BusinessDay

‘Berger Paints new work plan will enhance productivity, boost shareholder value’

Starting from July, Berger Paints Nigeria Plc will adopt a four-day work week. Ahead of this innovative work plan, Abi Ayida, the company’s chairman spoke with select journalists including Iheanyi Nwachukwu on how it will enhance productivity of the staff and boost shareholder value.

How has Berger Paints been coping with the inclement operating environment since the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic and its variants?

Without a doubt you appear to have chosen a rather benign adjective to describe the current operating environment. The ongoing Pandemic does seem, in hindsight, to be a mere precursor to absolutely dire global macroeconomic headwinds. We have always operated in a challenging environment but the current situation is unprecedented in the unrelenting nature of the disruptions.

There are simply no positive signals currently and we have the cherry on top of the peculiar country risk associated with a Nigeria on the cusp of elections and all that entails. As an organization we are coping and I use that word only if the ability to pivot in decision-making virtually instantaneously without the comfort of any predictability is considered coping. As an organisation we are focused on thriving despite the environment and that can only be achieved through meticulous preparation, a very dynamic and infinitely flexible approach to strategy design and implementation and most importantly a healthy dose of luck.

The Pandemic and resulting lockdowns led to a fundament change in attitudes to flexible working practices. How has this affected the employees of Berger Paints Nigeria Plc?

One of the first significant decisions I made when I became Chairman was to lead a transition to more flexible working practices. In 2018, we made the decision to invest in fully interactive Board and Management meeting rooms with full virtual capabilities. By the time the Pandemic came along 15 months later we had already fully embraced hybrid or virtual meetings with our external stakeholders who had that capability. This is probably not the immediate image that comes to mind when you think of a traditional paint manufacturer in Nigeria and till this day our clients who come in for physical meetings are still surprised by meeting with us in a room that would not look out of place in a well-resourced Tech Startup. We cascaded this flexible work approach to our people and recognized that full adoption would take time but it does appear that the pandemic helped to catalyze this process in a good way as wider acceptance became the norm with our external partners and stakeholders.

Prior to the new era of work-from-home, traffic congestion has always taken significant part of workers’ official hours in Lagos. To what extent has this affected the employees’ output?

Our transition to more flexible working practices was initially primarily driven by the mobility challenges that are the outcome of perennial traffic congestion. We continue to have a firm understanding that this was a significant but not easily quantifiable, real cost to our business. What is often underestimated is just how much extra investment in people, assets and materiel is required to compensate for diminished productivity caused by the lost hours. Perhaps, I could illustrate, say we have a prospective client in Ajah, a visit in person from our office in Ikeja could well turn out to be a 5hour adventure on a bad traffic day of which the actual visit may be under an hour. In that time -frame the sales person is mostly unproductive for 80% of that time window. Unfortunately, this scenario affects all our people even those who are just commuting daily. Productivity is adversely impacted and from the employees’ perspective this has an unrelenting cumulative negative effect. From the company’s perspective you do not have to be a rocket scientist to know the situation is very bad for business.

Read also: Julius Berger records highest Q1 profit in 5 years

Given that there is no solution in sight to this, how do you see flexible working practices as a way to partially solve this?

Our environment is very detrimental to work-life balance. We fully understand that at the leadership level and I must say I am very fortunate to have colleagues on the Board that are very forward-looking and provide the cognitive diversity that is required for better outcomes in these extraordinary times. We have thought long and hard on how we can better take care of our people in an impactful and lasting way. I am therefore pleased to announce that we will from next month be the first Nigerian company, that I am aware of, to permanently change to a four-day work week.

As a manufacturing company, a significant segment of our staff by the nature of their jobs are involved in repetitive tasks as part of the manufacturing process. In order to maintain our consistently high-quality levels, very high levels of concentration over extended periods are required. As you well know, the unrelenting and deteriorating nature of our harsh operating environment has a cumulative corroding effect on an employee’s physical and mental well-being. We believe this initiative will go a long way in redressing this imbalance and is not only beneficial to the employee but will also benefit the company. For far too many employees their place of work represents the only setting where they are assured of basic services like power, water and security. Human capital is our most precious resource as a company and we intend to nurture and protect our people in any way we can.

Will the proposed new work- hours lead to staff rationalization?

Absolutely not. The intended outcome of this change is enhanced productivity from better rested people. Rest and recovery is a key metric of sustained performance. Get that balance wrong and you are locked in a spiral of diminishing returns. I would also like to point out that all our employees will remain on their full remuneration. There will be no loss of pay for a single employee.

What are the advantages of this work model?

There are a lot of advantages and I have a given a couple of examples but I am mindful that we operate in a very competitive space and would rather be circumspect about giving too much away. What I would add is that our customers and other external stakeholders would not be impacted in any way as we will be providing a full week of services in certain core functions related to customer fulfilment.

Have the workers keyed into this novel idea?

Fundamental change is very challenging as we are dealing with an existing framework that has been in place from the earliest days of formal employment. We instituted a robust change management program and recognized that for culture change, time is the key metric. We are blessed with an ideal blend of very experienced and new dynamic entrants in our workforce and we have significantly invested in transparent communication of our objectives and how the outcomes are beneficial. We are confident that we have enrolled enough advocates and change agents in the process. Ultimately the reality will set in when the additional day of rest crystallizes for our people and they start to feel the impact.

When is the commencement date?

We start from July.

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