Earlier on in the COVID-19 pandemic, organisations faced myriad challenges as they sought to reopen office buildings. Temperatures would need to be scanned, density monitored, personnel distances measured, and contacts tracked. In some cases, hand-washing procedures would need enforcing, too.
To be sure, all these changes require an intensive corporate-wide effort. But one of 2020’s significant discoveries is that, generally speaking, office workers perform quite well at home — a recent survey in Singapore showed that 70% of employees were either as productive, or more productive when working from home.
In this way, some businesses have been able to circumvent many of the immediate physical challenges of reopening their doors.
But what about manufacturers that use highly specialised equipment, such as five-tonne jigs and robotic welders, that require skilled operators onsite? Or when million-square-foot warehouses and distribution centres spread around the globe must maintain operations to keep supply chains running? Or R&D labs with scientists and technicians who develop therapeutics or a vaccine for COVID-19? In many instances, remote work is not an option.
Since the coronavirus hit, manufacturers, retailers, and other organisations seeking to reopen in a safe, socially responsible fashion have faced much frustration in tackling this moving target.
As economies begin to open up across Asia-Pacific, many companies have had to quickly figure out how to adapt their businesses while also enforcing social distancing, on-premise quarantine zones, capacity limitations, and the like.
Their challenges, and how the C-suite can start looking to resolve them, can be broken down into three primary categories:
Factory floors, warehouses and retail stores are high-interference locales — they feature the movement of people, materials and equipment, often in unpredictable ways. Executives in such enterprises may wonder why they cannot simply rely on contact tracing tokens or safe-entry check-ins to manage their personnel.
In such cases, relying on consumer-grade technology is simply inadequate. What larger facilities require is, in most cases:
- A combined hardware/software solution capable of contact tracing and both body-temperature and physical-distance monitoring.
- Solutions that respect the privacy of individuals while protecting associates from risky contacts.
- Customised solutions tested to suit individual facilities.
- Additionally, any solution must funnel the data it collects from varied sources to a central dashboard for tracking, monitoring and reporting.
In the age of the coronavirus, organisations have understandably sought to tighten access to their facilities. Many businesses across the region have enacted policies such as staggering the return of their workforces. While this is necessary to maintain safety, it also hampers efforts to test and implement reopening solutions in factories, warehouses and stores.
Enterprise-grade solutions for these facilities require expert intervention to address the challenges in a comprehensive manner. On-premise work, in turn, calls for exceptions to lockdown policies. Forward-looking enterprises intent on reopening or maintaining safe practices must weigh risks against benefits and consider the following:
- Treat the technology workers who are enabling such solutions as front-line health workers; this means granting them access to facilities in order to pilot and deploy solutions. Adherence to stringent anti-coronavirus health checks is paramount for these individuals — temperature readings, masks, self-reporting of contacts, and the like.
- Facilities that make sensible lockdown exceptions will regain a healthy, productive position sooner than those that do not.
- The pandemic demands fast decision-making that might go against the norms in many large businesses. Early in the crisis, nearly all organisations formed COVID-19 teams — however, policy-making and decision-making timeframes have still been sluggish for many. Policies must empower response teams to act on their decisions and operationalise playbooks faster.
Implementing policy boils down to leadership. Senior executives must step outside their comfort zones, demonstrating bold leadership in this never-before-seen crisis — already, half of Southeast Asian companies are taking the necessary steps to effect changes in their global supply chains, in preparation for the continued disruption that the pandemic will cause.
Those that manage to take the leap may not be able to altogether rule out occasional missteps, but they will earn the trust of employees, supply-chain partners, and customers with their sense of urgency and commitment in the long run.
Ensuring data privacy should be a major concern among business leaders, as they are forced to gather unprecedented information on facility occupants.
Data privacy laws vary widely by country — with some enterprises demanding global action plans, and laws, regulations and best practices related to data privacy changing almost daily in various geographies, there are many causes for delay for eventual solutions. In complex times like this, senior executives must:
- Set speed, not perfection, as the top priority in reopening factories, distribution centres, stores and other facilities.
- Identify and attack pilot projects as proofs of concept with principles and technology that can later extend to other facilities, countries and regions.
- Communicate constantly with employees, partners and other stakeholders about the company’s dedication to safety.
In evaluating the challenges faced by businesses seeking to safely reopen their workspaces, the C-suite would need to ensure the right mindset towards managing change. This process begins with understanding that change is difficult — humans are hard-wired to resist it, even when beneficial, or in the current environment, necessary.
While the change in the pandemic will hit some organisations harder than others, what remains the same is that people must be at the centre of applying the tools, policies and behaviours that will drive their survival and eventual success.