As the Indian government embarks on a phased withdrawal of a nation-wide lockdown, it is critical for companies to prepare for restarting their operations, actively and efficiently. After all, salaries have to be paid, factories have to run and products have to reach the consumers.
While the urgency to restart operations is palpable, most manufacturers have questions about what precautions do they need to keep workers safe, how to keep the employees engaged and productive, and importantly how to keep their morale high.
A safe and effective restart of operations is crucial given the new challenges that this pandemic has highlighted. There are five key issues for Indian manufacturers to deal with, before they begin operations:
Safety: Management teams at manufacturing plants need to draw up a comprehensive plan to ensure on-site safety of the workforce. The first task will be to source ample supplies of cleaning material—disinfectants, liquid hand soaps, sanitisers, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) like masks, gloves, hair nets, etc., while undertaking ‘deep sanitisation’ of the entire plant. Additionally, a sanitising tent or tunnel can also be considered.
Screening: A screening mechanism for employees and visitors needs to be implemented—various online tools are available for this. In addition to daily screening, a database consisting medical records of employees and their families, tracking their current medical condition and any existing illnesses or diseases can also be maintained.
Most importantly, a granular plan for social distancing at work needs to be created via staggered rosters of shifts, alternate lunch/meal times, shop floor recalibration (including demarcated working/movement areas) and constant monitoring. In parallel, it will be prudent to create an internal Covid-19 task-force to
monitor the situation on-ground to ensure employees comply with the new regulations and together support those affected.
Restrictions to on-site plant manpower is a genuine problem. Depending on type of industry (essential versus non-essential) only 20-50 percent of sanctioned manpower is being allowed to be on-site at plants in the initial weeks. Adding to this complexity is the shortage of migrant labour. Firms will require optimal mapping of existing labour to different machinery and increasing number of shifts to ensure no bottlenecks, occur. Multi-skilling and cross-training of selective employees across multiple machineries will also be necessary to mitigate risks.
Logistics: While availability of trucks and overall logistical support is gradually improving, there are still areas in the country where availability of such resources is only 20-30 percent, compared to pre-Covid-19 days. In anticipation of such scenarios, companies are advised to expand their vendor base swiftly. Digital platforms which offer aggregator-like services should be considered and included as early as possible.
Raw materials: While some companies are able to restart their plants, it is critical to undertake a value chain assessment to understand raw material status and availability of packing materials. Companies need to map, not only tier 1 suppliers but also have visibility of tier 2 and upper tiers, to proactively engage with them for essential raw materials while identifying alternate vendors where possible. A good practice will be to map all suppliers according to their location (red, orange, green as per government classification of districts) to get a sense of reopening timelines and capacities. Wherever a potential risk is detected, alternate vendors should be sought. Additionally, firms may consider sanitization of all raw materials and packing materials as well as an incubation period before materials are handled by plant staff.
People Engagement: People will continue to be the center of response to Covid-19. It is imperative for both plant and corporate senior management to engage regularly with their employees through video-conferencing to get feedback and suggestions. It may also be appropriate to consider modifying sick pay policies for employees who are sick and/or quarantined to ensure that no one comes to the plant when sick, under duress. Also with an understanding that plants can only operate with limited manpower, human resource policies around compensation for late shifts, remuneration to support families requiring child care, etc. should be considered. Finally, alternate channels for supporting the mental wellbeing of employees during the initial phase post restart, needs to be evaluated—subscriptions to meditation apps and access to counsellors over phone can be helpful.
Managing a pandemic like Covid-19 is a new experience. It involves taking steps that demand greater level of communication, care and empathy. Many such processes should be integrated into the work environment which will call for a greater level of alertness and vigil at all times. These steps could help in improving employee safety, engagement and productivity which will be vital to support business in these difficult times.