I think it's safe to say that most of us never have prepared our businesses to operate during a pandemic. To further complicate matters, when COVID-19 began plaguing our country, I was on vacation with my family.
It was then that I learned first-hand how leading and managing the situation from afar created even more challenges. Even so, we knew we needed to take immediate action to ensure our employees remained safe.
Luckily, our business development department—with the support of our IT team—already had started putting measures in place to allow our teams to work remotely and virtually collaborate when needed, so we were fortunate to have a head start. The morning we decided action was necessary, even though I was thousands of miles away, I easily was able to connect with our leadership team to get things in motion while I was waiting for my flight back to North Dakota.
We set up a task force that included the leadership team and others that needed to be involved in decisions, including human resources and communications. We continue to meet daily to review rapidly changing updates, restrictions and news. The virtual meeting is as short or long as needed to ensure that we cover everything and our people felt taken care of. Given the speed at which things were progressing early on, it often felt as if we were in a tug of war between action and reaction. There's not an instruction manual for this situation, so we trust our instincts and do our best to sort facts from fear.
In our first task force meeting, we agreed that anyone traveling via air would be required to stay at home for 14 days after returning to North Dakota. Though it was extremely difficult for me, I stayed at home, physically away from our team, for the full 14-day self-quarantine.
This ended up being the longest period of time I've ever been away from the facility. Although I participate in numerous activities and events that require me to travel, I've never been one to enjoy working remotely. I like sitting down to focus at the desk that's been mine for almost 20 years. I want to take regular strolls through the production floor and check out the hot projects people are working on. During the self-quarantine, getting comfortable in my home office was a challenge, but I had to adapt, as everyone has done.
Though it was—and still is—extremely hard not being physically present every day, it's reassuring that I can still see the team's reactions face-to-face during our online calls with our collaboration tools. We are a family business and personal connections mean so much, so a phone call simply isn't enough sometimes. After all, how do you conduct family reunions? Typically, not over the phone!
For me, it's important to see people, look them in the eyes and be able to reassure them. However, I also realized I needed to set an example for my employees by making the sacrifice to work from home to reduce the risk of exposure to those that have to be onsite to do their jobs.
Outside of the protocols that needed to be put in place, such as social distancing, acquiring of protective gear, implementing additional sanitary procedures, and numerous other measures to keep our employees safe, here are a few things I learned through our COVID-19 response efforts:
• The Value of a Unified Voice. By involving members of different teams in the taskforce, we ensure every viewpoint is considered, and we cover all our bases. Though we don't always agree, we come to conclusions that benefit the greater good. Because of this, we ultimately are able to make decisions unanimously, ensuring everyone is aligned and able to educate their teams and peers on how and why decisions were made. The clear communication connects everyone to the deeper meaning behind the decisions and how the changes are the best interest of our employees, company and customers.
• Get Creative with Interaction. Even if you can't physically be together, it's important to create other interaction opportunities. Seeing people and listening to voices creates an entirely different feel when sharing messages and having a conversation, and it also can alleviate potential communications issues. We encouraged all meetings to go virtual as soon as the COVID-19 crisis escalated, and strongly suggest to our employees that they keep their laptop cameras on. In addition, our monthly employee meetings are being turned into videos, and we enlisted in a third-party Emergency Notification System. The ENS has been an impactful tool that's allowed me to communicate updates directly with our employees via voice and text messages.
• It's Important to Be Flexible. As a business, we already were headed down the road of telecommuting because of the preferences of the younger generations in our work force. Our leadership now sees the efficiencies and how it can work even more clearly. It's still important for us to be centered around the production facility in order to have the camaraderie we seek as a family and a business, but there is a happy medium we can strike moving forward. Because we were able to adapt easily, our business didn't have a lapse in productivity from those who were working remotely, and our employees felt supported.
• Make Fact-Based Decisions for the Good of Your Employees. If you make your decisions based on the best interest of your employees with the available facts, they'll make decisions similarly for you. People can do amazing things when you give them the opportunity to do so.
With all these great learnings in place, at the end of the day, it also has made us value working together in-person even more. When I finally was able to go back to the office, I intentionally—but safely—stuck around for a couple hours to see employees from all three production shifts. It was an emotional time as people walked by, waved and smiled; I wanted to be sure everyone knew that we are in this together. Through the pandemic thus far, WCCO Belting has been fortunate to keep our entire workforce on board and contributing to the goals we set at the beginning of the year, and it's promising to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel now.
From what I've seen throughout the past few weeks, I know that we are going to successfully weather this storm because our care for each other and our customers doesn't end when we punch out or work from home. As cliché as it may be to say, I do believe this too shall pass, and we will be stronger—and better leaders—because of it.
Thomas D. Shorma is the CEO/President of WCCO Belting Inc.