In 2020, disruption of another kind began to swell. When the COVID-19 pandemic became official, businesses knew they had to act quickly, safely, and compassionately, and mostly by the strength of their own leadership. What unique lessons businesses are learning and utilizing from over a year’s time is continuing to evolve. Amanda Schleede of Vital Circle, a web-based COVID-19 daily symptom tracking and contact tracing application, talks about protocols in manufacturing through COVID safety and beyond for the #USAMfgHour chat on Twitter.
Navigating the New Normal
Past and current practices might not have been developed enough to handle new problems and the demand for the future. Business innovation is important as the pandemic has changed operations from top to bottom. What were the most impactful transitions your company made at the beginning of the pandemic to protect your employees, customers, and business commitments?
“The ability to use the software we created and implement more flexible features, which not only helped our customers make the transition to a remote or hybrid model, but also allowed for our staff to work safely from home,” said Julianne Schaub with Striven, an all-in-one business software solution.
“We got the word out to our employees and customers about our situation and kept them informed of updates as we got more information,” said Dan Bigger of Chenango Valley Technologies, a custom contract molding, and tooling company. “We shut down our facility to outside guests.”
“Remote work, virtual meetings, customer communication, seamless order fulfillment, and hiring me for digital initiatives and lead gen,” said Gina Tabasso of Dar-Tech, a specialty chemical and raw material distributor.
“Like most, we closed our facility to only the essential workers,” said Rebecca Hart of Drive Source International/Dynamatic, manufacturer of eddy current drives, clutches, brakes, and controls. “Everyone else worked from home. Everything went virtual. This occurred for 4 months.”
“Our president was able to source PPE to donate and sell which helped a bunch of our customers and local hospitals as well as our employees,” said Julie Basello of Radwell International, industrial automation equipment. “This was a huge pivot for us which kept everyone working safely-we also made changes in our facilities to keep working safely.”
“I'd say communication was the most important for us. Being transparent about what we were doing and that we were still in full operation,” said Paul Kiesche of Aviate Creative, a branding and creative agency.
“Being a company that distributes medical supplies it was easy to make sure that we could have all the supplies to create a safer environment,” said Kyle Windham of Wear Active, a medical supply distributor. “Sometimes we work from home, but we are most productive when together. Give your employees access to protection.”
“We paid full attention to the lockdown and requirements. Everyone was virtual until it was clear it was safe to come back,” said Dave Meyer of BizzyWeb, a growth marketing agency. “We mask in our office common areas, upgraded our HVAC, and have kept the office at 50% capacity. So far so good.”
“The most impactful was reaching our customer base to find out if we can still be of service to them & declaring ourselves an essential business; communicating to our team that we will remain open as an essential business,” said Shannon Simpson of DuraTech, a custom graphics manufacturer. “Implementing new cleaning processes. We were also open to our team working flexible hours and remotely where possible to care for themselves and school-age children also now at home. Teams could work different shifts, we spaced out workstations, and more sanitary precautions added.”
“Masks and plastic dividers (we know a thing or two about plastic sheets) for those that were in the office and ZOOM ZOOM ZOOM for those that were WFH,” said Noah Katzenstein of Artus Corp., a shim and gasket manufacturer.
“We are trying to be safe with the right PPE, sanitize, and of course keep others safe too,” said Sneha Kumari, a supply chain enthusiast.
Some of the most important steps, Schleede of Vital Circle says, are: Training, personal protective equipment and other COVID safety tools, daily symptom reporting, proximity contact-tracing, clinical oversight and testing, clear policies and procedures around time off, and reduction/elimination of outside visitors. “Provide your employees with the necessary equipment to keep them safe and reduce anxiety around reporting to work as an essential worker during a worldwide pandemic,” she said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, manufacturers were tasked with creating protocols using little guidance. What did your organization focus on?
“People safety was our #1 priority - physically and emotionally,” said DSI/Dynamatic. “Our leadership made sure everyone felt SAFE doing their job. We were expected to keep rolling at 100% even when nothing around us was normal. It was tough, but we managed.”
“We focused on separation, PPE for all employees, added sanitation procedures and a third of the staff who was able to do their jobs from home worked remotely for part of the year per NJ guidelines,” said Radwell.
“As a company with multiple direct relationships with manufacturers, we had to make sure that the products were made and packaged to our clients' preferences (sterile or non-sterile),” said Wear Active.
“We focused on virtual collaboration and helping our clients pivot to online outreach and business development,” said Meyer. “The day of lockdown I hosted an emergency webinar with tips on how to use conferencing tools to stay in touch. It seems so long ago!”
“How we could keep up with the demand as an essential business but allow the flexibility we needed with our Team Members who got sick and those who needed to be home. New processes for communicating when customers were also remote,” said DuraTech.
“I'm not sure because I didn't join until Sept., but I know our doors were closed, people worked remotely other than the warehouse staff, masks and sanitizer were available, the cubicles had high glass dividers put up, distancing was in place, masks worn,” said Dar-Tech.
“Communication and separation. We have basically been in the office the entire time,” said CVT. “We broke our facility into sections and worked out ways to keep things moving so we didn't miss anything. We also got a COVID facemask project done in days. Mold build to parts.”
“One practice that I would like to highlight was going touchless where you could. Example: being able to open doors without touching handles or knobs. Installing sensors wasn't quick so installing knobs where you could open with your legs was innovative and quick,” said Kumari.
“We focused on keeping our employees remote and followed CDC guidelines,” said Sam Gupta of ElevatIQ, a technology and management consulting firm.
“We did surveys & looked at physical & mental health safety We provided guides online & also had webinars to provide information as well as a mental health event,” said Gail Robertson, a manufacturing marketer.
Schleede of Vital Circle said consistency is important such as:
- Consistency in safety protocols across all levels of the organization
- Educating leaders on the importance of following the protocols
- Communicating protocols to all levels of employees within the organization
- Consistently managing non-compliance of the protocols at all levels of the organization.
Looking back on 2020 and Q1 2021 what have been some of your key learning on shifting your safety culture to include COVID response?
“It is really all about our employees and keeping them safe. Without them, we are sunk,” said CVT. “To keep us in motion, we had to focus on the safety of all of us for the betterment of the company and our future.”
“We'll approach cold and flu season similarly,” said DSI/Dynamatic. “Keeping areas sanitized, paying attention to symptoms, wearing masks if someone might be contagious, keeping a distance when ill, offering remote work when needed... these things have become part of our culture.”
“To be honest we are happy with the way that we tackled this pandemic,” said Wear Active. “Just would've been nice if we had the vaccination progress that we have now earlier. Those things take time though.”
“Include safety as part of overall financial and project risk and use key strategies to mitigate them,” said Gupta.
“Key learnings so far: 1) Listen to the experts (not the pundits or politicos) 2) Lead with transparency 3) Adapt to changing knowledge 4) Everyone is having a tough time. Cut everyone some slack. We’re all in this together,” said Meyer.
Involve operation/plant floor leaders around the organization’s COVID response plans, Schleede of Vital Circle said. She also said companies should:
- Be flexible and open to making “tweaks” to the policies and procedures as you see the success and failures around the guidelines given and their live implementation
- Be consistent in the application and consequences around failure to comply with organizational safety directives
- Communicate, communicate, communicate
- Continue to provide training, re-training, and reminders throughout the process
Progressing with the Times
What COVID-specific protocols were put in place within your facilities?
“Mostly people-related - we posted reminder signs, are masking in common areas, keeping capacity low and we’re not allowing customers into the office until we get the all-clear,” said Meyer. “With vaccinations, we’re probably opening up capacity in-office.”
“Social distancing, sanitization at regular intervals, mandatory masks inside the facility, temp check at the reception, remote working for non-critical work,” said Gupta.
“Social Distancing where possible, Mask Mandate was/is followed, if you are not feeling well, do not come to work, contact H.R. get tested,” said DuraTech. “Followed county's quarantine policy if someone was exposed, if tested, not coming back until results are received.”
Schleede of Vital Circle said it’s important to protect the fortress by:
- Establishing a culture of clean – sanitation stations, cleaning supplies readily available, and hand-washing instructions throughout the facility.
- Maintaining social distancing
- Self-reporting and identification of COVID symptomatic or COVID positive cases
- Mitigating the risk of COVID exposure and spread within your organization (to include contact-tracing)
- Establishing new policies and procedures regarding breaks and commuting together to work.
“Successful organizations created COVID safety teams that lead the response and culture shifts within facilities and organization,” she said. Who was involved in your team? What types of leaders were successful? What types of leaders were not successful?
“This subject was communicated to everyone who is associated with Wear Active LLC. We wanted to hear everyone's thoughts and make sure that safety was our #1 priority,” said Wear Active.
“We did have a team, but I was not on it,” said CVT. “I was sequestered in my office. I don't know all that was involved and what they did. They must have done something correct as we have not had any cases here.”
“We didn't have teams for this. Our CEO did most of the policymaking and culture-shifting after consulting with our Board of Directors,” said DSI/Dynamatic. “It was successful communication if it reached everyone in the company quickly and was clear, but concise.”
Schleede of Vital Circle said:
- Operation and plant floor leaders – those working directly with the team – must be involved with the development, implementation, and management of the policies to ensure employee compliance.
- Successful leaders are the influencers within the facility.
- All levels of the organization working together is key, along with consistency around non-compliance of the guidelines (at all levels of the organization).
- Leaders need to lead and lead by example. It’s a “do as I say and do” culture that needs to be established.
Unfortunately, the pandemic isn’t over. “Ensure your organization continually evolves throughout the pandemic,” said Schleede of Vital Circle. “Communicate, survey employees, and assess safety protocol often.”
- Employee daily self-certification from paper to web-based applications
- Talk with workers about vaccination and health care plan information using credible information
- Automated temperature screening devices versus manual labor
- Employee mental health check-ins from supervisors and other leaders within the organization – employees want to be seen and valued
- Creating a culture of “see it say it” and “we’re all in this together; let’s get through this as a team.”
What steps or additional measures could you take today to mitigate the risk of COVID exposure in your workplace?
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