There are many significant challenges for those middle market businesses that are either preparing to bring back greater numbers of staff or who are opening up their facilities for the first time since March. In this newsletter we are highlighting some of the success stories, as well as some of the obstacles, that companies are facing during this process.

When speaking with the CFO of a New Jersey manufacturer who is now increasing both the number of factory workers and inviting the office staff (previously working remotely) to return, the conversation quickly turned to address some of the most common problems other business leaders are also facing.

Early on, only about 40-50% of the factory workers in the company remained in place. Some were nervous about catching the virus and others initially thought that the government subsidies were more enticing than their salaries. But that scenario was quickly dispelled by reality and more employees began returning. But the need to adhere to social distancing guidelines limited the number of people who could return.

What changed in the work place?

The number of employees who could come to work was reduced, but with close to 180 people on site, the hours had to be staggered as well to ensure that everyone wasn’t entering and exiting at the same time. Likewise lunch and break times needed to be scheduled so as to accommodate the necessary protocol to limit interaction.

For example, Plexiglass partitions have been installed in the kitchen between the tables. While this might put a damper on conversation, it most it serves as an essential shield for the employees, building a level of confidence among them. Masks, gloves, extra sanitizer and soap, are all distributed regularly, further adding to the sense of commitment on the part of the managers to protect the employees.  And finally, having a cleaning crew perform a weekly heavy disinfecting service across the entire 200,000 square foot facility goes a long way toward demonstrating the company’s sincere commitment to health and safety. There is significant cost related to every new adjustment, but there is no limit on the value of investing in employees.

What changed at home?

The CFO we spoke with has been able to keep the factory open and productive by keeping his workers engaged and compensated during the pandemic. But for those of his employees who have chosen to work from home, most especially the office staff other than those who especially support the manufacturing component, productivity has become a topic for conversation.

First of all, it is hard to be productive when the processes you adhere to become unrealistically cumbersome. Working in isolation has created rigid silos that have occasionally led to a breakdown in communication, resulting in greater time spent on small, entry level tasks that have become overly time consuming and complicated.    

Secondly, it is incredibly difficult to be productive when working from home because of unintended interruptions. Parents who are assisting children with online learning, acting as referees, walking the dog, or following many other daily routines cannot be at their best when they turn to their work projects. Whether it is the demands of children across all age spectrums, partner expectations, pet responsibilities or other challenges, it is a challenge to work effectively from home.

What can be done?

To alleviate some of the biggest concerns, this company’s executive team made the decision to provide every office worker with a new lap top and second monitor/screen to protect the security of their data. This helped to eliminate some of the worry that remote workers could not maintain a safe and secure environment.

Next the leadership had to address the critical role that culture and commitment play for the employees. With all workers learning and absorbing information at their own pace, there had to be an awareness of the need for multiple levels of expectation. To get a strong handle on the needs and concerns of the employees, managers have had to speak to their direct reports several times a week through Zoom and through the Microsoft Teams app. Zoom allows for a more personal approach as do other platforms such as FaceTime and Teams. There are other options, each designed to help organizations hope for the best but plan for the worst.

Final words

In the words of this CFO, it is up to other business owners and senior leaders to take responsibility for keeping the culture intact, for enhancing the employment experience and for helping to sooth troubled employees. If an uptick is around the corner, every business owner will have to double down, help the employees manage their stress, fear, and anxiety by providing as many “fun” type activities (online games are gaining popularity)as possible, arrange drive-by food campaigns, schedule one-on-one meetings as often as possible and have as much engagement with the employees as possible. Even something as small as a virtual suggestion box can give employees a much-needed voice and influence in uncertain times.