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How manufacturers have responded to COVID-19

Mar 27, 2020

Second in a three-part series

Part 1: How past crises given rise to incredible innovation and disruption
Part 3: 6 predictions: What manufacturing could look like after COVID-19

In a progressive world, the only thing certain is uncertainty. And how we approach it — what we do with it — is our choice.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, manufacturers were concerned with the presidential election and how potential policies could impact them. Then there was talk of a recession and whether the market could continue its 10-year-plus climb.

No one saw a worldwide pandemic coming, that’s for sure.

Businesses across the globe had to push in the clutch after years of running in high gear. Yet amid talk of doom and gloom, what truly presented itself was opportunity.

As we saw in part 1 on past crises, innovation is the result of any major crisis. And the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly a crisis. Social distancing and shelter in place orders triggered a mass movement to remote working. There was absenteeism from those in quarantine. And we saw supply chains disrupted or, in some places, stopped in their tracks.

There were five early responses to COVID-19 that highlight the great potential for innovation to come out of this crisis.

1.  We saw a new norm for socializing

Amid social distancing and shelter in place orders, employees across industries began working from home. For people used to socializing with their coworkers in the office or after work, that was a difficult adjustment to make.

But what’s wonderful is that the sudden lack of socialization opportunities only made people get creative. They started participating in virtual happy hours. Everyone enjoys an adult beverage, as usual, but the backdrop isn’t a bar or restaurant but rather everyone’s individual home. You could see pets or kids sitting on their lap. You could see their office or kitchen or basement — wherever they had their home office set up — and get more of peak into their personal life. Sure, it was awkward at first, but so is anything brand new. It turned out to be fun.

During this pandemic, you couldn’t downplay the importance of staying connected, of seeing co-workers face-to-face and not just hearing their voice on the phone.

2. Manufacturers pivoted overnight

The shortage of critical supplies to help fight COVID-19 made manufacturers more important than ever. Many in mass production reformatted themselves seemingly overnight to begin manufacturing personal protective equipment like masks and even machinery like ventilators.

This was a heroic response to serve humanity as a whole during a time we needed it most — not to mention a great way to keep the doors open and staff employed when many other industries are having to lay employees off.

Every morning I learned about huge shifts in help, without government assistance. I saw how companies banded together, leveraging their knowledge, talent and equipment to create single humanity-focused solutions. It reminded me that our combined selves are much more powerful than our singular selves.   

3. Manufacturers hired displaced workers

Speaking of not having to lay employees off, manufacturers started hiring those displaced by COVID-19: specifically, hospitality and food service workers. These employees are trained to serve customers directly, which can translate well to manufacturing, as you could say the industry struggles to serve itself and not just its customers. Manufacturing can benefit from the service experience these workers bring to the table.

Plus, as we noted in a previous article, displaced workers are ready to work immediately. Manufacturing’s offer of full-time positions with benefits is sure going to beat part-time, minimum wage jobs — meaning you’re likely to keep these employees after the pandemic is over. The next-generation manufacturing workforce is ready all because COVID-19 has highlighted the opportunity.

4. The front office moved to the front line

Another response to the COVID-19 crisis was manufacturers’ front-office personnel pushing aside their keyboards and moving to the shop floor. They saw how many shop floor workers were quarantined at home and asked how they can help make products and keep things going.

5. Supply chains kept everything running

Obviously, it’s difficult in manufacturing to work from home. Some, like engineers, can do so, but not the shop floor. And that holds true for the supply chain. From the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, the response from supply chains working tirelessly to keep the U.S. healthy and fed was incredible.

Manufacturers are doing what they’re best at

Throughout the pandemic, people across the board, not just in the supply chain, have worked for a higher cause other than themselves. They’ve put first what’s needed, setting aside traditional hurdles and pushing into uncharted space without hesitancy.

I’ve always admired manufacturing’s deep capacity for problem-solving. This is a community of people intuitive to the changes out there and how they can support those changes. The response has been incredible.

Need help navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and its changes? Contact Wipfli for assistance with anything from PPP loan eligibility to change management to technology to strategic planning.

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Mark Stevens
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