Treating Staff Responsibly During the Pandemic: Three Things to Do Today
For all the uncertainty we must live through this year, here’s one thing we know: there will be microfinance after COVID-19. Though we are in the roughest days of the storm, it is not impractical to consider how today’s decisions will impact us after the clouds have lifted. All of us want to reach the other side with our customer and employee relationships intact. We want to be proud of how we treated people in the most turbulent times.
SPTF has a special interest in promoting responsibility toward employees (see Dimension 5 of the Universal Standards for SPM and practical guidance on the same). As such, many of our MFI members have asked us for examples of good human resources (HR) practice in the era of coronavirus. We've distilled our response into three things that all MFIs can do today, to treat staff responsibly during the crisis. (We’ve intentionally skipped over most of the health-related advice, as that has been well-covered by others.)
1. Keep staff employed.
Make every attempt to limit staff termination, even during your inevitable cash shortage. Beyond protecting employees from economic hardship, limiting terminations will improve your ties with customers. As lending grinds to a stop, and your contact with customers might naturally deteriorate, your existing employee-customer relationships could be the very thing that will save your future. Keep the employee, keep her portfolio.
When Ebola devastated multiple countries in the BRAC network, the organization continued to pay employees for all seven months that they stayed at home. Unsurprisingly, this generated massive goodwill between the institution and its employees and aided a smooth recovery phase, as credit officers had maintained relationships and communication with clients.
Before making a decision to terminate an employee, consider alternatives like reducing working hours and salaries (senior managers included), switching from a permanent to a variable employment contract, or a furlough which allows the employee to maintain benefits like health insurance and their position when you are able to rehire.
Perhaps one of the most practical things you can do is repurpose employees who are otherwise underutilized. We talked to one provider who is using field staff to help customers apply for government safety net programs. Another provider is tasking stay-at-home employees with promoting emergency loans over Facebook and WhatsApp. Opportunity Bank Serbia allows willing field staff to do personal errands for clients—collecting groceries for elderly and high-risk clients, for example.
2. Repurpose staff to client outreach.
Of all the ways you can reorganize your human resources, one of the savviest moves is to reassign people to client outreach. Many MFIs are using this strategy and we’ve heard the same thing from all of them: customers appreciate it and so do employees.
In Guatemala, Friendship Bridge repurposed some of their field staff and set up a call center that was able to call 30 percent of the MFI’s clients within the first three days of the government-declared lockdown. Chief Strategy Officer Caitlin Scott emphasized that “the calls are a service to clients, yes, but we’ve gotten much in return—the one-on-one conversations have helped shape our response.”
Before Haiti had a single confirmed case, Fonkoze—a Haitian MFI—created the country’s first Creole-language training on kowonaviris. This swift response allowed employees to forestall rumors and panic and spread accurate health information to the MFI’s 50,000+ clients. HR Director Marie-Claire Dorcely notes that client education can change the course of the virus on the island because clients often trust Fonkoze over other news sources.
ADIE, an MFI in France, has called over 16,000 customers to check on their health and financial situation. General manager Laure Coussirat-Coustère reports that these calls are important not only for business continuity planning, but also for morale: “It’s hard because you spend a lot of time on the phone with clients who are facing great difficulty, but at the same time, the loan officers are very proud because clients feel we are by their side so it’s also a very rewarding activity for the loan officers.”
SEF, a South African provider, is using employees to survey owners of informal spaza shops to understand their needs and economic activities. The institution is feeding this data to the government’s Department of Small Business, to help shape public policy that favors spazas and the millions of customers who shop there. In this way, SEF employees are maintaining individual customer relationships while advocating for their future.
One of the best investments you can make right now is to maintain close contact with your customers. Many can’t make payments, but they are valuable assets just the same.
3. Communicate with staff every day.
Make it your goal that every staff member will hear from someone else in the organization every single day. Early accounts from the field suggest that employees need to hear from senior management once a week and from their direct supervisor daily.
For example, FINCA Impact Finance is committed to what they call “over-communication”—preferring to err on the side of too much, rather than too little contact with staff. As a network with 20 subsidiaries spread across the globe, FINCA convenes weekly CEO calls for the heads of every MFI. Each subsidiary has also appointed one Crisis Manager who generates weekly reports on everything from changes in local policy to any direct illness among staff.
At MicroStart, an MFI in Belgium, each staff member participates in a short team meeting each morning. On that call, the team leader sets the team's daily objectives. By the end of the day, each member of that team is responsible for emailing the team lead with a couple of bullet points about what they did that day. This keeps the teams very focused and connected. MicroStart will also use the daily reports—in synthesized form—to report to their stakeholders on what staff accomplished during the months of the pandemic.
If ever there was a time to be transparent and exact, this is it. Staff need clarity on where and how to work. By reducing the “unknowns” for employees, you’ll free up their mental energy so they can be more effective in their jobs. Most employees would prefer to hear “this is the plan for now, but the situation is changing” than to hear proverbial crickets while you wait to craft the perfect message. The CEO of an Accion portfolio company called Lulalend puts it this way: ““Even if there’s nothing new to communicate, still communicate.”
It has always made good business sense to take care of the people who take care of your customers. If the current crisis is an exception to normal business practices, it’s an exception that should work in employees’ favor. The humans who work for you are the keepers of your customer relationships, daily operations, and future business. Treat them well.