Hardly anyone’s workplace has been spared all the repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis. People are working remotely, staggering their hours in laboratories to avoid too many coworkers, and relying heavily on conference calls and video meetings. We spoke to a few industry people to see how they’re coping and innovating.
Mark Jones, Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow for Dow Inc. in Midland, Mich. explained that his employer is allowing all that can perform their jobs remotely to work remotely. Cleaning was upgraded, social distancing is being encouraged and hand-washing reminders have been added. He’s concerned about potential long-term downsides from this crisis.
“Meetings using electronic tools are demonstrably slower and less efficient,” he said. “I’ll take the meeting efficiency drop if it means I don’t need to get on a plane. I think the drop is too great when all are in the same building. I am concerned that resetting the norm for social interactions will do irreparable harm.”
Jones said he doesn’t want this period to result in the end of face-to-face meetings, live events, or conferences and trade shows. But he fears that the harm is already done.
Donald Neuhaus, the Director of Research for Parker Hannifin, is based in New York, and similarly, he said that the changes to date are aimed at containment.
“Increased nightly cleanings, required workstation sanitizing at the end of the day, hand washing awareness, reduced meetings and meeting sizes with social distancing, travel ban, and containment by defining lunch groups that have assigned times with no overlap,” Neuhaus said. “Public gathering areas are closed, and breaks are to be taken at workstations. Cafeteria is now grab-and-go only for office staff.”
For Neuhaus himself, he said it is really business as usual, because he has several geographically diverse teams.
“The only real impact will be a temporary ban on traveling to meet with the teams in person,” he said. “That will need to be replaced by increased remote contact.”
Meanwhile, in Ft. Mill, S.C., Christopher Gintz, the President and CEO of Block Textiles Inc., said his company is adjusting its coatings business accordingly by complying with all state and national government directives.
“We have discontinued going to conferences and trade meetings, he said. “We continue to support our customers with immediate response by email and telecoms.”
Gintz explained that the company have always had a percentage of its work performed remotely based on the job function. It has increased by about 30% during this period and he said that it will continue open ended.
Concerns and impacts
Gintz said he sees less than a single digit percent impact on business from his existing customers. It will be more challenging, he said, to get the company’s marketing communication message out and attract new business. What does worry him is the health and safety of his co-workers as they go about the challenges of their everyday lives.
“We have a small team. A loss of a single teammate would be terrible to our ability to execute our business plan,” he said.
Jones said that he is most worried about the overall economy and its impacts on companies than on his particular job. Meanwhile, the thing that Neuhaus is concerned with are potential corporate mandates related to the current environment.
Jones also noted that “R&D that requires touching unique equipment, be it glassware, microscopes or other instruments, and simply cannot be completed under extreme social distancing. The good news is that many lab environments come with six-foot buffers just from the normal packing density and scale of equipment. Finding safe ways for people to come to work will be paramount.”
Neuhaus thinks that compared to other industries, the R&D world in general is better prepared to work through times of restricted personal interaction like these.
“Many of our teams work in relative isolation already,” he said. “I think we will adapt better than other teams — and certainly better than manufacturing.”
Gintz noted that it is during times like these that we are all forced to reflect on different methods of doing business and solving additional customer problems in a new way.
“A lot of good for your business will come out of this reflection — if you take the time to think about what you are doing,” he said. “Stay the course. It is during adversity that teams come together to solve additional problems and to address new opportunities.”
“COVID-19 is showing us societal needs that require innovation,” said Jones, reflecting on the importance of research. “It is only through innovation that we will control this outbreak and be prepared for the next.”
And Neuhaus found some positivity in the isolation that’s quickly become a part of our everyday lives.
“There is always potential when intelligent people can quietly reflect,” Neuhaus said. “Remember in 1665 when University of Cambridge shut down for the Bubonic Plague. Those two years were the most creative of Isaac Newton’s life — when he conceived the laws of gravity and developed the fundamental concepts of differential calculus.”