Post-Pandemic Planning

How to responsibly resume onsite operations, business continuity, and worker safety in 2021.

The news of effective COVID-19 vaccines from multiple pharmaceutical companies has people anticipating living life without masks very soon. But experts are saying—not so fast. We won’t truly be out of the woods until there is widespread immunization and the contagion rate goes down, and that could take a while.

That means, as we move into 2021, there will still be guidelines to follow from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) around personal protective equipment (PPE) and social distancing. Companies will continue to allow telecommuting and will continue to invest and use technology to stay connected with employees, partners, suppliers, and customers—regardless of location. And keep that mask handy because many American citizens are embracing the wearing of masks in public and, even after the pandemic passes, a mask may be the new social norm anytime someone is not feeling well. Masks in, handshakes out.

But it’s not just human behavior that is changing. Business has changed, too. Manufacturers have learned how to be resilient during this pandemic, responding quickly to disruptions in the supply chain and in their own operations. And the “new normal” may just be here to stay.

“Enabling business continuity has sweeping implications beyond the pandemic,” says Wes Sylvester, global director of the manufacturing, energy, and industrials practice at Cisco Systems Inc. “We have spent a lot of time talking to CIOs, CFOs, and people running the plants, and most of them are finding that safety will be of the utmost importance when they make a transition back. And they are working on being more resilient, everything from supplier diversity to the opportunity to go back into the office or make more roles permanently work from home. Everyone is focused on work from home and remote access and those things we believe will stay after the issues have subsided. But one survey I recently saw said 75% of workers still want an office and a place to go. So, as you think about scaling up remote access and work, you also have to think about how to scale it down in times of crisis.”

Crisis could be a pandemic, a power outage, or a natural disaster. It’s anything that disrupts operations. Going forward, business continuity requires resiliency, which Sylvester says relies on four business behaviors: respond, reflect, reimagine, and rebound.

Response is the immediate “must-do” reactions including social distancing, contact tracing, PPE, temperature screening, and cleaning. Reflect includes a plan for the next three to 12 months, such as hybrid work modes, stabilizing the supply chain, retaining institutional knowledge, and adopting remote access, remote experts, and mobile workers. Reimagine includes a plan for the new normal. That could mean new digital businesses, new products, near sourcing supplies, more connected supply chains, and advanced manufacturing technologies. And then a company can rebound by putting new models to work.

Of course, rebounding requires management to think differently.

Future-back strategy development
While we can all learn from the past year, it’s more important to look far into the future. So, for example, here we are in a world where companies like Facebook are announcing it anticipates that half of its employees will permanently work from home by 2030, brought on as a result of a pandemic that is changing the way we work. But it’s not so easy to do. It requires technology, policies, process changes, new rules, and a culture shift to ensure people working at home feel as rewarded and in the know as those working onsite.

“It’s a system problem,” says Mark Johnson, co-founder and senior partner at growth strategy firm Innosight. “Trying to get someone to do something breakthrough means not following the traditional path upward and onward. It’s not like following Lean and Six Sigma to drive efficiency improvement. It’s a step change, a point of departure, and a transformation.”

Johnson co-authored a book on how to evolve an organization toward a new paradigm. The book, called Lead from the Future, How to Turn Visionary Thinking into Breakthrough Growth, focuses on a concept called “future-back,” which addresses the barriers to change that exist in established organizations. “Systems replace systems, so what is the new system? Imagine that and architect it and work it back.”

To do that, answer the questions: What’s the objective and what do you imagine are all of the pieces of the system in the future? What assumptions have you made and how do you walk back to the experiments you need to start today?

And, while it may seem to be a reverse engineering exercise, “the difference here is that the system is not just technological, but it involves humans. Nobody knows what the world will look like 10 years from now, but by having the conversations, bringing in trends and the potential disrupters, and spending the time to ask the right questions and have the right discussions, you start to develop a point of view,” Johnson says. “It’s filled with assumptions, but innovation teams are often surprised by how much of a sense of direction they have of where they want to go.”

During the COVID-19 crisis, so much has changed and it isn’t going to go away, Johnson says. Management should ask questions to figure out what the future company “system” will look like. “But the better question is, ‘do we have a plan to learn?’”

A good place to start learning is to look at other industries. In education and in cities with smart buildings, there are social distance monitoring and hybrid learning spaces with advanced technology. “In smart buildings, we have an amazing camera solution where we look at people to see if they are socially distanced and if they are wearing the correct PPE,” says Cisco’s Sylvester.

Cisco is also partnering with other technology providers, like Rockwell Automation to securely connect IT and OT networks, and a collaboration with RealWear helped the Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) to quickly pivot milk production and distribution in the early months of the pandemic. The DFA is a cooperative composed of more than 13,000 farmers from across the U.S. who were considered essential workers and critical infrastructure when COVID-19 hit. The problem was, most of DFA’s milk and dairy products are distributed to schools, businesses, and restaurants—all of which were closed down, sending more people to the grocery store. DFA was not capable of quickly shifting large scale distribution to the grocery stores. So with both an obligation to get food to consumers and obligation to keep farmers in business, DFA turned to Cisco to help them figure it out.

With engineers working at home and less plant personnel onsite, there was a lack of interaction and communication. The people who were working onsite needed to meet—while staying six feet apart. In addition, travel was non-existent, so OEMs could not come onsite to fix equipment.

“We set up remote screens, Webex systems, and the RealWear headsets so everyone could join and see each other and interact on video in the same meeting without having to be in the same conference room,” Sylvester said. The RealWear hands-free “head-mounted tablet” also helped teams across manufacturing sites to securely connect with OEMs, suppliers, and contractors for remote expert support. “Now we are working with them on what the plan is for the next three to 12 months, [such as] if we will maintain a hybrid work mode and if there is a cost savings. Also, how will we use this technology to train the next-generation workforce.”

RealWear's remote collaboration headset.RealWear's remote collaboration headset.

HR Best Practices
The ADP Research Institute recently surveyed over 25,000 employees across the globe from 25 countries to understand engagement, resilience, and the impact of COVID-19 on the workplace in 2020. Only 17% of workers were shown to be highly resilient amid the pandemic, but the resilience increases with facts, direct communication, and personal experience. According to the report, “this finding has profound implications for leaders. If it is true that we demonstrate more workplace resilience the more up close and personal we get to the reality of COVID-19, we can conclude that sugar-coating or whitewashing that reality is not helpful. People need facts, not blithe reassurance. Personal experience of the reality of the problem seems to help build resilience to help people overcome fear and access their capacity.”

At PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, this honest and upfront approach has created an environment in which employees feel safe enough to come back to work on a staggered schedule of three days in the office and two days telecommuting. It was a phased-in approach that included employee surveys to gauge comfort levels and a task force to make sure everyone was safe.

“During the pandemic, the key words we are using are “flexible” and “responsible,” says Laura Clairmont, PMMI’s director of human resources, noting that phase one started in May with people coming in one day a week and now are in phase three, which is three days in the office. The task force would check the COVID-19 numbers for both of its office geographic locations, gauge how everyone was feeling, and also followed the CDC and Virginia recommendations of a phased approach to re-opening. They then shifted into the next phase of three days in the office—which remains in place with flexibility based on the need to come into the office for meetings or the need to be home with children who are doing remote learning. Every employee has their temperature taken before entering the building, which is done via a touchless screen. And there is proper PPE available to employees all around the office, as well as while in the office they have strict rules on people in offices and meeting rooms to ensure social distancing. Managers are held accountable for knowing how their staff is doing—especially remote workers. And given the stress of the situation, everyone is encouraged to use the employee assistance program that includes 24/7 access to a third-party mental health professional.

“This is the norm until COVID-19 is over,” Clairmont says. “And it is working. We are functioning and able to get all of our work done no problem with people not seeing each other [every day].” One of the tools that has helped connect people wherever they are working is the association’s adoption of the RingCentral cloud-based communications platform supporting voice, text, videoconferencing, and web meetings, which was deployed prior to the pandemic. In fact, it’s working so well that Clairmont anticipates that employees will want to continue telecommuting post pandemic. “But we don’t have an answer for that yet.”

And, once a vaccine is available to the masses, there’s another question that HR professionals may not have the answer to: Can private employers require employees to take the vaccine?

The vaccine question
According to the National Law Review: “Because there is no law or regulation that directly address this issue, employers considering a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy should analyze how mandatory flu vaccination policies have been interpreted… It is possible the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) may approach the COVID-19 vaccine differently than its traditional position on mandatory flu vaccinations. From the beginning of the pandemic, the EEOC has recognized COVID-19 meets the higher threshold ‘direct threat standard,’ which allows employers to conduct more extensive medical inquiries and controls than normal.”

And, let’s say an employer does go the route of mandating vaccines before someone may return to work, they will need a HIPAA-compliant way for HR organizations to manage and track vaccinations. Healthcare management technology company, ixlayer, recently announced the COVID-19 Vaccine Administration Platform which could play an important role in the last mile of vaccination, including onboarding medical histories, engaging patients, and reporting critical data to federal, state, and local health departments. Through the ixlayer dashboard, employers, health departments, and other organizations will be able to divide responsibilities and manage access.

The ixlayer platform provides a way for employees to get pre-educated on the vaccine and go through a screening process from the comfort of their home so that clinical staff already have their information. Then, post-vaccination, there’s the ability to follow the individual to make sure there are no side effects and that there is follow-up as the current coronavirus vaccines will require two injections spaced either three or four weeks apart. “Building upon the foundation of our technology, ixlayer is transforming into a fully integrated testing and vaccine distribution system for organizations to manage and scale COVID-19 responses from one central platform seamlessly and efficiently,” says ixlayer CEO Pouria Sanae.

Vaccine tracking is just another change that organizations may see moving forward. But changes are touching every aspect of business—including sales.

The more things change the more they stay the same
According to Growth Dynamics, a global sales performance analysis company, sales organizations are dealing with three issues amid the pandemic: Struggling to find a way to re-define the role of sales to recruit the right talent; arming themselves with a strong value proposition or reason why a customer or prospect should want to meet; and not prospecting enough to build a pipeline of new customers for 2021.

Over the past several months tools like LinkedIn serve as a good way to reach out to potential prospects virtually vs. a cold call. But even with social media and videoconferencing, “the most effective tool in sales is still the phone,” says Ty Swain, CEO of Growth Dynamics. “It’s about being able to focus on the conversation.”

And conversations are key to connecting with customers—which has always been the case with or without a pandemic. Right now, however, it’s all about listening. “Leadership needs to have their sales team reach out to existing and prospective customers and instead of sell, ask them what they are seeing and experiencing, and if they have a need for the types of things that the company does,” Swain says. “Instead of selling, ask questions and build a rapport.”

In addition, Swain says, sales leadership have to know how to use CRM and LinkedIn tools and give the sales team direction on how to go about developing new customers in a digital environment. And, like Innosight’s Johnson noted, create a new standard based on what the future might look like—not what is happening in the present or even the past.

Sure, it may be harder to predict what the sales pipeline will be in 2021, and companies may be struggling to retain and support the existing customer base. But that is just another symptom of the pandemic. “The role of sales is not harder, it’s just changed,” says Swain.

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