Davids Vs Covid 2: Managing Ops In The Time Of Covid-19

This is the second, in a series of articles from the Blume team covering different aspects of business, in the context of Covid-19.

While we are tracking the Covid-19 meter of India by the hour and gauging the magnitude of the crisis that is upon us, early stage businesses have already been 3 weeks deep into an untimely winter in spring. To cope in these trying times, we, at Blume Ventures, got together a group of our portfolio founders leading operations-heavy businesses to share their learnings about how they are dealing with the new status quo. We got Kabeer Biswas from Dunzo (hyperlocal deliveries), Anant Goel from MilkBasket (household items deliveries), Hemant Gupta from Yulu (2W micromobility) and Nakul Kumar from Cashify (second-hand Mobile retailer) to share their thoughts on the challenges they are facing and the plans they have introduced.

Here are a few of the key thoughts they shared and highlights from the discussion:

1) Keeping your ground staff motivated and at work

There is no easy way to overcome the central dilemma of all businesses with a significant feet-on-street component: how to continue business as usual without putting the on-ground staff at risk. Here is where the Founder’s unique ability to communicate and help the team get a sense that they are cared for and all are in this together, helps.

A big part of the solution lies in your culture. Companies which have accrued massive goodwill and loyalty from their blue-collar workforce (enjoying high retention in an infamously high-churn segment) by taking good care of them are able to win their trust now. Even if you don’t have that luxury, there are a few concrete steps you can take. These are a mix of education and exigency –

– education: allay their concerns in the most transparent manner with references to authentic data and manuals. Companies must give assurance regarding the validity of staff’s insurance for Covid19 treatment. Yulu provided the on-ground staff with soaps, gloves, masks and sanitizers while educating them about the virus spread and protection. In the chaos of a pandemic, misinformation may spread faster than the virus.

– Then comes the exigency. Making staff realize that operations are essential for company to remain afloat in the difficult time. For any communication, Yulu churned out the content, translated it to 4 local languages and appended it with the COO’s signature and photograph to ensure consistent messaging from the top across levels, localities and languages.

This is the true test of the hiring done by founders. There are people who will step up and people who won’t. For people who are reluctant to discharge their reasonable duties due to the Covid scare, the approach should be to dig deeper. Why is it that the team member is unwilling to do his job? Is it the money or genuine risk? There’s a reasonable way to address each concern.

2) Overcommunicate!

The divide between white collar and blue-collar workforce has never been more jarring. Due to remote work, we can do videocalls with white collar workers, but the CEO or founder finds it hard to reach out to all ops / field workers. Townhalls have emerged as a great instrument to address all kinds of concerns in the corporate team. This needs to extend to on-ground workforce too. Everybody in that team must be convinced with good justification that what they are doing is right and safe.

Warehouses of essential goods businesses are operating at above peak capacity, leading to many uncharted territory decisions. This is the best time to empower leads across the chain and encourage them to take gut calls instead of making centralised decisions. Regular frisking and biometric routines have been replaced with old-school register attendance. Milkbasket made a large investment to procure the necessary sanitizers and soaps to maintain hygiene on the floor. Cashify moved to a shift-based routine to ensure social distancing in premises. For staff coming to office, private transport was arranged, and the use of public transport was disallowed. To keep the morale up, Cashify made it a point to have no paycuts for absences since the sick coming to office may infect more people.

Prime Minister’s address and directives have unfortunately not been matched by ground level directives such as from District Commissioners or Collectors. Overzealous action in various pockets by misinformed local authorities is leading to scuffles regarding the interpretation of government directives. Policy and Liaison functions have become more relevant than ever. Companies need to engage with authorities, stay on the top of the latest government letters on the issue and get clarity on legal definitions affecting their operations, such as “essential services” and “work from home” for blue collar workers. Keeping ears to the ground helped Yulu protect its staff from ill-informed forced evacuation from local authorities overzealously enforcing social distancing in the pre-lockdown phase.

3) A time to innovate!

All agreed that this was the best time for innovation, especially seeding new customer behaviours and gaining valuable insights from your user cohorts. The key here is agility. Dunzo latched on to the real fear among customers about the safety of contact and rolled out a contact-less delivery feature within days. Yulu started telling when the bike was sanitized last. Companies need to find their truth and stand by it. Customers may surprise you by accommodating changes. For example, Milkbasket insisted on its years old contact-less payments because RWA announcements to collect packages at gate would reduce social distancing and the RWAs agreed!


Two additional points emerged in the larger discussion that ensued

  • Wartime preparedness is all about having difficult conversations: with your team, staff or supply chain partners.  This is the best time to lose fiscal weight, negotiate lower terms for input assets considering dipping utilization in the near term. Lean on the big suppliers and buyers with transparent intent and get those extra days of payables or accelerated receivables to improve cash position.
  • Junta Curfew is the teaser of disruption. Given India’s exponential increase in Covid19 cases, there will inevitably be a long spell of lockdown. Each business needs to have its own version of Business Continuity Plan. Companies are already moving their inventory from locked-down Maharashtra to other states or warehouses. (This was written before the lockdown was announced. Clearly prescient observations).