As industries continue to navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic, companies are doing their part to reduce risk of exposure for their employees while continuing to plan for a phased-in approach to returning to the workplace. In order to better understand the challenges business leaders are facing as a direct result of the pandemic, we reached out to several business executives to discuss the effects the pandemic has had on their business and employees and their plans to move forward.
How has COVID-19 affected companies and what are their plans to reopen and reengage their workforce?
We heard a variety of answers when it came to how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the work environment. Companies such as FP Mailing Solutions were not traditionally set-up for remote work, so there was a need to quickly adjust. Many manufacturing companies such as the Lisle Corporation had to implement rotating schedules for their IT department, doing week-on and week off shifts, while spreading people out on the production floor to continue operations in order to maintain safe distances. We also heard from Professional Services companies such as SVA Consulting that had been set-up for remote work prior to the pandemic but had to discover new ways to deliver their services in order to adhere to the social distancing guidelines.
Ben Stickney, Director of IT Services at SVA Consulting says:
From our day to day operations, I think the impact on the individuals was pretty stressful because they had to transform the way they worked. Obviously with kids, we didn’t just move to a remote or telecommunications workforce, we turned into homebodies, raising kids, multiple parents at home. That’s so much further than what remote work truly is.
He explained that the staff had to re-engineer how they work and go through a discovery process to find their routine, it was a struggle at first to find the balance. “Once people found their stride, for us, we’ve been very efficient. We have some people that are working in shifts – some that work into the evening and some early starters. We kind of found schedules for everyone that worked.”
SVA Consulting realizes that the safety concerns this pandemic brings about won’t be ending anytime soon, so as a family of business technology organizations, they are asking themselves, “how do we as a business augment our services to the quality we used to deliver, just in a new way.” They are brainstorming new ideas, thinking about what their new normal looks like, while keeping the wheels spinning. They are taking the time to “button up” their internal services and looking at how to keep their business agile. Moving forward, they are going to stagger bringing people back into the office, possibly in shifts. They will be doing office space reconfiguration to give people “breathing room” and considering maintaining a remote workforce of some form in the future.
An IT Director with a pharmaceutical company in Canada said they had a recent restructuring, so they had already honed in on the key priorities so it was as simple as sending an email to staff on a Thursday and by Friday, everyone in that department was working remotely. The transition went so smoothly that they are considering a permanent remote work strategy and they’ve already decided to eliminate two of their office locations.
An electrical manufacturing company’s CFO said, because of their industry, the factory had to stay open to continue fulfilling orders. They had to get creative with ways to keep everyone engaged in their work, while maintaining the safety of their staff. They moved all of their office personnel to home offices and to keep spirits up in the factory they’ve been offering grab bags and gift cards as well as providing PPE and cleaning supplies to each of their production staff. The company is rotating their HR personnel, Controller and some IT team members into the office to keep everything running smoothly and effectively provide support to those working onsite. As far as the future goes for them, working from home isn’t necessarily the most ideal way to work, so they are working on a plan to bring everyone back in the coming months.
A consumer goods company leader said this is typically their slow season where they build up inventory, but with the increased demand for their packaged goods, they are having to work hard to fulfill demand and maintain productivity during such uncertain times. They are also taking extra steps to maintain the safety and health of their onsite workers by doing temperature checks and providing gloves and masks.
From a departmental prospective, the consumer goods company has had to improve some of their processes and increase their communication. They had to quickly get everyone outside of the production staff set up for remote work so they had to purchase extra equipment to do so. The company believes that in just a few short months they will begin to get back to their new “normal”, focusing on doing things more efficiently and even taking into consideration that some staff can maintain productivity remotely, or at least partially remote.
Dennis Cole, Director of IT at Lisle Corporation says they have had voluntary layoffs on the production floor and their IT department is rotating their people in and out in two groups to minimize the risk of exposure. They do have some remote workers, but mainly have moved to shift work throughout all departments, this spreads people out and cuts down the number of people onsite at one time. The company is taking precautions by doing temperature checks and having custodians on all shifts to sanitize surfaces, desks, and light switches multiple times a day. The company is planning on having those who were temporarily laid off back to work in July, depending on the conditions.
What have been some of the biggest hurdles when making this transition?
For companies that are new to remote working, this sudden transition can pose a challenge. These times of increased stress and uncertainty forces leadership to consider ways to improve their skills while finding creative ways to follow-through with leading their teams effectively.
Don Cahoon, Director of IT at FP Mailing Solutions acknowledged that not every manager is necessarily as effective working with a remote team. So, his focus shifted to how can they manage their teams well in a remote environment and what things will help his staff be as successful working remotely as they would in-person. Even though there isn’t a one size fits all solution to these questions, Don and his team are making great improvements towards being more successful in the current situation.
Various IT Directors mentioned simply getting their employees remote workstations set up and the location of their work has been one of the biggest hurdles. Many employees had to physically take their desktop computers home and with varying levels of technical competency, even this became a challenge. Some companies had to order laptops and other equipment which took a lot of time and effort due to a limited supply and shipping delays. Other challenges faced were people working from their kitchen tables or sharing an office space with their spouse or even with their children doing remote school work. In addition to this new set-up, new tools have been introduced to keep everyone connected or existing tools are being utilized much more frequently. Some of the most commonly used tools that have helped organizations stay in communication with each other are Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, WebEx, and GoToMeeting. Overall, many workers have had to adjust to being surrounded by distractions.
Knowing what companies know now, if they had to do this all over again, is there anything that would be done differently?
A theme that emerged from our conversations is that leadership should expect their teams to need a period of adjustment and that the focus should be on doing everything that can be done to make that a smooth transition.
Many leaders advised businesses to offer increased communication and emotional support to their employees as they move forward. Some are holding virtual happy hours, doing giveaways and carving out more time for one on one communication between leadership and staff. Being flexible with their staff can be a great way to mitigate some of the challenges during times of uncertainty and can be extremely beneficial to staff morale. A CFO from a manufacturing company said:
I think it’s just important as a manager to make sure you stay in constant touch with your staff. Make sure they don’t feel like they’re out there alone, working from home… make them still feel like they are a part of the team to avoid the isolation factor. I try to be respectful of my staff’s circumstance, the person with two little kids at home, don’t just pick up the phone and call them, text them or email them and ask when it is a good time to talk so they have time to prepare and hand the kids off to someone else in the house.
Bill Cox, IT Manager at Old World Spices and Seasonings says that there has been difficulty in getting reliable and actionable information. He recommends that crisis management tends to function best with singular, top-down guidance, and moving forward companies will need to follow this top-down model to get the information to its employees in a timely manner. He says, “The current crisis is not characterized by a lack of information, but multiple levels of guidance (local, city, county, state, federal, and more) on how to mitigate pandemic risk. This requires us to decide which of the ‘knowns‘ will translate into policy and action.”
Ben Stickney says that from this kind of impact comes imagination, change, new goals and business strategy:
This is a huge opportunity for people to jump in and create the new norm. Not even thinking about how we get to tomorrow, it’s how we get to the next month and next year. Now is the time to re-engineer or re-invent things because nobody knows…You can be the first one through the door saying this is how we are going to do it, or you can be the last one through the door witnessing how everyone else just did it and try to figure out how to move your business in one of those directions.
Pick your path, it’s an opportunity to jump in and an opportunity to move everyone forward – move businesses forward, move the economy forward in a new way…This is the time, this is the opportunity. This is where huge businesses are going to fail and small, tiny businesses are going to make huge names for themselves because they are going to innovate!
There are many things you can do within teams to keep people feeling positive and engaged as companies move through the transition of re-entering the workforce and begin their new “normal”. It is important to identify the challenges they are facing and try to minimize these in the future. Increase communication with your team and document what your future business plans are moving forward.
Note: Insight Recruitment would like to extend our thanks to all the IT Executives who gave so willingly of their time as we researched the themes shared in this article. Your shared experiences will hopefully help others appreciate that the challenges they’ve faced and the ways they’ve had to adapt are not unique to them. Thank you and stay safe.