Relatively early in the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations faced myriad challenges as they sought to reopen office buildings. Temperatures would need to be scanned, density monitored, personnel distances measured, contacts tracked, and personal protection equipment and practices mandated. In some cases, hand-washing procedures would need enforcing, too.
To be sure, all of these changes require an intensive corporate-wide effort. But one of 2020’s significant discoveries is that, generally speaking, office workers perform quite well at home. (Indeed, when COVID-19 re-intensified, employers such as Google — with a high proportion of knowledge workers — extended their work-at-home programs well into 2021.) In this way, some businesses have been able to circumvent many of the immediate physical challenges of reopening their doors.
But what about manufacturers that use highly specialized equipment, such as five-ton jigs and robotic welders, that require skilled operators onsite? Or when million-square-foot warehouses and distribution centers spread around the globe must maintain operations to keep supply chains running? Or R&D labs with scientists and technicians who develop therapeutics or a vaccine for COVID-19? In many instances, remote work is not an option.
Since the coronavirus hit, we’ve had extensive conversations with manufacturers, retailers and other companies seeking to reopen in a safe, socially responsible fashion. We’ve learned about their situations and, in many cases, their frustration in tackling this moving target. We believe we’ve broken down their challenges into four primary categories, each of which we’ll discuss: technology, policies, leadership and people.
Factory floors, warehouses and retail stores are high-interference locales — they feature the movement of people, materials and equipment, often in unpredictable ways. Executives in such enterprises may wonder why they can’t simply manage their personnel by downloading a contact-tracing app they’ve read about.
In such cases, relying on consumer-grade technology is simply inadequate. What larger facilities require is, in most cases:
- A combined hardware/software solution capable of contact tracing and both body-temperature and physical-distance monitoring.
- Solutions that respect the privacy of individuals while protecting associates from risky contacts.
- Customized solutions tested to suit individual facilities.
- Additionally, any solution must funnel the data it collects from varied sources to a central dashboard for tracking, monitoring and reporting.
In the age of the coronavirus, organizations have understandably sought to tighten access to their facilities. That is hampering efforts to test and implement reopening solutions in factories, warehouses and stores.
As noted above, enterprise-grade solutions for these facilities require expert intervention to address the challenges in a comprehensive manner. On-premises work, in turn, necessitates exceptions to (admirable) lockdown policies. We’ve met with global businesses that, in spite of requiring a solution and needing it quickly, refused to make such exceptions to allow on-premises workers to support these solution deployments. Forward-looking enterprises intent to reopen or maintain safe practices must weigh risks against benefits and consider the following:
- Treat the technology workers who are enabling such solutions as front-line health workers; this means granting them access to facilities in order to pilot and deploy solutions. (Of course, adherence to stringent anti-coronavirus health checks is paramount for these individuals — temperature readings, masks, self-reporting of contacts, etc.)
- We believe facilities that make sensible lockdown exceptions will regain a healthy, productive position sooner than those that do not.
- The pandemic demands fast decision-making that might go against the norms in many large businesses. Early in the crisis, nearly all organizations formed COVID-19 teams — but in our experience, policy-making and decision-making timeframes have been sluggish. Policies must empower response teams to act on their decisions and operationalize playbooks faster.
In our view, the notes above on implementing policy all come down to leadership. Senior executives must not merely step but leap outside their comfort zones, demonstrating bold leadership on this never-before-seen crisis. Those that do may take occasional missteps. But they will earn the trust of employees, supply-chain partners and customers with their sense of urgency and commitment in the long run.
As businesses are forced to gather unprecedented information on facility occupants, ensuring data privacy should be a major concern among business leaders. Data privacy laws vary widely by country, but some global enterprises we’ve spoken with are demanding a global action plan, which would only serve to delay the eventual solutions. Laws, regulations and best practices related to data privacy change almost daily in various geographies and will continue to do so.
In complex times like this, senior executives must:
- Set speed, not perfection, as the top priority in reopening factories, distribution centers, stores and other facilities.
- Identify and attack pilot projects as proofs of concept with principles and technology that can later extend to other facilities, countries and regions.
- Communicate constantly with employees, partners and other stakeholders about the company’s dedication to safety.
In evaluating the challenges faced by businesses seeking to safely reopen factories and distribution centers, we’ve learned from experience that companies would benefit from a structured organizational change management (OCM) initiative. OCM has proven to ensure that programs stay on schedule, meet objectives, stay on budget and reduce delivery risk. Most importantly, OCM improves user adoption and experience, meaning the bulk of the people affected by the new technology, policies and leadership directives support and engage with the plan as desired.