problem?

3. Growing the business: You need to challenge yourself and ask if you’re still on the right track.

4. Experiment: Don’t be afraid to experiment, regardless of whether you achieve a positive or negative outcome.