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Keep calm; stay flexible

08 January 2021

Grant Jamieson, Managing Director of Winkworth Machinery Ltd, a leading manufacturer of industrial mixers and blenders, provides an insight into the trials and tribulations of running a business during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. 

As a capital equipment manufacturer, it was never going to be possible for us not to have essential machine-making employees inside the factory. So it was a given that we would have to create an environment that was suited to their continued activity. 

However, for those indirect employees, we were aware that most people could - if enabled by information technology, VPN access and where necessary taking the desktop computers home - manage and cope with COVID-19 using a home-working approach. So our immediate priorities were to avoid overloading our IT support service and introduce a phased approach to configuring and developing a home-working solution for all of those employees who we considered it was possible. It worked very well.

Our longer-term priorities were to avoid any interruption to the supply of professionalism that we present to our customers. 

Initially, we knew that client access to our factory and to our mixing test centre - which often proceeds capital equipment investment - was going to be a restricted service. Clients in different parts of the world were at various stages of COVID-19, and their availability was already affecting our local management. 

We had some clients whose projects were delayed through their inability to access people and facilities, which in turn left decision-making difficult and clearly some projects were deferred in their completion because of that unavailability. 

Upscaling communication 
In the very early phases of lockdown our management and senior management team, who routinely meet, agreed to meet daily - this was done using Zoom, Skype and Teams. We also introduced an application called Slack to the whole company and made sure everybody had enough understanding of how to use it. This presented a digital communication channel throughout the company, which allowed us to message to and from all individuals. Our company was already using a software tool for managing HR and that's where our formal notices to the business were being published. These included the latest announcements and information being published and shared from the government's website. 

A balancing act
One of the biggest threats that we had during the early stages of lockdown was misinformation. We had a number of employees who watched and were influenced by a variety of news programmes and had interpreted conditions different from those that were being published on the government website.

As a result of this, it became obvious that we needed to assert truth and clarity, while also referencing critical sources of information and guidance that we relied upon as a business.

The first task was to calm everybody down. At its peak and to diffuse a worsening situation, I decided to close the factory early and send all employees home. Following an accurate update on government policy and direction, we gathered the information that related to our working practices and restated our position with clarity and consistency. The return of employees back to work was measured, and we were soon able to resume work and regain staff confidence. 

Furlough and HR putting people first
As we moved into furlough considerations, our closeness to our staff meant we had become aware of individuals’ personal preferences. These were based on various parameters, including medical conditions and age concerns, as well as the extended risks to certain employees of transmission in their domestic environment. This reflected a new dimension in managing our employees, the scope of which, undoubtedly, has been shared by many other companies. 

Most companies contract is with the employee, not his/her extended family, excepting those already protected in employment law, e.g., those with young children or maternity/paternity considerations. However, the pandemic made us aware of employees' health conditions and domestic circumstances, which we may not have known or been aware of in the workplace. This thrust our HR function into the spotlight and increased their scope of responsibilities, of which effective management was essential to winning hearts and minds. 

Overall, HR has taken the lead in supporting our employees during the pandemic, and their tireless work has been pivotal. From working to ensure people can work remotely for the first time, to fielding a barrage of questions from colleagues concerned about their health or financial security, HR has been centre stage throughout this rollercoaster of a year and, as a management function, their efforts have proved invaluable.

My son was living at home with us when the initial outbreak occurred. On 23rd March, he contracted the virus, which meant that I had to self isolate for 14 days. This placed a heavy burden on effective video communication with my team and quickly illustrated the need to develop my home office into much more than a transient environment. Once it became evident that COVID-19 and home-working was going to be a longer term consideration, I and others in our company took steps to ensure that our home-working environment was appropriate for extended periods of work.

Settling into the new normal
It was evident that some of the indirect roles needed to be closer to the factory environment due to the nature of the tasks and their duties. They required and chose to return to work on the premises - it was evident that not all domestic environments are suited to home working. In support, we reissued PPE and health and safety display screen equipment to facilitate.

Whilst this rebalancing was in progress, the question over essential workers was raised. As we make machinery for health and food applications, we were qualified for this category. However, as we are a long way up the supply chain, that particular argument needed to be presented clearly and effectively to our staff, once again referring to specific government advice from government websites. 

Business continuity
Ordinarily, department heads prioritise their department and come together perhaps monthly for formal meetings and board meetings. However, the pandemic saw us working more closely together daily - sharing views, opinions, accepting and delivering on the actions to keep the business going. It was unifying, and the team worked very well.

From a business perspective, the absence of clients being able to come and accept the machinery that we made for them posed a new challenge. How to accept machines in their absence? It was only because of the global nature of the pandemic that our clients also had to adapt their processes and behaviours to suit the situation. Technology won through again, with Zoom, Skype and Teams saving the day. [Postnote: Some clients' machinery remain 'stuck', as a result of their inability to move the project forward in their home countries.]

As a result of our collective overuse of videoconferencing applications, we are now preparing online events now more readily; this in turn which is shifting the burden on to presentation skills that weren't previously there!

Looking to the future
Looking ahead, I anticipate less person-to-person business travel, a greater and continued use of digital communications between businesses and between colleagues. Businesses must have effective IT infrastructures. We implemented ours a few years ago by extending conferencing facilities inside our premises. This meant that we were ready and able to exploit these as the need arose earlier this year. 

The absence of travel to clients' premises does pose a challenge for us, however. A client's working environment provides us with observations and opportunities that are significant, being often very beneficial to our proposals. So new methods of working will need to be established for us to be able to understand an environment to the best of our ability, if we are not able to visit in person.
On the plus side, the willingness amongst global clients for videoconferencing is beneficial. This in turn need will enable our technical sales team to be in more places on the same day. With a global business based in the UK, this is undoubtedly an advantage that I fully expect us to capitalise on.

Supply & demand
We saw a reduction in confidence and progress in capital equipment programs. There was a noticeable drop in demand for goods and services across the country, reflecting the national picture impact on progress and ambitions of companies. This of course, leads to deferment or postponement and in some cases, cancellation of capital investment projects. Some clients we know were on the brink of investment, but were completely turned around to survival mode due to the pandemic.

We are seeing a slow resurgence of these projects now, and it appears that for many companies, the pandemic has caused a 9 or 10-month delay in their company's progress. 

Effective leadership & communication
As a relatively small company, we were able to meet and manage the pandemic and communicate effectively using the IT tools and the cohesion of the senior management team. That agility is a positive for the business and demonstrates that when we have a unifying goal, we can rise to the occasion and meet the challenges head-on.

Personally, I'm quite satisfied that my leadership approach was effective for the challenge that we faced. Uniting the senior management team and ensuring our overall strategy was well communicated by the team was essential. As we are currently undergoing annual performance reviews within the senior management team, it is evident that they too enjoyed the detailed collaboration and co-working with each other in a way that perhaps they haven't done before. 

I firmly believe that our business is stronger as a result of the transition. There has been some need to review activities. Still, the behaviours that we've demonstrated during the year illustrate to me that the business is robust, resilient and that our goods and services remain valued by our customer base.

The most significant learning experience from this pandemic has been to emphasise the need for clear leadership and strong communication skills. The confusion that arose in the various stages regarding rules, regulations and risks were open to interpretation by all individuals. Everybody was receiving the information at the same time, so the leadership needed to demonstrate a calm, objective and yet balanced approach to the problem. 

Emotional reactions would have been adverse for the business. What was needed was a clarity of leadership to enable our customers to be unaffected and for our staff to have confidence in the company and in its future.

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