Manufacturing executives have learned much from taking their companies into the pandemic and beginning to take them out of it, about operational areas ranging from worker safety and health to how much they can actually get done only tethered to the factory by the internet.
And they may be learning more about communications with employees than anything else, CEOs told the Chief Executive Smart Manufacturing Virtual Summit held earlier this month. In a live, online roundtable hosted by the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and Conexus Indiana, a non-profit focusing on accelerating, promoting and growing Indiana’s advanced manufacturing and logistics industries, chief executives from a variety of manufacturing companies said Covid-19 has prompted them to experiment with new channels and technologies, increase the frequency of interactions with employees and flatten the overall communications hierarchy – many to the point of going personally to rank-and-file workers.
Indeed, leading effectively amid the coronavirus has prompted some manufacturing leaders to put aside strategic concerns for prolonged episodes of close communications with their troops.
“You can’t communicate enough or empathize enough with people in times of crisis,” said Susan Murray Carlock, vice president of business development for Mursix Corp., a Yorktown, Indiana-based maker of metal components. “You have to calm the fear, working with people and doing whatever it takes to make your presence known. People want to be talked with. My job as a business leader is to make them feel comfortable and that they’re in their second home.”
For Chryss Crockett, CEO of Carus Corp., a Peru, Illinois-based chemical maker, the pandemic afforded her little choice but to plunge into the fray with the rank-and-file. She became chief on February 4, and the company’s first case of Covid-19 was announced on February 10.
“I inherited an organization that had very little communication between the executive team and employees,” Chryss said. “They had two townhalls a year and virtually no other communications. So I started a daily 9 a.m. call with my executive team and now, every Tuesday at 10 a.m., there also is a [company-wide] townhall that is a ‘Tuesday Chat with Chris.’
“The first three or four chats we had, there was complete silence. [Employees] didn’t know how to speak with one another in an open forum; they were used to being so guarded. But now we don’t know how to shut them up. The energy has been phenomenal. It has truly, systematically changed the way our organization communicates.”
In fact, perhaps ironically, sometimes meetings conducted remotely and online provide a more intimate and productive setting than previous physical gatherings, chiefs said.
“We shifted from doing all-hands company town halls to a lot of small-pod discussions,” said Jim Colony, CEO of Darmann Abrasive Products, based in Clinton, Massachusetts. “That takes more of my time. I’ve had to do the same thing eight times instead of just one. But partly that’s because of social distancing. But actually, the communications are better. People aren’t so afraid to ask questions about what’s going on. I think we’ll continue that afterward. It’s more effective for what comes from me to them and them to me.”
Yet chiefs must be conscious of the potential legal requirements for conducting and recording meetings on Zoom or Microsoft Teams—even given how the online services accommodate documents—rather than having employees sitting in a company meeting room with an agenda or other printed pieces of information in their hands. They must understand, for example, that everything transpiring during a remote meeting “is part of a permanent record,” said Lloyd Carter, chief information officer of Paper Excellence Group, a pulp and paper maker in Richmond, British Columbia.
“Nothing goes out unless it says what we want it to say, before we say it,” said David Zalesne, president of Owen Steel Co. in Columbia, South Carolina. “Even with a safety meeting there’s an agenda. We have vetted everything. If you plan it out, you can stay within legal guidelines to make sure your messaging is consistent with internal and legal policies.”
Cambridge Engineering has become renowned for its daily in-person meetings on the plant floor during which its 160 employees share everything from family news to self-made videos of new production hacks. But when the maker of industrial HVAC equipment in St. Louis had to resort to physical distancing as it continued essential manufacturing during the pandemic, Cambridge changed its approach.
“We are very communal but we couldn’t do that anymore,” Chairman and CEO John Kramer told the summit. “So we do it virtually, with someone from the shop floor and someone from their home computer leading the meetings.” Cambridge also established a WhatsApp channel for official company news as well as “social chat that includes celebrating anniversaries, birthdays, pictures of the families, cocktail parties on Zoom, and even virtual cooking contests.”
Cambridge also began using its remote setup to conduct online surveys of its plant workers every few days, to ask if they felt safe in the factory and to check in on their health and that of their families, Kramer said. “We’d also ask them if there was anything they thought we could do to make [the workplace] safer,” he said.
When General Motors began bringing its U.S. factories back online in mid-May, the company instituted a multi-phase communications procedure as well as established all the necessary health and safety protocols. On Day 1, workers receive a safety briefing; on Day 2, they “get into their routine” on the plant floor, said Jim Glynn, GM’s vice president of worker safety; on Day 3, workers are polled so they can rate the company’s return-to-work performance in some key areas.
On Day 5, GM conducts small-group meetings “where we ask people to come together with their site-level leadership to talk about what they’re experiencing and how we can improve what we have,” Glynn said. “We also ask them to whom they’re turning for information” about GM and the pandemic, and “overwhelmingly it has been their local plant leadership.”
“All of that has turned out to be a tremendous opportunity to learn and to look at it from different viewpoints from where we started,” he said.