What HR in the manufacturing sector has learned since Covid-19

ABB Country HR Business Partner Mervin Munsamy shares his organisation’s experience.

While the role of the HR function within businesses has evolved substantially over the past decade, the global Covid-19 crises further mounted the need for changes in our strategic approach. Within the manufacturing environment, HR and the C-suite have had to split their focus between the shop floor, on-site teams, and the administrative side of the business.

As part of efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace, ABB had already adopted a flexible work practice in 2019, prior to Covid-19. This meant that the transition for administrative employees wasn’t too difficult, as many were already enabled for a work-from-home scenario. There was swift movement to enable those who needed assistance in terms of smartphones and data when the national lockdown was announced in South Africa.

The HR and management teams have learnt numerous valuable lessons over the past few months. These will continue to be integrated into the ABB HR strategy, which could be beneficial for other manufacturing organisations.

Safety is important in all areas, not just the shop floor

A safety-first approach within manufacturing isn’t new, but today HR managers face a different threat and must adapt accordingly. In South Africa, those manufacturers who were deemed critical services continued to operate throughout the various government-mandated disaster management levels, but with strict safety requirements in place.

Every manufacturing organisation’s crisis task team had to ensure that factory layouts were revised to accommodate social distancing, improved airflow, and sanitising stations, among other Covid-19 compliance requirements. HR teams worked closely with factory supervisors to revise shift hours and create new teams with fewer employees to comply with the regulated allowable onsite staff percentages.

One of the challenges that manufacturers face is ensuring the safety of their employees on customers’ sites. It is critical to communicate with customers to better understand their Covid-19 prevention protocols, and where issues arise, pausing onsite maintenance, and if possible, assisting by using remote monitoring technologies.

These technologies are particularly useful when some of your expertise is supported internationally and borders are closed. It allows for teams to work across communication platforms and increase collaboration to formulate the technical level access needed to ensure the customer is getting their expected service level. This shows your employees that their wellbeing comes first, builds their trust in your organisation, and shows your customers that you take the safety of both your team and theirs seriously.

Some manufacturers have onsite clinics for their staff. Engaging with medical personnel who are able to facilitate the taking of samples onsite for Covid-19 testing with contracted laboratories, is hugely beneficial as it takes the stress out of employees having to find testing stations and paying for the tests themselves. It also means that you are able to provide proof for customers that each employee who may need to go to their sites has tested negative for Covid-19.

Mental wellbeing is equally important as physical safety and wellbeing during this time. Partnering with providers such as ICAS, who can provide remote counselling services for your staff is critical. Access to these resources allows employees to manage their stress levels and anxieties caused by the effects of the pandemic, be it increased workload, financial pressures, job security concerns or general issues of being overwhelmed by it all. Professional help needs to be made available for all employees.

Educating your employees on the current crisis is critical. HR, in partnership with the health and safety, and communications departments, needs to provide training, transparent updates and awareness messaging company wide – more so on the shop floor – with clear, useful precautionary information.

There have been numerous reports in the media, and personal accounts of individuals facing stigma when they’ve tested positive for Covid-19. HR teams need to ensure that de-stigmatisation training is implemented timeously with all employees in the workplace, to ensure a positive work environment. They also need to provide ways for staff to report cases of abuse anonymously, the same way they would report suspected integrity issues.

Don’t stop training

Onboarding and continuous development through virtual training should not be halted in these situations. In fact, when it can’t be “business as usual”, it is the perfect opportunity to enable learning in an online environment.

There are many training organisations that offer online training, which can be tailored for your employees. Partnering with one or more of them can boost employees’ morale and enhance their expertise in an ever-changing world. Where training must occur face-to-face, e.g., onsite safety training, then all safety protocols and social distancing measures need to be observed and monitored.

Mentorship programmes should also continue in times of crisis. As we work in a disconnected environment, the ability to reach out to your mentor is extremely valuable. Many organisations today have executive mentorship programmes. In a manufacturing setting, you might also have technical mentorship programmes in place that enable employees to improve expertise in their speciality areas.

In an engineering environment, there is a requirement to keep a portfolio of work for submission to the engineering council, to prove you are keeping your skills and knowledge up to date. This is where operating in a digital environment can help your employees to keep records safe, allow for collaboration on specific projects, and enable them to seek out specialist skill sets that available mentors can transfer.

Keep engaging, just take it online

One of the biggest challenges while working remotely is fostering engagement and understanding with colleagues and employees. Face-to-face workshops allow you to use visual cues to adapt the conversation as it was happening, to ensure the message is coming across correctly or to see when participants have questions. This is something that you need to do consciously when you’re hosting workshops online.

Have your managers host online workshops, or training, as it can be more engaging for staff than with HR, which may come across as functional. Employees have more of a connection to their immediate supervisors and feel more comfortable engaging with them in this situation.

Employment Equity Committee meetings happen at regular intervals under normal circumstances and these need to continue during times of remote working. It is imperative to keep lines of communication open with trade unions, for example.

To ensure everyone’s safety, it is preferable to host these meetings virtually. Ensure all parties have access to the necessary technology needed to join online meetings and provide mobile devices and data where necessary.

Is your HR strategy fit for the future?

Research indicates that we could be dealing with Covid-19 and its effects until at least the end of 2021. The pandemic has given all businesses the opportunity to rethink their strategies and work-from-home policies. Technology has the ability to bring us closer, to keep us connected and productive. We can learn remotely, actively invest in our wellbeing, and be highly productive in remote-working situations. It’s time to embrace the many available digital tools to improve the work environment and experience for our employees.