COVID-19: Operations in Essential Businesses
By Eric Johnson
As the pandemic continues to require social distancing and other methods of transmission reduction, those businesses deemed essential by state and local governments will continue to serve the public and remain open to provide goods and services. We discussed supply chain impacts in previous posts. One of the key differentiators of essential businesses is the maintenance of demand for products and services, despite the shift in specific product categories or services. Here we discuss some overall principles for trying to maintain a somewhat sustainable environment in this new normal.
If you are unsure where to start, utilize OSHA or Industry Standard COVID-19 protocols to create a healthy work environment and establish an executive owner partnered with union management
We have spoken to a number of organizations that are being overwhelmed with both the health impacts to the safety of workers on the job and the operational impacts the pandemic is having on both supply and demand. While maintaining operational capability is going to be tricky moving forward as the pandemic impacts both process and employee ability to perform, the guidance for establishing a safe work environment exists in a trusted and standardized format via government sources and trade institutions. By using this information and creating a “czar of health” at the executive level, a baseline level of responsibility is set within the organization. And by partnering with unions, the actions carried out will receive less pushback with added benefit of improving relationships along the way.
Maintain transparency in operations to create a culture of willingness to speak up
Despite these being harrowing times, employee behaviors stay the same, i.e. workers will respond to incentives to perform in a certain way and disincentives to avoid other activities, based on their interpretation of decisions and how they are made. In light of this, management should exhibit an overwhelming sense of both caring and openness of information sharing in order to reduce the already immense impacts to morale and employee mental health.
- Share the current impact of the business and be clear on risks and issues. Employees will appreciate the candor, but be sure to explain the “whys”.
- Maintain a positive outlook on the future as much as possible. While the pandemic is bleak, all downturns eventually reverse. The “past normal” will not return, so set sights on what a new normal will look like – take a reasonable stand on this, accounting for realistic information.
- Perform contingency option planning and include all stakeholders – union, midlevel, and executive management.
- Monitor employee morale and overall mental health. Address issues immediately as they arise with understanding and flexibility.
- Take advice from employees and act on it if at all possible – this will promote a sense of ownership down to the floor level.
- Provide new responsibilities for employees that focus on both the current state and the idea around a new normal. Set tasks to address process inefficiencies if demand is low and there is spare time to address them. If demand is high, focus on the customer experience.
- There are no stupid questions. Having a management team with a collective “high EQ” will be essential in providing good leadership moving forward, now more than ever.
Include employees in forecasting
Frontline employees are keenly aware of the limitations of the business and the nuances of what is happening in their work area. Employees always communicate informally and share information. By including employees in decision-making, management shows a commitment to valuing employee judgement and sends the signal that their presence matters. It also assists in developing the idea of transparency by including employees in information gathering and dissemination. As the pandemic moves forward, it is very clear that product demand is experiencing a drastic shift across all industries. The run on paper products in grocery stores exhibits this very clearly. By including employees in decision-making, it allows them to be closer to customers in providing information that can reduce frustration and lost business due to stockouts. This ultimately improves the customer experience and can establish a competitive advantage to other options in a rapidly changing environment.