Learn lessons from lockdown to make future industry better

Use the time in lockdown to rethink how your business and the wider industry need to change, says Keith Wardrope, managingdirector of Hill’s Panel Products

 In late March, before the government made its main lockdown announcement, we took the decision to shut our bases in Greater Manchester and Sheffield as the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK was becoming clearer,

At that time, I think there was concern among our staff because the early message from government and experts seemed to be ‘stay at home if possible’.

We were not performing essential manufacturing tasks, such as making medical or personal protective equipment, and we were conscious that people were starting to distance themselves in the days before the main national lockdown.

So, we wanted to take a short spell of time to assess the situation for ourselves. We did not think we could put sufficient measures in place quickly across our own sites because of the complexity of our business. Some businesses have one core activity but we have several. We needed some time to think about things fully.

We held meetings with every single member of staff and gave them letters explaining what we were doing and why. Ninety-nine per cent seemed to accept the decision, which we appreciated. There was inevitably some anxiety, questions, and uncertainty but we aimed to reassure staff and have used the government’s furlough scheme.

We closed our head office and factory in two days. We had a meeting on the Monday and everything was closed by the Wednesday.

Overall, business owners and managers have to make their decision based on what they think is right for staff, customers, suppliers and their business at the time. We cannot please everyone but we can usually gain agreement from the majority, which is what we did.

We explained our position to customers too and sought their feedback. Two weeks into our closure, we conducted an email survey with customers and received a lot of good feedback and understanding.

One or two customers said they’d have liked more notice of the closure or asked why some other businesses were still open. However, the majority agreed with the decision. We also asked how they were doing and if they needed anything particular from us.

Up to mid-May, we opened minimally one day to receive a delivery from China. We are expecting another delivery from China in coming weeks. These deliveries come by sea to Europe and take five weeks. But most of our orders to suppliers are made weekly or every two days, so we didn’t have to open for any other deliveries during the closure.

I applaud those companies that have stayed open just to supply the NHS. In addition, if some other businesses have been able to stay open and continued their usual commercial activities in a responsible way, then well done to them too.

However, I am also seeing more and more companies trying to give the impression that they are opening to support the NHS when, in reality, they are open solely for purely commercial purposes.

So, let’s have complete honesty from businesses please. If you are going to open for mainly commercial reasons, then do so responsibly. But please don’t use the NHS as a cover. Creating misleading messages or impressions about business motives is totally wrong, in my opinion. Honesty, transparency, accuracy, good conduct and good reputations in businesses are really important to me.

I think there has also been a small minority of businesses which tried to make capital out of the fact that others were temporarily shut, which was wrong in my view. However, most businesses so far appear to have acted responsibly by taking account of all considerations and the wider public good.

Personally, I think the government has done probably as much as it can with support for businesses, which was built-upon in a series of packages. I can’t see much more that it could have done. It also faced the pressure of time and had to consider many factors in running the country, which are far more than those faced by any single business.

New changes are now being implemented at HPP. We started a click-and-collect service to help some smaller customers finish the jobs they have been working on. This has allowed them to work inside empty houses, for example. While this click-and-collect represents a fairly small proportion of our overall work, it has been important service for some of our smaller customers and we are keen to help if we can responsibly.

Thankfully, we have not had any long queues on our car park like those seen outside some B&Q stores in the news recently.

We are watching the market and preparing to reopen our manufacturing, despatch and office functions on a limited scale for an initial period.  We have implemented new coronavirus safety measures across the business and have had a skeleton staff back in work from May 11.

In our manufacturing area, our plans include operating only one production line, rather than two or three, to enable more distancing between staff. We will also provide alternative, larger spaces to the canteen area for staff breaks.

In our trade showroom areas, we have installed protective screens around counters between staff and customers. We will also operate a one-in, one-out entry system and take goods out to customers.

Inside our offices, we will have only one person working at each bank of four desks in the initial period. Then we’ll look at future arrangements. Office environments represent a big challenge because of how closely people normally sit together. I think many businesses will be faced with similar challenges with accommodating office staff.

For our logistics and warehousing operations, we are looking to modify the way drivers work on in-bound and out-bound deliveries. For example, they won’t be able to interact with customers in the way they may have done before.

Overall, our aim is not to lose the gains that have been achieved from the restrictions of the lockdown period.

We must avoid being risky or reckless. We need to remember why we closed in the first place. We have to do what we believe is right, based on the information we have at the time. If we get some things wrong, at least we did it for the right reasons.

In other industries, such as car manufacturing or construction, we are seeing similar relaunches of operations on limited scales with amended working practices. All workplaces will need to become accustomed to a ‘new normal’ based around greater distancing.

For a fitted furniture company such as HPP, we expect demand will return when both installers and consumers are comfortable with work being carried in homes again, when the construction sector starts again and when furniture showrooms reopen.

The government may permit business to restart but the trade and the public needs to be confident about safety measures because the coronavirus risks will still be around us for some time.

I realise I may be more cautious than some people. But my views have been influenced by what I’ve directly seen and heard in recent weeks.

For example, my daughter is a nurse and has spoken about the huge impact of coronavirus. Medical staff and other key workers have been working extremely hard over this period, which has been exhausting for them. They’ve witnessed really serious illness and death, which has been very upsetting. This isn’t just something we see on the TV news. This is impacting directly on people we know and who are around us.

Looking ahead, it seems like we are all going to have to change our daily lives because we won’t have a vaccine for perhaps a year or longer. We are in this for the long haul.

Regarding the business world and the KBB industry, I think there are some lessons to be learnt from recent weeks that could benefit some aspects of how we do things.

For example, planning has been a central theme and consideration throughout the coronavirus emergency.

Shoppers, retailers, employers, employees, schools, hospitals, dentists, emergency services, local authorities and national government have all had to plan their activities. So surely one lesson for us all must be that we can organise and plan our work better?

In our KBB industry, why do we face so many short deadlines? Have we created unnecessary expectations for customers which then creates stress and challenges for suppliers?

Obviously, our industry and the economy are very important. But haven’t we also learnt that the issues we routinely face are not as serious as the life-or-death issues we’ve seen in the coronavirus.

I don’t think the KBB market will be the same for a couple of years. It will recover slowly and gradually, influenced by when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available. Growth could be quicker if a vaccine is found sooner, perhaps 12 to 18 months.

Across the economy, jobs have been lost and debt will have to be paid off, which will impact on consumer spending. On the other hand, many people will not be going on holiday for a year or two so they may invest some money in their homes instead. So, there are a number of factors to watch out for.

Overall, I hope this emergency lockdown experience will make people reconsider the value of everything in life. This includes the value of the items and services they buy, what they spend, the economy and jobs, and, most importantly, the value of people – whether it be family, friends, colleagues, suppliers or customers.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all services that have operated throughout this awful situation we have all faced. Never before have so many people who have previously been overlooked become so important to our society. Obviously, care sector and NHS workers are at the frontline of this. They go into work every day and put other people’s lives ahead of their own. There have been many heroes over recent times and doubtless there will be more to come. Let’s hope one day we can all show them our full appreciation in some way.

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