This has been an extraordinarily challenging time. We’ve all had to adapt to far-reaching changes in the way we live, consume, work, and socialize. Companies have had to act quickly and decisively to support their people, help communities fight the pandemic and ensure their businesses come through the crisis stronger.
Now, as economies and societies start to reopen, a whole new set of challenges are emerging. Consumer brands will need to balance ramping up their operations whilst ensuring the mental and physical health and wellbeing of their workforce. No one should pretend this will be easy. It’s going to require exceptional levels of flexibility, resilience and resourcefulness, particularly because in most markets around the world it is likely that there will be a pattern of opening and closing until a vaccine is found and the critical mass of the population is inoculated.
This is what we mean when we talk about the post-COVID world. The ability to manage and capitalize on uncertainty has become a massive strategic differentiator. A key feature of this is creating and executing a highly effective physical distancing strategy that allows people to be both productive and mentally feel safe. It means answering some fundamental questions about how the business should reset and renew itself for the new reality. There is now broad consensus that we won’t go back to how things were before.
So how should consumer goods and services companies approach getting their people back to work safely? Consider five things:
1. Keep your COVID-19 command center to bring centralized coordination and coherence until your workforce is fully comfortable with operating in the new era. This could be a while. The initiatives and structures created to deal with the immediate challenges of COVID-19 (such as any crisis command center or internal communication strategy) should be kept in place to help manage a staggered return to work. Keep up a regular flow of communication with the workforce, keep collecting their feedback and be clear and compassionate in your tone.
2. Reassure your people about their physical and mental safety, and rapidly take steps to address any areas of concern. The pandemic has been an extremely uncertain and stressful period for communities all around the world. That anxiety won’t simply go away overnight.
Your people need to be sure they’re not risking their health when they return to the workplace. Carefully monitor healthcare recommendations and legal requirements in each geography, be ready to update your protocols, and keep the workforce informed as soon as things change. Accenture research suggests that in most organizations there will be 20% to 30% of people who will be particularly concerned about this transition; identify them and stay close.
3. Consider how to renew and remodel your ways of working. Flexibility will be the order of the day. Be prepared to quickly redeploy people to areas of high demand. Review your training programs to ensure they’re upskilling the workforce for the demands of the future. Carefully prioritize who in the business needs to travel internationally and update HR and travel policies accordingly.
Accept that home working, video-conferencing and remote digital collaboration will most likely be a permanent feature of how you operate. Rethink how time management, performance monitoring, and career progression need to change for this more physically dispersed workforce.
4. Reenergize your relationships with your workforce and your partners. These last few months have been an unprecedented interruption. A key part of the post-pandemic ramping up will be restarting these relationships in a safe but productive way. Inevitably, this will need to be a carefully controlled and staggered process, so work with employees to prioritize who wants or needs to be onsite and who can or should stay at home for longer.
Be hyper-attuned to people’s psychological wellbeing and mental health needs, both for those in the workplace and those who are potentially feeling isolated at home. Be open and honest with customers, supply chain partners and the media about the implications of this gradual ramping up process.
5. Prepare for the reopening of your physical sites and facilities. Consider what personal protective equipment (PPE) you need to offer the workforce, and how its use should be enforced. Think about how to communicate hygiene and social distancing rules onsite (reminder notices, signs, floor markings, etc.) and when to offer body temperature measurements.
Establish guidelines for face-to-face meetings, including seating arrangements and handwashing before and after. Be prepared to rethink and restrict the use of shared spaces and canteens, and reorganize supplier and postal deliveries to minimize physical contact.
Digital technologies can play a key role in ensuring safety throughout the return to work. By creating a “digital twin” of the workplace, for example, it’s possible to simulate and test out different layout configurations digitally and assess how well people would be able to comply with social distancing rules, particularly in high-risk areas like canteens, sanitary facilities and meeting rooms.
In addition, consider whether you want to deploy “safe worker” apps and temperature monitoring facilities to alert workers when they’re breaching proximity limits and detect areas of overcrowding in the workplace in real time.
By working towards these five objectives, consumer goods companies will be better placed to manage the uncertainty of the coming months, ramp up and renew their operations, and ensure their people stay well and stay safe.
Oliver Wright is global lead, consumer goods and services, at Accenture.