Running a successful business takes a lot of flexibility, but since the coronavirus surfaced, business practices have been tested beyond the normal levels of compromise and forced employers to get creative to retain the workforce. This is one of those times in history when businesses need to think outside the box and reprioritize daily goals. Project completion has taken the backseat to securing benefits for employees and assuaging the concerns of a workforce with uncertainty. In addition to the fear of contracting a disease, employees are scared they may lose their jobs and their livelihood. Some workers are unable to continue working due to being forced to stay home with their families since no childcare facilities remain open. Others are forced to stay home because their position is not deemed as emergency personnel. The worst-case scenario sees those who are symptomatic, being forced to take mandatory leave to quarantine themselves to prevent the spread of the virus.
Ronald Heifetz, who specializes in Leadership at The Harvard Kennedy School, said, “While technical problems may be very complex and critically important (like replacing a faulty heart valve during cardiac surgery), they have known solutions that can be implemented by current know-how. They can be resolved through the application of authoritative expertise and through the organization’s current structures, procedures, and ways of doing things. Adaptive challenges can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties. Making progress requires going beyond any authoritative expertise to mobilize discovery, shedding certain entrenched ways, tolerating losses, and generating the new capacity to thrive anew.”
All industries are having to adapt to policies that are changing daily. On March 23, 2020, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear joined other elected officials across the nation when he ordered all citizens outside of non-life-sustaining businesses to close effective March 26, 2020. Groceries and pharmacies were automatically designated due to their access to resources, but there are plenty of businesses that were uncertain. Many of those businesses were in the field of construction. Construction companies are considered to be essential personnel in most states, including New York, and California where almost all other businesses were ordered closed. Although each state is different in how it classifies its emergency staff, most construction companies have remained active.
Due to accommodating the personal needs of employees, some companies have been forced to trim down crews or shut down jobs temporarily. Owners have scrambled to fill vacancies left by missing employees, while simultaneously collaborating with other companies to navigate through evolving government issued recommendations in an attempt to complete jobs. This has been a time of adaptation and true perseverance. I spoke to a local business owner recently; he described a mixture of feelings regarding the new way of managing the daily affairs of his electrical business. When I asked Justin Walker owner of D & D Electric what challenges have arisen in the initial phase of modifying his operation, he said, “One would be scheduling. Once the daycare and childcare facilities closed down, that created many issues for my employees with young children. So, a lot of people were missing unexpectedly, and that led to last-second rescheduling. Which led to more phone calls, which just added to the overall chaos that was already going on.”
Walker’s electricians are indeed life-sustaining- employees. Respirators, C-pap machines, and other health-related equipment depend on electricity. Much like Walker’s company, those who have remained open during the quarantine are forced to adapt to scheduling and accommodating employees with families. Scheduling issues require a lot of adjustment depending on staffing, and who can come into work. If the person responsible for answering the phone is not there, then someone has to fill the void and pick up the slack. In Walker’s case, that person is often him personally. It is truly a time for all hands on deck. For a business to remain fluent, all tasks need to be delegated upfront by the team leader to avoid confusion, and organizational systems that involve taking and relating messages need to be adjusted to accommodate the facilitation of information without in-person contact. That includes the communication systems used for checks and balances for validating completion of job assignments. Now in-person contact is held to minimum walkthroughs, and meetings are coordinated to allow for one inspector at a time. In contrast, other affairs have to be handled over the telephone or through videoconferencing.
For the employees having to stay at home for sickness or to take care of their family, the federal government has passed measures to compensate those who file for unemployment and provide owners opportunities to write off those funds allocated to employees in need. These processes have been slow to get up and running with approval needed from legislators. Some companies were forced to get creative out of pocket to ensure employees are currently compensated. There’s no certainty yet as to how long this will last, as this is an unprecedented time, we are living in. But, as of now, the outlook is that employees in need will be provided a safety blanket by the government to supplement wages while employees stay home with their children or quarantine themselves for illness.
This puts immense pressure on employers as Walker pointed out, “To know that a lot of my men live to check and that I, fortunately, do not, and to find out or decide how much to give to alleviate some of the stress and pressure they are under. We are a small company, and because of that I get to know the details of a lot of guys’ lives that work for me, and it just doesn’t seem fair that I’m comfortable and they’re not when this has been a team effort to make this company successful.” Walker has personally paid out of pocket for multiple employees to make sure his employees have been compensated.
Construction companies and other businesses that remain open may consider implementing incentives for those who can work through the shut down without accommodations. Employers should see the value in those who come to work every day and persevere through this crisis. Those employees could request precautionary time off and collect unemployment in lieu of coming to work. However, employers should use discretion when offering incentives upfront that may encourage employees to come into work when they may be symptomatic. One strategy is to surprise employees who work through the crisis with unexpected compensation once this crisis is diverted. Employers who plan to employ this technique should be generous. It may be tempting to provide a low bonus once the crisis is diverted, especially after calculating the total financial loss this pandemic may have caused. But those employers should keep in perspective how unprecedented these times are, and remember the loyalty those employees have demonstrated.
Ensuring employees that their lights can remain on is a necessity at times like this to demonstrate loyalty, but going the extra mile for those who show up and model great work ethic is a great way to secure a long-term employee.
Martin Luther King said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
This applies to business owners and leaders as they have to assuage the fears of their workforce. The construction business is used to the emotional outburst from employees but doesn’t usually require employers to provide emotional security to them. This is imperative during these times. According to CNBC, 90.9 % of the construction business is made up of male employees; many of them are earning for their families. When there is a threat of not being able to provide for their loved ones, it may evoke a sense of fear not normally confronted at work.
Most of the time, employees are encouraged to remain stoic and keep their personal lives separate from their work life. Still, during this unprecedented time, employees should be encouraged to disclose those fears to their employers. They need to feel safe enough to disclose what is challenging them during these times. This allows the leader an opportunity to validate the employee but also a chance to offer a solution. Many team leads and bosses may feel like armchair psychologists during this window of time, but if that is what it takes to get your staff through this, then so be it. It is important for your employees to feel safe, and any leader’s job is to guide their subordinates from the place when they are struggling.
Allowing employees to go home, and not work should be permitted with no judgment. Fear of contracting this virus is real, and no worker, male or female, should be shamed or made to feel insufficient for wanting to find safety at home with loved ones. The federal government has just passed a bill that will allow workers to recoup 100% of their salary as opposed to the 67% they would typically receive through unemployment payouts, so employees may prefer to play it safe from home, and that should be okay. This is scheduled to take effect on April 2, 2020, so employees may work until then and choose to go home, which employers should support until the crisis diverts.
In addition to having to reschedule jobs due to lack of manpower, Walker mentioned having to restructure the routine for how his employee’s workdays are scheduled, “Implementing new protocol to promote cleanliness, distance, and following all of the current suggestions by authorities each day.” Instead of having his crews meet at their home base before jobs, he has had to redirect his employees directly to job sites. Each site can only staff a single electrician, or in cases where multiple crew members work, they are forced to work apart from one another. All projects require everyone to remain separate and collaborate from an acceptable distance to maintain safety guidelines from the CDC [Center for Disease Control]. This may need crew members to change times to arrive at job sites at separate times rather than working on a cohesive schedule or having to focus on job sites where employees can spread out while postponing jobs on sites where separation is not able to be accommodated.
D and D Electric, like all operating businesses, were forced to educate their employees on the importance of practicing safe hygiene habits, such as hand washing and not touching their faces. These sound like simple solutions but are not always easily accommodated when working in the field. Walker’s company has attempted to provide his technicians with sanitary supplies to use while working in the field and disinfect the office daily for those who have to come in to gather supplies. When employees report to the main office, transactions happen from a distance, and employees need to be more self-sufficient when they need supplies to prevent things from exchanging hands multiple times.
Some of the changes made during this time might prove to be sustainable. Walker often reconsiders reorganizing his protocols if another solution proves to be more successful, and he is open to making long term changes depending on how his employees respond during this period of time. Employers should be forward-thinking during times like this and not be afraid to implement successful strategies that arise during this time permanently. This is an unprecedented occasion in our history, but everything that results from it doesn’t have to be negative.
This is a chance for industries like the construction field to reinvent their workplace cultures and implement policies that enhance the lives of the people who work so hard in it. These recent circumstances may have forced employers and to get to know more about their employees’ personal lives, but that doesn’t mean the door is slammed shut when the crisis is diverted. Use the opportunity to build a better rapport with your personnel.
Use this as an opportunity to encourage more health-related initiatives, not just the persistent hand washing and sanitizing, although those habits should be encouraged continuously, but overall health. Implement exercise and nutrition-related initiatives for developing healthier immune systems and weight loss. The coronavirus has not spared professional athletes and other healthy subjects, but a common variable for victims s having an unhealthy lifestyle. This is an excellent opportunity to take up when the smoke clears on this crisis, and supporting businesses like gyms open up, for employers to push the value of healthy living and the importance of taking care of your body.
With all of the mandatory isolation, people should be incredibly motivated to get outside and be active. Encourage hiking, biking, and working out in the yard. Exercise doesn’t have to be a strenuous activity; it may just be mowing the yard and obtaining a level of normalcy. Employers may also provide incentives for employees to continue to explore any mental health concerns that may have arisen from this unusual time. Stress breaks even the healthiest body down, and this national event has been incredibly stressful. Just because a lot of people are not at work doesn’t mean they are on vacation. Men and women alike have frantically sought out solutions for paying bills, staying healthy, and are trapped inside. All of these variables can lead to a variety of feelings that evoke helplessness and other aversive emotions. Those feelings don’t just go away when we are permitted to engage in our daily routines again. Those feelings might be exacerbated by other events moving forward. Employers should encourage their workforce to finds ways for self-care and seek out professional help if they feel it is necessary.
When the government determines it is safe to return to our lives as a nation, everyone should take a collective breath and evaluate where they are individually. These have been some stressful times, and the effects will be felt for some time.
Ronald Heifetz said, “To diagnose a system or yourself while in the midst of action requires the ability to achieve some distance from those on-the-ground events. We use the metaphor of “getting on the balcony” above the “dance floor” to depict what it means to gain the distanced perspective you need to see what is really happening.”
It will be a joyous day when we can feel safe again, but as we work our way back together, we can always strive to achieve the best versions of ourselves.
Austin Hill M.A MFA
March 27, 2020