Manufacturing Leadership Council members gathered this week for their 8th town hall meeting since the COVID-19 crisis began. Leaders joined the conversation to discuss, several months in, how their companies are handling the pandemic and how it’s impacting their businesses, strategies and employees.

Across different manufacturing sectors and geographies, members said they’re under pressure to make decisions and develop policies to keep their businesses going and their employees safe and healthy. Here are the top 4 highlights from the meeting.

  1. Travel policies

Most companies have curbed employee travel to some extent but participants in the town hall voiced concern over how to handle travel for essential employees. One member said his company didn’t stop travel for field teams until early April, but now he’s being asked to redeploy them.

He’s currently trying to figure out the best ways to protect those employees and so far, has been following the same health and safety procedures as their factory floors (which remain open) and limiting them to travel by car, stay in approved hotels, order food via takeout services such as Uber Eats and practice social distancing.

“We’ve given them safety measures and instructions, but it’s really hard to manage somebody 400 miles away in a hotel room,” he said.

Other members chimed in to say that their companies are only letting employees travel with strict pre-approval processes (such as adding an additional layer of authorization from leadership) and have been replacing in-person meetings with video conferencing tools as much as possible.

  1. In-person events & conferences 

Similar to employee travel, many organizations have cancelled in-person events altogether or replaced them with virtual meetings. However, one member mentioned that for large conferences in the fall such as IMTS (scheduled for September 14-19, 2020), no plans have been changed yet. Held every other year in Chicago, event organizers are still waiting on further information from state and local governments to determine how to proceed.

The member went on to mention that as part of the conference, her organization is still planning to offer tours of their downtown Chicago factory. To ensure health and safety of visitors, they will follow social distancing guidelines and are exploring measures such as automatic doors that can be opened with your forearm, hand sanitizer, directional signage, automatic sign-in via mobile phones and automatic temperature sensors for entering and exiting the building.

  1. Office re-openings 

Another critical topic for attendees of the town hall was office re-openings and how companies will be handling reintegration of employees.

One leader shared that his organization is developing a phased approach based on specific triggers. For example, they may only allow 25% of employees to return to a given office location, but those employees must meet certain criteria, such as living within a 60-mile radius of the building, a higher level of effectiveness in working in the office versus at home, absence of underlying health concerns, and not needing to use public transportation to get to work.

The challenge, he mentioned, is that they’d be integrating those returning into a physical location where critical employees have not stopped working. While the critical employees have grown accustomed to new social distancing protocols, returning employees will require an adjustment period. However, the company is beginning to shift its stance on ‘work at home’ policies for the future.

“There is a very real potential that maybe 10-20% of our workforce never comes back to a formal office setting,” he said. “And when and if they do, it will be either on a rotational basis or some type of shared office arrangement.”

  1. ‘Work at home’ productivity and resources

Companies on the call had various ways of measuring employee productivity for those working at home. While one member steered clear of saying they were monitoring how long employees were logged into their computers, many others spoke up about collaboration and video conferencing tools that have made it easier for their teams to work remotely.

One leader mentioned that his company is using spreadsheets to track how many employees are working in the office versus at home and projects they’re working on, so they can visualize work that’s being completed and plan for the future weeks and months.

Later, a question was raised about whether companies should be paying for home internet and phone service, to which one member shared that after sending employees home with laptops, they realized they needed to increase their internet service to accommodate remote access.

“We spent the last three weeks rewiring the entire place to handle the work from home employees, which is only about six people, so I can’t even imagine what the IT impact would be if you had 600 people,” he said.

MLC/NAM to Hold Additional Calls

The MLC/NAM is arranging additional calls to discuss how manufacturers are dealing with COVID-19. These will be announced as soon as details are available.

In the meantime, if you have any tips or best practices on how your company is keeping employees safe and/or is acting to minimize business disruption during this time, please share them at mlcouncil@nam.org.