Over the last several weeks, as the COVID-19 pandemic has spread across the country, we’ve been reaching out to HR leaders and plant managers in the manufacturing industry to gather insights, advice, and best practices.

We asked them one simple question:

How are you keeping your company operational through the economic and logistical turmoil caused by the pandemic?

Our goal is to share the information we’ve gleaned to help others make better decisions faster through the power of community collaboration.

Here are the 5 most common steps the HR leaders we spoke to shared with us:

1. Implement work-from-home routines when possible.

​While working from home is relatively easy to implement in businesses that don’t produce physical goods, work-from-home policies have been a lot harder with manufacturers that need to operate factories. Where possible, HR leaders have mandated workers to stay home and perform any tasks that can be done on a computer. HR leaders are attempting to reduce the risk of an outbreak by reducing the number of people at the facility at any one time. By having workers perform non-production work at home, they’re also protecting essential employees who have to come into the plant.

“We make packaging for food and pharmaceutical products, and two of our facilities are in New York state. Due to the outbreak, we had to send everyone home and ask them to work remotely. We’re an old-school company, so you can imagine that the transition was abrupt. The IT team has been doing a fantastic job, and we’re doing quite alright actually. It's been an interesting process to figure out what actually works for a WFH policy. We’ve realized that it’s actually possible to get a lot of stuff done while working remotely.
—Director of HR, Packaging Manufacturing Company ​

2. Protect HR team members.

It’s important to recognize that the sheer number of decisions to be made, policies to be drafted and implemented, and communications to be delivered to employees has taken a special toll on HR and operations leaders. Make sure to take care of these individuals using processes such as:

  • To prevent exposure, ask HR personnel to post notes on their doors to let employees know that they’re currently meeting with someone and to wait before entering the office.
  • Rotate staff on a weekly basis (i.e., they only come into the plant every other week).
“We want to have an HR presence in each facility but limit exposure. So we put the HR reps on a rotating weekly schedule. They don't go back and forth between sites (to prevent spreading). We also asked reps to post a note on the door to communicate via phone call or email if an employee has to see a HR rep for something (reducing non-urgent in-person HR meetings). The folks who were insisting on seeing people in person have been adapting, so that’s been great.”
​—Director of HR, Packaging Manufacturing Company ​

3. Reduce chances of exposure and promote social distancing.

HR leaders also shared some of the tips and actions that they took to help reduce exposure at their plants:

  • Conduct mobile clock-in and clock-out on employee mobile phones to avoid the need for employees to touch keypads.
  • Employees must sit one to a table during lunchtime.
  • In-person meetings with more than five people are cancelled, and social distancing must be enforced at meetings.
  • Inform employees that leaves of absence are available in the event that an employee is living with family members who are at high risk for Covid-19.
“Being in the food industry, we saw the warning signs early and took action to reduce exposure quickly. We increased security guards at the plant facility and deployed them to conduct temperature checks at all entry gates. No one with a fever-grade temperature is allowed in. Guards also ask every employee a set of screening questions that checks for any symptoms, potential exposure events, and general health. We also launched a hotline that employees could call if they have any symptoms. I follow up with every employee personally to set out a plan for them to self-isolate at home.”
—Director of HR, Food Ingredient Manufacturer

4. Stagger shifts.

Some companies have implemented shifts that are staggered to avoid interactions between teams that work different shifts. Staggering shifts also helps to isolate outbreaks to specific shifts, so that the team members on that shift could be quarantined in the event of an outbreak. Staggering also allows for sanitization of workspaces before the next shift begins.

5. Implement helpful PTO and sick policies.

Many manufacturers are focusing on retaining as much of their workforce as possible during this difficult time. Managing mindful PTO and sick policies that support workers is essential.  ​

“At first we saw a spike in demand for our prepared sandwiches and salads as people went into lockdown. But that quickly dropped off as people started buying lettuce and making salads and sandwiches at home. Right now, we’re focused on retaining as many of our employees as we can. We’ve cut back on as many hours as we can and getting people to take their PTO and sick leave. Being in food service means that many of the CDC recommended guidelines (washing hands, using face masks) are procedures we already follow, so it's not too much of a routine change.”
—HR Director, Packaged Foods Manufacturer

Some of the HR leaders  we spoke with took the following actions:

  • Cut hours to the bare minimum needed to maintain health insurance coverage. This has temporarily helped prevent layoffs, while keeping everyone’s health insurance intact during the pandemic, key to employee well-being.
  • Allow employees to combine PTO and sick leave and offer a more flexible PTO policy that allows employees to take time off without needing many approvals.
  • Offer hazard pay to employees in “essential businesses.”
  • Offer the option for employees to take an unpaid leave of absence and keep their health insurance, in the event that they have high-risk family members at home who could potentially be exposed to COVID-19.
  • Inform employees that they have the right to paid time off for COVID-19 related absences through the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act.

Bottom Line

With daily updates and an ever-changing situation, manufacturers are scrambling to incorporate as much fresh information into their decision-making process as possible. We uncovered a few tips that helped make sense of the chaos:

Try to retain as much of your workforce as possible. It's important to remember that economic uncertainties like these are temporary, and it’ll be harder to find trained employees that are familiar with your business when we get past this crisis. Most HR leaders we spoke to agreed that employees understand their employers’ financial standings and are open to taking unpaid leave or a temporary reduction in hours to stay employed and retain insurance coverage.

  • Look for nuggets of information and share them with your peers. The situation is changing daily. In the endless news cycle, there can be a seemingly unlimited amount of information coming from all angles. HR leaders advised to filter through as much of the noise as possible, focusing on identifying nuggets of information that are impactful and help you make decisions faster.
  • Optimize your priorities to focus on tasks that can be done remotely. Projects that involve planning, designing, and communication (versus tasks that need a workbench or shop floor to complete) should be prioritized to enable a remote-work arrangement. This helps keep your business running for as long as possible.
  • Stagger and rearrange your shifts to enable social distancing as much as possible. Downtime between shifts can also be used to sanitize workspaces.

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