The Back-to-Work Playbook: It’s Being Written By Manufacturers

The Coronavirus crisis has affected us all. Companies have shut down retail operations, moved employees to work at home, and implemented hundreds of new programs to help employees stay safe, protected, and productive at work. And now, almost 10 weeks into the crisis, some are going back to work.

We started a big program called The Big Reset Initiative to study the crisis, and in this article, I’d like to talk about phase 3: Going Back to Work.

The Three Phases Of The Crisis

Companies have responded to the crisis in three stages:  React, Respond, and Return. As the chart below illustrates, each phase has been filled with lots of change and many innovative solutions.

In the React stage, we came to grips with the new reality. Organizations set up cross-disciplinary swat teams, started to conduct daily crisis meetings, and the functions of HR, IT, Facilities, and Finance were tied together. Companies transitioned people out of infected locations, shut down retail and other branch locations, and started sending people home. (And more than 20 million people were moved out of their jobs entirely.) Our research shows that Remote Work has been a massive effort and major success for most companies, and has also pushed the topic of trust, transparency, and leadership support to impressive new levels.

In the Respond stage, companies started adjusting business practices to the new reality. In this stage, companies started to offer funding for home office and family care, tremendous amounts of online learning, changes to leave and performance management policies, and a massive increase in communications, listening, and wellbeing programs. This too has been a welcome transition: these were all programs underway in companies, and suddenly they became urgent overnight.

In the Return stage, which I discuss in this article, companies are coming to grips with the fact that some employees have to go back to work. And this phase is also a time for serious business transformation.

Return to What Work? This Is A Time For Business Transformation

Whether you like it or not, things are changing for some time to come. Before I talk about the tactics of sending people back to the office (or plant), let me point out that the new world is not a “recovery” from the old. It’s different.

Restaurants are providing home delivery. Entertainment and leisure companies are offering digital offerings. Banks are providing advisory services online. And manufacturers are redesigning their plants and workplaces for a new type of safety.

In fact, a new economy of “low-touch” products and services is now needed, and companies in all industries (from financial services to healthcare to leisure) are learning how to serve customers in a new way.

COVID-19 business models

These are only a few of the new businesses that have been created. Every company I talk with is adding service, online access, and much deeper empathy to their products and offerings. So part of “sending people back to work” is deciding “what jobs do we need now” and “where do we want them to go?”

For example, a Canadian bank sent home 80% of its branch workers and found that most of the small cities and towns they do business with were flooded with need. So the newly “sent home” branch workers immediately became virtual call center agents, but then the market started to change. Customers started asking for more consulting and advice, so they realized that they were now in the business of education and financial counseling, creating a need for new skills in this team.

A global manufacturer of cancer diagnostic equipment (with systems in all hospitals around the world) found that their service representatives were now working in COVID-prone facilities. While these workers are not healthcare workers, they were immediately asked to enter infected areas and needed to suddenly become experts at COVID awareness, safety, and response.

Retailers like LVH who shut down hundreds of stores in Europe and other locations are now hiring e-commerce and logistics workers at a rapid rate, so they are looking at ways to transition workers from one role to another. And the list goes on and on.

And every country, city, and county has a different pace of response. In some locations (ie. China, South Korea) people may be back to work already; in others, it may be months away.

How Do You Return? Take A Lesson From Manufacturing

Those of us who are white-collar workers think about safe offices, desks, and meeting rooms. But manufacturers are way ahead of this already.

Pharma and health product companies like Novartis, Sanofi, Novo Nordisk, and Baxter Healthcare have been running manufacturing plants at full speed. Jaguar LandRover and Aston Martin are planning on opening up this month. Ford has been producing ventilators in its alliance with GM, all using COVID-safe practices. And the list is starting to grow.

Should you mandate people to come back? Most companies are making it optional because the “fear of return” is still high. The ultimate answer is to build a new set of protocols and safety practices, just as oil companies and utilities do in nuclear power plants.

I encourage you to read the Safe Work Playbook and Safe Work Supplement developed by Lear Corporation. They are excellent examples of how to think this through.

Safe Work Playbook Lear Corporation

They discuss a wide range of issues you have to consider:

  • General Health screening – how will you make sure workers are healthy each day?
  • COVID-10 Testing – how will you test for actual infection and then quarantine?
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – will you have enough masks, sanitizers, and other equipment?
  • Sanitation Measures – how will you keep people apart and continuously clean factories, offices, cars, planes?
  • Physical Distancing – how will you keep people apart?

In each of these topics, many issues come up.

  • How do we schedule people coming to the office so too many people don’t show up on a given shift? (One company has the “A” and “B” workforce.)
  • How do we make sure meetings and work protocols keep people apart? Do we limit the number of people in conference rooms? (There is a new device that beeps or buzzes if another employee gets too close to you.)
  • How do you schedule bathroom breaks and meals so people don’t get too close?  Do we need a new cafeteria or seating rules in restaurants?  (Restaurants in South Korea, for example, have every other table blocked off.)
  • And do you need to redesign office space, add partitions, or rearrange desks and locations to move people apart?
  • If a worker feels hesitant to return, what are his or her options?
  • When and if a worker gets sick, how do you isolate them and avoid stigma going forward?

There Are Many Resources To Help

We are starting to collect all sorts of stories and resources to help, but let me point out a few:

OSHA Guide to Safe Work Practices 

OSHA Control and Prevention Practices

OSHA Ten Steps To Preventing Infection

OSHA Guidelines To Reporting Coronavirus Cases

CDC Guidelines for Employers, including Airlines, Schools, Shipping, and Other Industries

CDC Safety Practices For Critical Infrastructure Workers Infected

What you’ll notice is that the market for tools, solutions, and ideas is growing explosively. Contact tracing apps, elevator “safe zones,” infrared body scanners, and vibrating location sensors are suddenly coming on the market, all focused on business buyers. I won’t try to list them, but I suggest your “crisis team” start digging into these solutions.

What We Have Learned

Let me share some of the things our Big Reset group has learned:

  • Many of your “remote workers” may not have to come back full-time. Almost two-thirds of the companies we talk with are convinced that many of the jobs that moved home may stay partially or mostly at home in the future, freeing up real-estate or reducing lease costs.
  • Employees who do come to work are going to be frightened and nervous. (It’s called “Fear of Return.”) Most companies are making “come to work” optional, and are working especially hard to add safety procedures that build on the employee trust developed over the last few months.
  • We have to micro-design every protocol at work: interviews, meetings, meals, bathroom time, commute, check-in to the building, and every single manufacturing process. We need to think about distancing, spacing, and time-blocking these in detail. It’s a big design-thinking effort.
  • Local “site managers” are key. You cannot decide or define every protocol in the world from headquarters. As I described in my article about Resilience, you have to empower local facility and HR managers to act, built upon a global set of guidelines and protocols you will be updating every day. And HR, IT, Facilities, and Finance must work together to deploy these new practices.
  • You’re going to have to think about the stigma of being infected. This will be a new D&I topic to consider.
  • Some manufacturers are figuring this out. The Lear Playbook is filled with important ideas, and every day another article comes out (Read about Danone, for example, who have been able to make yogurt throughout the pandemic) explaining how companies are doing this carefully.

Where Will This Go:

While most experts agree that the new normal has not yet emerged, going “back to work” is becoming a big topic right now. People are getting tired of working from home and as the virus slows in some geographies, the opportunity to redesign work is here. 

We are going to stay current on all this. If you would like to join our Big Reset Initiative, please contact us, we’ll be diving into all these topics in the coming weeks.