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Peter Bigelow

It’s time to work with your employees toward reopening our doors to the world.  

As the second half of this most extraordinary year unfolds, I keep thinking of all the things I had planned, hoped or expected to accomplish during the first half that now are on the overly long “to do” list. As we try to get back in the proverbial saddle and focus on what we can do within the confines of various local and national government pandemic restrictions and reopening timelines, my priorities are reengaging with employees, customers, suppliers and industry events.

Each industry and company has issues to work through, whether it is bringing back furloughed or terminated staff, or just figuring out whether and how to integrate work-from-home into a long-term employment scenario. In all cases, employee reentry must be dealt with quickly to rebuild the sense of corporate community and possibly build an even greater sense of team.

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People by nature want to be with other people. Collaboration requires a good smattering of face-to-face time. While Zoom, GoToMeeting and WebEx will continue to assume a bigger place in the business interaction mix, long-term success requires people being together at least some of the time. While we will reluctantly continue social distancing and wearing face masks at times, corporate management’s number one challenge is how to bring the team together and get back to a more normal work environment.

Customers, too, have been neglected, and business needs to find a way to reconnect. Yes, the various communication tools mentioned, as well as the tried-and-true phone calls and emails have kept customers and suppliers in touch, but they do not replace face-to-face meetings where new products are discussed, problems are shared and collaboration best occurs.

The timeline to be able to meet in person will vary depending on locality, but reconnecting is high priority for all businesses. While I fully expect virtual communication tools such as Zoom to be used more than ever, walking a customer’s plant, talking to engineers, and seeing the shop floor in person are still the best ways to get a feel for the opportunities and challenges.

For far too long suppliers, the mirror image of customers, have not been able to walk through the plants of customers to discuss new products and better ways to process product. With so much focus on social distancing in the manufacturing environment, it is more important than ever for the direct dialogue on the shop floor, so the best ideas can become the foundation of improvements. A fresh set of eyes, especially when short-staffed companies may have inadvertently let processes lapse or be truncated, has never been needed more.

Industry events, whether local, regional or global, have also been missed. These events are the catalyst for people from different companies and in different segments of industry to discuss common interests and hear the latest thinking, be it related to specific products and processes, or tied to future technology or market directions. Now that a pandemic has caused all businesses to rethink how they operate and deal with events that a few short months earlier would have been considered rote, personal interaction among business leaders is crucial. Industry events of all types have harnessed technology to provide basic information during the pandemic. Personal interaction among colleagues cannot be replaced simply by webinar, however.

With the “to do” list so long, and the uncertainty so pronounced, what to do?

As the Chinese proverb goes, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Such is the case in our current times. Coming back from the stay-in-place pandemic mindset will take time and will require patience and flexibility. That first step may well be the most difficult, especially for companies and individuals in densely populated locations. The time is now, however, to think through, plan and put contingencies in place to successfully journey out of the Covid-19 cloud.

National and local governments across the globe may dictate “official” sequences or phases to “reopen” economies. Corporate policy, especially by the world’s largest companies, will provide a second layer of signals for when various levels of social mingling may be appropriate. But the real arbiter of how fast we can return to the much-needed business travel and face-to-face interaction will most certainly be up to the individual. Some may want to dive back in immediately; others may want to take a far more conservative approach to stepping back into life as it was. The critical part of each organization’s planning and contingency plans is to handle the many concerns individual employees have toward reentering work environments safely, compassionately and effectively.

Bringing the team back together, visiting customers, welcoming suppliers on the shop floor, and attending industry events will clearly seem different than they did six months ago. Having a game plan is necessary, as is flexibility. But the sooner we start to rebound, the more successful we will be.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI Inc.; pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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