Communication key to helping employees adjust to new COVID-19 normal

There’s a new normal for employers, from cleaning protocols to employee communication.

This extra effort is key to protecting the health and well-being of employees who are worried about contracting COVID-19 at the workplace.

DeWys Manufacturing, deemed an essential manufacturer from the beginning, rolled out a four-phase plan in March, detailing the steps the company would take if an employee was diagnosed with the highly contagious respiratory disease. 

“We have been communicating to our team it's not if we get a COVID case, it was when. It was a matter of time, Jon and I told everyone we all have to prepare and be ready to go when we had our first case,” said President Mark Schoenborn, of the sheet metal fabricator and contract manufacturer.

COVID-19 case

In June, when a team member informed the company of possible exposure, the person stayed home and took a test on a Thursday, and the results came back positive the following Monday.

DeWys Manufacturing President Mark Schoenborn“In the meantime, every Saturday night, we're doing a full sterilization of the area. We had already sterilized. Once we found out about the positive result, we didn't have to shut down. But we did shut down the area where he worked for a brief period for our own internal cleaning crew to do an even deeper cleaning,” Schoenborn said. 

The employee, who was asymptomatic, quarantined for 14 days and then returned to work. After his positive diagnosis, the company quickly contacted each of his coworkers individually and encouraged them to get tested. All had negative results. 

Alleviating concerns

Since the onset of the pandemic, the company has invested in new cleaning protocols. Every shift closes down 15 minutes early so employees can clean all work areas. The company's 130,000-square-foot facility in Marne undergoes a top-to-bottom sterilization weekly. The company also expanded its internal cleaning staff, so high-touch areas — like door handles and counters — could be cleaned frequently. 

Detailing the extent of the safety precautions has been important in alleviating employees’ concerns.

The company’s workforce has remained just above 200 employees since the outbreak, although initially some were allowed to take voluntary furloughs. But as orders have picked up, everyone has returned. Business slowed down a bit in June but has been ramping up in July. 

Overall trend

While ahead of the curve, DeWys Manufacturing reflects the overall trend of major employers in Ottawa and Allegan counties, according to data collected by Lakeshore Advantage. Using quick polls, the economic development organization (EDO) has been able to see in real time what is needed by employers and act on those needs.

A DeWys Manufacturing team member“The quick polls helped us pivot our strategy to provide immediate support to our region,” says Lakeshore Advantage President Jennifer Owens. “Our team was able to identify the crucial needs of employers and connect them with the right tools and resources.”

A recent report shows that many companies have been able to quickly ramp back up production. Lakeshore Advantage polled 200 major employers across Allegan and Ottawa counties to gauge business’ immediate needs as they return to work, to quantify the impact of COVID-19, and to track economic progress. 
Numbers improving

Michigan manufacturing reopened May 11, and for the two polling periods since, all respondents were open for business. The number of respondents operating at half capacity or better increased from 49% to 72% over the seven-week polling period that ended in June. In the most recent poll, while 72% of respondents report operating at half capacity or better, 46% of those respondents are operating at 80% capacity or better.  
 A DeWys Manufacturing team member
While nearly all respondents reported weekly revenue fell due to COVID-19, respondents reporting a weekly revenue decrease greater than 50% trended downward, from 63% to 42%, over the seven-week period. 

Supply chain confidence is high, with a majority of respondents either “extremely” or “very” confident that their suppliers will be able to deliver critical components, products, and services.  
DeWys Manufacturing supplies critical components for relief beds and lab testing equipment, which is why the Ottawa County employer was deemed essential and didn’t shutter operations like some manufacturers.

Sharing best practices

Along with the support of Lakeshore Advantage, the manufacturer regularly connects with two professional groups that share best practices. 

“We've been networking with them all the time, and that really helped us,” says Schoenborn. “We've used each other’s resources, and I think that's what makes it so successful for us in getting back to work.”

Fortunately, the employees have adjusted very well to the new normal. 

“A lot of employees have been here for a long time, and know what is needed to be able to work hard and provide for our customers,” Schoenborn says. “Operations are almost back to normal. Social distancing has become a normal way of business for now, so it's something we do and has become a habit. It feels pretty much normal. It is not where it was before, but we accept it and we're moving forward.”

Letters, texts, video updates

Schoenborn says he and co-owner Jon DeWys provide company updates and changes, and the state of the business via video. 

“We communicated through letters. We have mass text messages to all our team. We're doing everything and anything we could to get the messages out,” he says.

Schoenborn became president of the 43-year-old company at the beginning of the year, as part of a succession plan. He has worked for the company for 25 years, moving up the ranks.  

Dealing with a global pandemic in his first months as president has been challenging. Initially, he worked nonstop so he could be around employees in case they had questions. 

“I was in here every single day for 56 straight days to be there for our team members.”
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Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.