The global flash knockout from COVID-19 has forced companies to adapt on countless fronts with unprecedented immediacy. Simple tasks are now complex undertakings. Collaboration must be mediated digitally — results lag. With the scope of new challenges just starting to come into focus, we wanted to learn more about how companies are handling the disruption of their daily operations. Chris Gumas of Ruland Manufacturing took a moment to answer some of our questions via email. Below are his responses, lightly edited for length and clarity.
What modifications has Ruland made to working conditions (working remotely, teleconferences, layoffs, increased time off/sick leave, etc.)?
Non-essential staff are all working remotely. We have daily intradepartmental video meetings and interdepartmental video meetings when necessary. The little computer that sits in our pocket and is usually reserved for Words with Friends is being used for phone calls. It has served in-place of the day-to-day face-to-face type interactions with co-workers. Ruland has not had a layoff in our 83-year history and we have no plans to start now. We have amended our sick time policy for this year to be consistent with the realities of the virus.
Let’s say, optimistically, we’re looking at two months of this “new normal.” How much of an impact do you think there will be on your day-to-day work, projects, etc.?
There may be some projects that take a backseat for right now because they require on-site work by non-essential personnel. We have pushed those projects off to later in the year and brought in others that can be done remotely. It is more a reshuffling of our projects than canceling anything.
What are some of the initiatives that Ruland has taken to protect workers while maintaining the business? On the factory floor? In the office? In the warehouse?
We are closely following the WHO, CDC, and local guidelines to do the following — among other things: frequently cleaning common areas and equipment, posting bilingual signage, and educating employees about the importance of handwashing. We also allow employees that can work from home to do so, along with social distancing. We’ve also amended our sick time policy.
How do you think your job, in particular, can be handled during times of restricted personal interaction like these? What successes are you having in working with teams remotely?
Keeping everyone motivated and engaged is a different dynamic when working remotely as opposed to in-office. When in-office there is a sense of excitement when a new customer comes on board, we find a cool application, or we achieve a major milestone. Translating these to remote employees is a completely different dynamic.
I have reached out to a few people I trust in my network that have worked and/or lead remote teams for years. The key point that was constantly brought up was communication. The Ruland office is small and it is easy for us to communicate by walking around. Similar strategies can be used with a remote team, especially since the quality of video calls is much better than even two years ago. It just feels more frequent when doing it remotely because there is a bigger barrier to clicking the call button as opposed to turning around and chatting with someone. In some ways, we may communicate better when we get back to the office since the dynamics will have changed. Employees being out of the office for three months is a long time. New patterns will be developed as we are remote that may carry over into the office.
What are some tips and tricks your team has discovered and implemented?
Do not hesitate to call/video with someone. We are all working during the day and it is fair to talk to anyone at any time. Microsoft Teams has been our primary method of managing daily tasks for a long time. We used the chat feature infrequently while in-office, but use it all the time now. Since it is more like texting with instant back and forth, the conversation is less formal and more productive than email.
How are you maintaining employee productivity? What about mental health/worker morale? Where’s your focus there?
We have a daily reporting structure that all remote employees must follow. It is designed to take about 15 minutes and has the activities for today plus the plan for tomorrow. Remote or not, this is a good tool to use consistently as a productivity monitor. It may end up being a permanent fixture.
In the building, morale is good and our president is regularly addressing employees in small groups (keeping our social distance) about the situation and any updates we are making to policies/procedures. Over half of Ruland employees have been with the company for more than ten years. Most went through 2008/2009 and trust leadership will be transparent as we were during that crisis. Everyone is worried in some way or another about themself, family members, co-workers, friends, etc… None of us have ever been through this.
To think it is not on everyone’s mind for some part of the day ignores the reality of the situation. Ruland is a culturally positive place to work and that certainly helps alleviate some of the mental strain on us. About 1/7 of our workforce is related in some way, which helps because family is always close.
How do you think engineers can maintain their creativity during these times of limited physical interaction with other team members?
I am not an engineer and do not manage engineers. My frame is from marketing to engineers. We have had a lot of content discussions around what we should deliver to our engineering audience and how it should be delivered. Ruland has always been a little different in the way we communicate with our audience.
What we are doing is serious and we do not lose sight of that, however, we like to use humor (to the best of our limited comedic abilities) to connect engineers with our material. We want to help spark that engineering creativity through our written and video content. Hopefully, the engineer who has that spark passes it around to the team.
What message do you wish to give to colleagues across the manufacturing world at this time?
What we do in power transmission is important for the world. PT components are used in medical devices that test for the virus and equipment that makes critical supplies such as respirators, hospital gowns, ventilators, and toilet paper. Our priorities must be in-line with the challenge at hand. This is an unprecedented emergency and we must come together as a community to serve the people that need us most – patients, doctors, and researchers.
How are you allow engineers to gain access to simulation software and data from outside the company firewall?
We have various ways for everyone, not just engineers, to access Ruland systems remotely.
What seems to be the main threats to your supply chain right now?
All of our production is done in our Massachusetts factory and our supply chain is largely North American. We are well inventoried from finished goods to raw materials and everything in between. Based on current information, we do not expect any major disruptions to our operation.
Chris Gumas is Director of Marketing, Ruland Manufacturing, Marlborough, Massachusetts, USA