Communication tops list of most important business challenges during COVID-19 disruption
22 April 2020
Afera’s 2nd webinar in series covers real-time developments in European countries and the power of solidarity, awareness of continuous change and supply chains
The European Adhesive Tape Association continues to offer a platform to our Membership for exchanging experiences, knowhow and best practices during COVID-19 disruption and to determine how best to support our Member Companies. Our 16 April webinar marked the second in the biweekly interactive series “Navigating the COVID-19 crisis within the adhesive tape value chain.”
Key topics covering the management of teams and organisational structure
With over 40 registrants, last Thursday’s webinar addressed the subject of stakeholder engagement and motivation by a Member panel of 5 “conversation-starters” who offered deep insight into the inner workings of their operations during times of COVID-19 disruption.
Afera Secretary General Astrid Lejeune said of the webinar participants, “These Member Companies differ in geographical location, value chain position, size and markets, but their similarities in challenges, their cultures and approach, and their reaching out to our industry collective reminds Afera’s community that we are all in this together.” As Afera’s leadership discussed at the outset of the crisis, the biggest competitor of the Member Companies is not each other now but the coronavirus itself.
European lockdown developments
After a recap of Afera’s kickoff webinar on 2 April, Afera Regulatory Affairs Manager Pablo Englebienne updated Members on the current status of lockdown measures and commercial activity around Europe. On the one hand, we have seen the extension of lockdown measures in several E.U. Member States beyond the mid-April deadlines. France, Belgium, Germany, the U.K. and the Netherlands have decided to lengthen their lockdown by 2 or 3 more weeks.
On the other hand, we have begun to see the easing of some national restrictions: For example, in Spain, which imposed a very strict lockdown, a few activities that were not considered essential before, such as construction and manufacturing, were permitted to resume functioning last week.
In Denmark, schools started opening last week. And in Austria, some non-essential shops have been allowed to open, and restaurants there will likely start reopening in mid-May. Italy has also started down the path of easing measures. Germany has announced that more shops and schools will begin reopening in mid-May.
The gradual opening up of educational and commercial activities is a definite change from what we were experiencing last month, but Mr. Englebienne cautioned that the easing of lockdown measures does not mean that we are returning to pre-COVID-19 times. Some measures, such as keeping social distance and donning PPE, are here to stay for the time being. Germany is the latest country to require the wearing of facemasks in public.
How to keep your organisational ecosystem engaged, motivated and committed during extended periods of lockdowns in European countries?
Over the past several weeks, most of us have created new work setups for our organisations, facilitating working in shifts, in limited-contact environments and from home (WFH). For most of us, the managing of this process and the speed at which it has been accomplished, under acute duress, has been phenomenal. Many of these business modifications have been practical—almost mechanical—focussing on the structure of work. Some approaches have been focussed on keeping teams connected, thus more on the culture of the organisation.
Mr. Englebienne indicated that we might face extended periods of these modified working conditions under hard or soft lockdown measures—hopefully less extreme than what we are facing right now, but still very different from what tape companies are used to. It affects our organisations in many areas, e.g. relationships between home and on-site workers, bonding effects of informal social encounters, and physical experiences of working together as teams even if it did not take place on a daily basis.
Furthermore, as uncertainty on many levels continues, we are learning that individuals react differently because of their personalities, home situations, professional experiences, etc. Some may excel during challenging, disrupted times, while others manifest frustration, irritation—even paralysis—why-me feelings, etc. and have the need to redefine expectations of their performance. In a temporarily deconstructed or somewhat fragmented organisation, it is more difficult to register individual needs for support. Afera has identified this as a major challenge for everyone managing teams of professionals during times of COVID-19.
Marketing strategist Bert van Loon addressed these topics of managing teams and new organisational structure with the 5 panellists in a 45-minute discussion: What are the challenges you face? Which solutions have you developed or considered? What problems have you been unable to solve?
The importance of communication for morale
Communicating adequately—even “over-communicating”, emphasised Evert Smit, Afera president and head of R&D at Lohmann GmbH & Co. KG (Germany)—was determined as the companies’ top challenge in the lockdown climate of COVID-19.
“After ensuring that your workforce is safe and healthy, the biggest issue is insecurity,” commented Matthias von Schwerdtner, who is the corporate vice president of development of tesa SE (Germany). tesa, which has about 1,000 employees at its head office in Hamburg, has sent 950 of them to WFH, while the remaining 150 in R&D work in 2 non-overlapping shifts a day. “Even more because we have facilities in China, very early on in the crisis, tesa began a consistent dialogue with its employees, customers and suppliers about dealing with coronavirus, and that continues.
“Communication is key here,” Mr. von Schwerdtner continued. “The most important thing you can do for your people is to keep them informed. If there is something wrong with employees, it is always about not knowing enough or being informed.” He explained that in some ways companies need to act for employees as governments do for citizens: let them know what they can expect and what they can and cannot do. Mr. Smit agreed, noting that the further we wade through this crisis, the more insecure individual employees become: “So many things depend on communication. People can deal with bad news but not no news at all. In times like this, over-communication is extremely important.”
But without physical contact, how does a leader keep up team spirit and work momentum? “Nothing social takes place anymore: There is no meeting in groups, no small talk... At 12h, you eat your lunch alone in the canteen, and you go back to your office alone. It’s a strange feeling,” said Reinhard Storbeck, who is the director of R&D at tesa’s same location in Hamburg. So tesa strives for extra communication in the form of virtual team meetings, virtual lunch meetings and more available online seminars and training. Mr. Smit explained that because of the 2-shift system at multinational Lohmann, everything must be said twice. He tries to speak with his team and his peers multiple times a day to keep everyone engaged.
“We are all in the same situation and are trying to do whatever is possible,” reported Michel Sabo, who is the R&D ANT manager of Nitto Belgium. He said in addition to the 2-shift system and twice-weekly formal team meetings via Skype, the R&D management team maintains a WhatsApp group in order to share news and developments quickly and readily.
About the morale of teams and peers, Deniz Bölükbaşı, the global business director of pressure-sensitive adhesives and paper solutions of Organik Kimya San. Ve TIC. A.Ş. (Turkey), commented, “I think at first we were all learning to cope, but I noticed after a few weeks that some communication builds up barriers while some breaks down barriers.” During his virtually held team meetings, Mr. Bölükbaşı has gotten to know employees better through seeing them in their home settings, creating a more personal closeness among the group. But he says the greatest challenge lies in communicating adequately—creating the necessary bonds—so that everyone is on the same page. “Different people with different characters cope with this situation differently,” Mr. Bölükbaşı explained. “I had a set of people working from home that became hyper-productive, while I saw some others start to shut down.” Different levels of productivity can put undue stress on an organisation, and he acknowledges that this is still a learning process in which they need time to adjust.
Hans van der Meer, who is the managing director of Soest Medical Group SMG/Eurotape (Netherlands), which has 38 employees, shared that he places great emphasis on personal touches, which are easier to facilitate in a small company, and they work. “Every morning I go into our office for a couple of hours and speak to every employee personally (at the proper distance) about their circumstances and those of their families.” He has also sent flowers and chocolates to his employees over the last few weeks.
Solidarity and leadership
At the outset of the crisis, Mr. Smit said that his employees had more energy and flexibility and exhibited a greater sense of solidarity that has somewhat withered in the long weeks of lockdown that have followed. Coupled with communication or the lack of it, human beings tend to retreat within themselves in times of insecurity. “The feeling of solidarity is so important,” he emphasised. In addition to excellent communication, successful companies are placing effective leadership at the forefront to keep employees engaged with each other, their work and their companies.
According to Mr. Bölükbaşı, Organik Kimya has designated 3 vice presidents in the areas of commercial activity, personnel and operations as responsible for managing COVID-19 within the company. “And because we have different plants in locations across Europe—Switzerland, the Netherlands and Turkey—every day we hold a crisis team meeting on the status of each country” to keep everyone connected. He has even hired a new member of his team who will work remotely from Germany. Creating his virtual onboarding and integrating him into cross-functional teams will be “a learning situation for all of us, and we will need some time to adjust,” but the organisational plan has been put into place to make it happen.
“With the 2-shift system and other similar measures we have put into place, I see that the whole atmosphere in the company has improved during the COVID-19 disruption,” said Mr. Van der Meer. “We have a common enemy, COVID-19, and it is sort of a war mentality, fighting the crisis.” What’s more, Mr. Van der Meer explained that his production manager just confirmed to him that productivity has sharply increased over the last few weeks. “The main reason is there is no socialising anymore between employees.” Of course that “chitchat” is needed and will return to its normal level in the future, but it is interesting to see the result of a positive group mentality.
About tesa, Mr. von Schwerdtner told listeners, “We are a unified company. The more you are, the better you will survive this crisis through joint effort.”
Awareness of continual change
One of the noticeable differences during times of COVID-19 disruption is being able to recognise change and run with it. Mr. von Schwerdtner said of tesa, a large multinational, that “each function has a different speed and dynamic in this crisis,” i.e. some parts of the company, such as anyone in supply chain production, are working full steam, while others, such as those in sales, who cannot travel or hold face-to-face meetings, are performing much less than average. Understanding such shifts for creating a bridge to normal times is key.
Of Eurotape, Mr. Van der Meer related that it is easier to put new measures into place because of the small company’s “very short decision lines”. “The flexibility of people is quite good in small companies,” he commented. “So from one day to another, we could change everyone’s working hours.” On the other hand, the managing director shared that 2 of his employees had to quarantine themselves at home for 14 days after returning from a holiday in the Philippines. “They were from my QC and R&D department, so for a company like ours we immediately lost 50% of capacity in those areas.”
Aside from creating successful networks of communication and leadership, tape companies in many respects are in the dark about the continuity of their supply chains. How do we deal with suppliers that we normally meet face-to-face, or how do they perform maintenance or some other task on our premises? “We are all working at the European level,” commented Mr. Sabo. “Perhaps the Germans have a greater chance internally in sourcing materials, but in a small country like Belgium, most of the time your suppliers lie over the border, which is closed now.” He said that online meetings help a bit, but they are not used to conducting supplier meetings this way. Suppliers who are able to visit Nitto in Genk go through an intensive orientation session on social distance and hygiene rules before entering their facilities.
Will suppliers continue to deliver? And will the demand in the industries we produce for recover in a few weeks or months? According to Mr. von Schwerdtner, “production has come to a halt, especially in the automotive industry—which is very important to the tape industry—where it had stopped and is now only slowly coming back… If more and more customer industries are contracting and not placing orders and producing like before, that eventually affects us as well, so we are watching the situation very carefully.” What does this do to the workforce, our company and the way we act going forward, he asks? tesa has had many discussions about alternate sources of supplies and production.
“The longer this goes on, the more likely we are going to face issues in getting supplies to our company,” Mr. Van der Meer related. “For suppliers, we are a very small client, and they want to focus on their key customers. Just because we have long-lasting relationships with those who produce papers, adhesives, foils, etc., doesn’t mean they understand our immediate need to have materials in order to make tapes.” He said they still receive deliveries currently, but he sees this becoming a bigger issue for Eurotape in the future if COVID-19 disruption continues.
In the next 2 weeks, Afera would like to focus on discussing where the tape industry is going strategically and tactically. We would like to determine further how to use this platform and community to exchange ideas and pose questions about the new normal both defensively and offensively. Ms. Lejeune is preparing to focus the next webinar in the series particularly on preparations for the post-COVID-restriction period.
Afera is currently running a Member survey of just 4 questions relating to your regulatory challenges or barriers, preparation for the post-COVID-19-restriction period, and areas in which the Association can be of more assistance. This will help our team focus on the development of the most effective content and actions to support you as a Member. Please spend a few minutes to share your thoughts on the 4 questions or just the specific questions that top your business priority list here by Monday, 27 April.
Next webinar – register now!
Afera’s next exclusive Webinar on “Navigating the COVID-19 crisis within the adhesive tape value chain” will be held on Thursday, 30 April, 14.00-15.00 CEST. Please register here.
The recording of the 16 April webinar is now available here.
COVID-19 resources for Afera Members
Afera’s team has also created a dedicated COVID-19 resource page, including practical information, advice and links to other important institutional bodies and stakeholders. Members should check this page regularly for updated material.