Of workshops, productivity and allowances

Three weeks ago, human resources consultant and columnist Memory Nguwi posted a tweet on whether professionals should be paid allowances (per diems) to attend workshops.

Nguwi’s tweet, which was framed in his typical rhetorical style branded as part of the human resources perspectives, received mixed responses regarding the issue. The issue of allowances is a topical discussion especially considering the related preoccupations of productivity, the workforce’s professionalization, work ethic and of course moralistic precepts if any, regarding the contribution, or lack thereof workshops to organisational goals. Upon reading the post, this writer hurriedly jumped to the discussion, providing serialised responses on the subject, by taping personal convictions however shaped equally by professional experiences over the years. In my response, I argued that participants should be paid for attending workshops, which often come as a disruption to one’s daily routine. With that fact, the rates for allowances are capped and legally outlined in statutory instruments, circulars or any other such company or sectorial regulations which can be reviewed time and again. Some companies even ascribe the rates for allowances which one gets depending on the grade while others ascribe a blanket rate for everyone across the hierarchy. This is intended to equalise the monetary gain, notwithstanding that those more senior are of course accorded better conditions of service (that is salaries and numerous perks). In this article however I will focus on workshops broadly by interrogating related issues on: productivity, leadership, organisational goals and social relationships which need to be treated professionally, if value is to be derived from a workshop. Secondly, I will also weigh the enshrined basis to have workshops, which has set regulations vis-à-vis the rationale for having the fixtures, which needs to be constructed ethically, especially in pursuit for organisational goals. Generally, workshops are commonly perceived as a conduit to earn some “extra-money” by participants, regardless of the intended purpose of the meeting. There is no doubt that such perceptions are shaped by one’s individual circumstances, or perhaps even the general obtaining macro-economic environment. In most entities, workshops are purely expenditure driven, at times without paying attention to be commensurate benefits, if any to be derived from the congregation. An entity should be able to tell the difference which a workshop contributes to organisational goals, productivity, profit and even client satisfaction. Most of the times however, there is no correlation to these fundamentals simply because the workshop is convened without paying particular attention to these outputs. Or frankly speaking, some workshops are simply convened for leisure purposes, which is quite understandable in some settings. For Zimbabwe, this discussion on workshops is timely especially given that we are now literally left with five weeks before the long Christmas and New Year’s break. Equally, this is the season for workshops. Organisations which would not have spent the budget are scurrying for every opportunity to “exhaust” the set budget thresholds. It is incisive to note that the end of year period is generally unproductive. As a people we have become accustomed to a very worrying culture in which entities literally close for the festive season, at times without a logical rationale to do so. Generally the festive season is a time for a break and celebration for the feats accomplished during the course of the year. In some organisations there is a reason to celebrate, but in those with a lackadaisical approach, there is need to introspect on the amount of work which was done over the year. But I digress. Allowances which are paid for attending workshops are quite important for arising expenses incurred to attend such engagements. Quite often this money like salaries goes towards recurrent expenditure for a household which has to cater for its needs. Abraham Maslow, who is known for the theory on the hierarchy of needs placed psychological needs as the basic requirement for human survival. Things like food, water as basics. Human needs are incremental depending on one’s expenditure. Generally, most workshops are convened out of town, which is a disruption to one’s work and which needs to be paid for. Even if convened in town, participants would still need to be paid, but this is subject to the regulations of the entity in question. Most establishments however abhor this practice of paying professionals convening for meetings just close to their workplaces.  For workshops convened out of town, there are fares for things like transport which are catered for, additionally to the incidental allowance. In the case of any injuries or loss of life, there is often an indemnification for any liability for such unforeseen eventualities. While some conveners for workshops provide accommodation, participants generally prefer to be paid in full and decide things like where they will stay, largely for purposes of saving money. Some strict organisations however detest such arrangements for one reason or another. But it is quite a common practice to pay allowances, which participants use to meet arising costs especially for accommodation. There is no doubt that earning this extra money is a serious motivation for partaking in workshops, seminars, retreats, strategic meetings, symposiums, forums, -at least to borrow common terminologies used for workshops, which are common in this season. Generally, the intentions for paying participants to attend workshops are noble, despite the commonly arising challenges from convening workshops in the first place. When things are rightly done, participants have to be chosen to attend on the basis of their capabilities, scope of work and of course contribution to the objectives. Even with the right personnel however, workshops generally provide an expectation to receive, whether for legitimate or conflated reasons. The common question is “what is in it for me” to account for time spent attending a meeting. Some professionals who realise that there is no monetary gain from attending the event, tend to march out of the workshop on account of flimsy excuses such as being summoned to work for meeting or even to sign a very “important document”, which has halted the daily business. Essentially, despite the objectives at hand, participants often see allowances in survival terms of meeting daily needs and other recurrent expenditure on things like food, transport and so on. Even for local workshops, without the per diems, there is often the prospect for free lunch, which often motivates attendance for those partaking in the discussion. It is quite incisive to note that some participants have a tendency of only marching to hotels during the lunch time hour and only retreating back to their offices afterwards. Generally, the volumes tend to grow as lunch nears. Evidently, there is an aspect of survival and of course human nature to earn more financially or materially at any given time. These are often the two factors accounting for participants’ perceptions on workshops, which of course dovetail with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Most of the times, workshops are conducted at the very furthest point. From a human resources point of view, this of course is to allow for undivided attention from participants who stand to be disturbed by incessant phone calls from the office and other such distractions. However truly speaking, out of town fixtures, tend to bring more per diems and of course business to operators within the tourism and hospitality industry, who need survival. In real terms, out of town meetings which are often conducted in resort towns come with a lot of additional expenditure on things like airfares, fuel costs, hotel accommodation and a lot of other logistical arrangements. It is important for organisations to weigh their financial muscle, which should not accumulate the greater part of the budget, which otherwise needs to be spent on organisational targets. While workshops are aa time to strategize and pool ideas which have to be felt organisationally in terms of profit, delivery of services and client satisfaction, participants generally see such fixtures as a time to “cool off”, notwithstanding the amount of work which has to be done, if any. This writer has in the past organised workshops countless time. Commonly this writer has often been asked the geographical location of the workshop. Ordinarily such questions make sense for planning purposes. However, there is no doubt that such questions are conveniently asked to determine the worthiness or not of the fixture. At times this writer has even been asked by media colleagues to be co-opted on foreign fixtures, with the intention to provide up to date coverage. Of course the real target is the incentive to earn more. Such perceptions are not however in the media alone, but academia and of course other establishments. Some years back, this writer worked as a junior officer working on a broad range of social issues in one particular district. Unfortunately, this district did not seem attractive to the host of non-state actor organisations which often flocked to Masvingo, Mutare and Bulawayo.  Then suddenly, came one big agency to the district, whose first port of call was to the organisation I worked for. They came, met my principal and had a discussion on the intended areas of collaboration. A few weeks later, a workshop was convened within the district, at a lodge which was some fifty kilometres away. At this workshop, the agency made provisions for a “full board”, that is making a direct payment to the service provide for accommodation and meals. The only amount which was paid was the transport allowance, which some participants saw as a “pittance” and others as an “insult”, to borrow from the remarks of one colleague. Having organised this fixture in the absence of my senior who had another commitment, this writer, who was a greenhorn innocently unknowing to the “bread and butter issues”, was asked several times about the amount which was to come at the end of the meeting. Following these unending remonstrations which were likely to disrupt the whole event, this writer who was the point person for the agency and the participants, finally mustered some boldness and engaged the funders on the issue of allowances which had not been addressed in the “housekeeping issues”. A formal address was later made by one of the senior officials from the agency, who informed participants that this particular meeting did not have per diems, but only a transport allowance and of course a full board arrangement with the service provider at the lodge. Despite the richness of the discourse, participants were however infuriated that this agency did not pay them the allowance which they expected. Participants had generally made an assumption that the agency would generally pay them handsomely, considering the size of the agency. Even some stuck to their guns never to attend any congregation funded by this particular agency. The day after attendance plummeted with all manner of excuses put forward by participants. After the workshop ended on a low note, the agency then came up with a masterstroke to have of the exit meetings for the programme held in the district some few months later, albeit outside the district, but within the province. This time around the meeting was strategically held at a reasonably serene hotel, however closer to the capital. The mood was eccentric as participants smiled all the way, especially at the thought of being paid hard currency. This time around the agency had of course specified the “bread and butter issues”, which yours truly simply relayed. Unfortunately, some participants who had initially attended the initial fixture could not make the cut this time around. There were a number of new attendants to this meeting which was supposed to continue from the earlier fixture which ended in disarray. While fellow colleagues smiled all the way to the bank, some were quipped just how much the convenors were getting for this meeting and numerous other engagements which had been held across provinces. It was much like the legendary story of a visually impaired man who was spoiled with a plate full of meat but who instead of thanking his colleagues asked if those with sight had not been given a single goat each. While workshops are intended to be well meaning, they end up being sources for aggrandizement, especially when not done with the right intentions.  This explains why some juniors never get the opportunity to attend the fixtures. It is because the workshops are seen as money making venture and not as a platform to learn new things which are useful for the organisation. This writer used to have one senior who had a tendency of taking all the site visits which sought to monitor progress on programmes under our remit of social programming in general. She would even attend the meetings, even in between vacation, study, annual or even leave days. She would suddenly spring to life from her sickbed on the prospect of earning some allowances. For this writer, still fresh from the corridors of the University of Zimbabwe, this was quite an experience of this particular organisation’s dynamics, which greatly contributed to the high staff turnover by the disgruntled employees. But, such is the accumulative tendency of human nature which can negatively impact on the organisation. Then there is the problem of cliques which often arises, if the intended officials are not selected, or do not attend for one reason or the other. While workshops are supposed to provide a platform for real intellectual discourse and exchanging notes with the idea of overcoming together, they often end up becoming closed social gatherings for people with embedded personal and professional interactions! If not done rightly, workshops end up becoming a convenient opportunity to catch up, at times at the expense of the funded event. Evidently, workshops are a topical issue which needs to be weighed from both sides of the equation. The impact of the workshop has to be felt on the entity’s productivity, if done according to the rule book.

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