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Manufacturing sector: Managing the post-traumatic shock of COVID-19 and bouncing back

Woman wearing a face mask in warehouse

The manufacturing sector is gradually resuming activity, according to a schedule that differs by region of the country. Although entrepreneurs are impatient to get back to work, they must remember that things will not be as they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. The pausing of both social life and the economy has created such a shock that, without exaggeration, one can refer to multiple traumas that shook the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Many workers are struggling to recover financially and emotionally from sudden termination of their employment. Some felt abandoned or even betrayed when their employment relationship was broken. Among those who have held the fort since mid-March, many are suffering from overwork or exhaustion, with all the psychological fragility those conditions entail. Others have seen their accumulated vacation pay serve as their source of income. And unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of people still do not know how they will escape from the financial abyss into which they have been plunged through no fault of their own.

Employees who are fortunate enough to be able to work remotely will not emerge unscathed from the crisis either. Containment creates a lot of compromises in terms of work habits; it often causes family tensions to rise, despite all the love one may have for one's own.

Everyone, employers and employees alike, must now deal with an element that is difficult to manage: uncertainty. This generates fear, which as we know only too well, is a poor adviser. At the dawn of the “recovery”, which should bring about some stability, it is clear that we will have to manage a real post-traumatic shock that can only be eased through a return of confidence.

Without the trust of our partners, it is impossible to do business. The companies that will benefit from the new economic reality are the ones that can reassure their employees, suppliers, customers and other financial partners. These stakeholders will, quite legitimately, want to protect themselves against a repetition of what we have just experienced. You will have to convince them that you have put in place the elements necessary for your future success and that you are able to innovate for the future. The recipes of the past no longer apply. You must effectively communicate to your target audiences the reasons that justify restoring or maintaining their bond of trust with your organization.

The main issues to manage

There is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding how employees will return to the factory and the conditions that will prevail to allow this return to happen. But the main challenges facing businesses are already clear: these are issues that require explanation, persuasion and mobilization as they relate to all of your target audiences.

1. Health and safety

Federal, provincial and regional health authorities have all warned us that it will not be “business as usual” when we return to work. Some companies must first undergo an inspection by public authorities to obtain a certificate of health compliance. Social distancing will remain compulsory for an undetermined period. And it must be respected by all! Production and delivery capacity will be affected. Many employees are anxious about their health and safety in the workplace.

You must continue to comply with public health directives and clearly communicate to all of your target audiences what measures you have put in place for this purpose. Who would want to risk a COVID-19 outbreak in their facilities and see their production compromised when competitors can operate with minimal constraints? Government agencies responsible for defining and enforcing labour standards remain allies who will help you understand the requirements in this area.

2. Logistics

The logistical challenges are numerous and come in two forms:

First, there are those over which you have control: managing shifts with reduced staff due to compulsory social distancing; controlling attendance during lunch hours in the cafeteria, crowds during employee breaks, and movement in locker rooms, hallways and other common areas, as well as in storage and shipping areas. Everyone must know what is expected of them and how to behave to achieve it. You must communicate this clearly.

There are also issues related to the closing of borders and social distancing. You still need to maintain virtual contact with your customers, suppliers, teleworkers and other important audiences. How to hold productive virtual meetings? How to do the appropriate follow ups? The past few weeks have shown us that anything is possible, while remote work is making tremendous leaps in making the virtual world function.

Then there are the issues over which you have very little control, but which will nevertheless require great adaptability. For example, many experts agree that this crisis marks the end of the “just in time” production method that has dominated the manufacturing sector since the 1980s. Shortages of goods have left their mark. Just think of the supply of protective medical equipment. It’s a safe bet that the post-pandemic economy will be built around a model that promotes self-sufficiency, particularly in the food and pharmaceutical industries. All governments now wish to move towards increased self sufficiency in these areas. How will you adapt to the new reality? A detailed communication plan, designed with the help of your trusted advisers, will permit you to maintain the trust of your target audiences by letting them know what you are doing to manage logistical issues.

3. Human relations

Nothing is crystal clear as the return to work begins. This is especially true when it comes to employees’ sense of commitment. Many saw their world thrown into chaos in only a few hours last March. Some lost their jobs; others feared—and continue to fear—for their safety and that of their families on both health and financial levels. And then the return to work is complicated by the lack of functioning schools, daycares, help from grandparents or due to the fear of COVID-19.

For others, it is the prospect of being able to continue working from home that matters (yes, it works!). Your employees should know that you are attentive to their concerns and that your return-to-work plan takes those concerns into account. It is becoming more important than ever to maintain a constructive dialogue with your employees—as with your other external target audiences—in order to calm apprehensions and position yourself as an employer of choice, both to retain your current employees and to recruit new talent. Tell them what you are doing. Your business partners face the same concerns. Know how to inspire them by sharing your ideas.

4. Innovation

The companies that will bounce back from the crisis are the companies with a capacity to innovate and the agility to do so quickly. These businesses will be able to adapt to new market conditions to quickly fill requests the likes of which we are not even aware. This ability to innovate is already largely due to the use of advanced technologies, known as Manufacturing 4.0. This trend will only accelerate. Get ready to integrate these technologies.

We’ve seen it since March. Hockey equipment manufacturers have switched to producing personal protective equipment and medical masks. The automaker Ford is now manufacturing respirators for American hospitals. Universities are using their 3D printers to make protective visors in record time. The digital age is just beginning. It's time to take your place.

5. Leadership and influence

In connection with the previous point, we reiterate that it is the innovative companies that will stand out, and not necessarily the largest ones or the best known. There are opportunities. Be visible and at the forefront of your industry. Humans have a propensity to turn to those who stand out to reassure themselves, convince themselves and take action. Be a valued expert in your field by sharing your relevant experience to become a trusted source and thought leader. You must appear on the interpersonal radar both of both your employees and customers, your suppliers and your shareholders, as well as that of the public authorities. In short, exercise inspiring leadership in the eyes of all these target audiences.

6. The next crisis?

Will we experience another pandemic in the fall? Later? Will we be threatened again by COVID-19 or by some new unknown virus? Nobody knows. But everybody must prepare. We now know that “shutting down economic and social activity” is possible, even if it seemed unimaginable just three months ago. You need to prepare now by incorporating the lessons of today into your business continuity plan. No one wants to relive the shock of the unknown.

Three simple tips

Communication remains the key to a successful return to business. Here are three things to remember to help you get there:

A. Surround yourself with trusted advisers

Nowadays, communication is a vital function in your company. It's not something you can do with one hand tied behind your back when nothing else is pressing. Just as one cannot imagine working without financial, legal or human resource advisers, it is impossible to work without a structured communications plan. You probably know external advisers whom you trust; put them to work. A clear plan makes things much easier.

B. Communicate frequently and appropriately

One of the important aspects of communication is repetition. Say and repeat what you are doing. There is no shortage of opportunities to provide updates. New government information changes the rules of the game on a daily basis. Your target audiences want to know how you are adjusting. They want to maintain their trust in you. Do not disappoint them.

C. Answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”

How can I benefit? This is the only question that interests your target audiences. If you respond positively, you will be assured of their ongoing loyalty to you.

This is no small task, but NATIONAL Public Relations offers an unrivaled team of sectorial experts who can help you successfully meet these challenges. Do not hesitate to call us.