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Expect the Unexpected

By AICC Staff

November 11, 2021

While it’s fair to say that no organization was prepared to respond to the emergency of COVID-19 in early 2020, some organizations moved more quickly than others to address, and adapt to, the massive impacts the virus created—from the need to send employees home to work remotely, to fluctuations in demand for products (both up and down), to concerns over personal health and safety amid the uncertainly.

Acme Corrugated Box, though, acted quickly to communicate with clients and supply partners. In a March 13, 2020, message they said: “We assure you that we are fully operational and are taking the proper precautions in order to maintain safe operations to support your supply chain efforts.” That initial message was followed up by additional messages on March 18 and March 20—and the announcement of a “Thank You Rally” for the company’s production crew, held with appropriate safety precautions and social distancing on April 17, 2020.

Concerns over supply chain disruption were among the first to emerge during the pandemic, as companies and organizations of all sizes—as well as individuals—worried about whether they would continue to have access to the supplies and resources they needed to operate, and survive.

“You can’t plan for something like this—you really have to roll with the punches,” says Bob Cohen, president of Acme Corrugated Box. “I think we reacted as best we could from the beginning to protect our employees and to keep running continuously.” Acme was, of course, considered to be crucial to the supply chain. And while Cohen says business dropped off in the beginning of the pandemic, it took off considerably in June.

But, Cohen says, while businesses can’t plan for specific impacts such as a worldwide health crisis, what they can do is “always be prepared for the unknown.” Because whether it’s a pandemic, an economic downturn, a gas shortage, a hurricane, or any other of a vast number of natural and manmade disasters that businesses are always subject to, there are certain key considerations that need to always be top of mind:

  • Employees. How will the situation impact where and how they work, and their personal safety?
  • Customers. How will the situation impact their ability to get the products and services they need, and their personal safety?
  • The company. How can the organization remain operational and viable?
  • The community. How will the situation and the company’s ability to respond quickly and appropriately impact the local community and economy?

John Kochie is general manager at Acme Corrugated Box. Acme, like some other companies, had contingency plans in place for more than three years prior to the pandemic, generally addressing the steps and actions it would take in the event of a disaster, says Kochie.

But, says Cohen, “I don’t think you can anticipate every bad thing that can come down the pike. I think you just have to have your company be strong enough to survive a blow of any type.”

Taking Steps to Be Prepared

width=324“When our phone rings, one of the first questions we ask is, ‘Do you have a crisis plan?’” says Jo Trizila, founder and CEO of TrizCom Public Relations and Pitch PR. “Nine times out of 10, the answer is no.”

Every business must have a crisis management plan in place, she says. “The unfortunate reality is that it’s not a matter of if a company or brand will face a crisis, but rather when their brand will face an issue.” Especially in an environment in which news travels faster than ever before, companies need to act fast. “The media— especially social media—waits for no one,” Trizila says.

It’s fair to say that every company around the world discovered the wisdom of having a plan in place in March 2020. At a minimum, says Trizila, companies should consider the following questions to help them determine how prepared they are. If you answer, “I’m not sure” or “no” to any one—or more—of these questions, it’s a good indication that you need a plan:

  • Have you identified your organization’s potential risk areas?
  • Do you know who would be on your crisis team?
  • Have you ever sat down and thought about crisis worst-case scenarios?
  • Does your company have a prepared crisis communications plan?
  • Have you identified your internal and external stakeholder groups (such as investors, employees, vendors, customers, government regulatory agencies, suppliers, volunteers, board of directors, suppliers, service providers, local government, media)?
  • Have you performed effective crisis management simulation exercises?
  • Have you identified potential spokespeople in the event of a crisis?
  • Do you know who to call when a crisis occurs?

Identifying any gaps can help you prepare for the worst. As you prepare, keep each of your key stakeholder group’s needs in mind.

Addressing Employee Needs

Acme paid premium pay for two months to help keep employees on the job. “We didn’t know what to expect,” says Cohen. “We didn’t know if people were going to get sick or how people were going to react.”

But, he says, “Everybody kept working because they saw a lot of their neighbors and friends laid off and going on unemployment.” At Acme, he adds, “the pandemic kept people in place.”

But there has been employee instability, Cohen says, in response both to government subsidies and the need of some employees to adjust to caring for others— like school-aged children—during the pandemic as schools shut down.

Kochie points to a family-focused culture as key to helping companies remain productive and stable during a crisis. That has certainly been a factor for Acme during the pandemic. A focus on culture, transparency, and trust are foundational to ensuring continuity during any type of crisis.

Trust is key, Kochie says. Employees need to trust that the organization has their best interests in mind. Kochie feels Acme did a good job here and notes that, even during the height of the pandemic, “there were never more than 19% of staff calling in to take time off.”

Establishing a trusting and transparent culture requires personal support and setting a personal example. Kochie’s own personal actions had an impact, he says—he showed up on the plant floor every day, something that both impressed and meant a lot to the employees still working in the physical work environment. But, he stresses, the entire leadership group pulled together to manage operations together in extremely uncertain times, and they couldn’t have done it without “our dedicated and outstanding workforce.”

Addressing Customer Needs

Communicating quickly and continuously with customers is a best practice for companies of all kinds—this certainly bore out during the pandemic. Customers want to know:

  • If your business is accessible and how—in person, via phone, email, text, etc.—to place orders and get answers to questions.
  • What safety precautions you’re taking relative to the crisis situation.
  • What, if any, changes in operations are or will be taking place.
  • How you’re taking care of your employees—customers care bout that!
  • That you’re there to meet their needs and that their concerns are important to you.

At Acme, “we knew we had to keep producing so we could keep providing boxes to the food service industry,” Kochie says. Acme communicated quickly and often to keep customers informed and up to date on what was happening with the company.

Addressing Company Needs

Addressing company needs relates to such as how you will communicate with employees, customers, and others, how you will ensure that data and other employer resources are kept safe, how you will ensure continuous business operations, and, closely related, how you will project your bottom line.

Addressing Community Needs

Different types of organizations impact the community in different ways. Health care organizations, for example, have an obvious impact on the community and those in it.

Manufacturing companies also have community impacts, though. This might include such things as potential environmental impacts related to a disaster and how they are being addressed, economic impact if the company has to reduce staff or operations, or philanthropic contributions and participation in community-related corporate social responsibility initiatives.

In each of the above areas—employees, customers, company, and community —manufacturing organizations should consider:

  • Areas where they face risk. What types of impacts could threaten the viability of your company?
  • Critical business functions that need to be able to operate no matter what.
  • Identify areas where you can proactively purchase and put in place safety- and communication-related technology, and other resources based on your identified risks, to support a quick and flexible response to disaster.

There are certain things every company can do now to prepare for future impacts. For instance, making sure that all data is backed up remotely. Ensuring that your business insurance policies provide the broad protections that you may need. Plan into your budget emergency funds that would be required to keep your company going for some specified period of time. In addition, identifying the go-to people and their related responsibilities for responding during a crisis, and the communication methods that would be used if current methods fail, can help you be in a better position to respond to all of your key stakeholders.

Learning From Each Event

An important best practice for companies dealing with crisis situations is not to move beyond the crisis without making an effort to learn from the experience. Kochie notes, “The pandemic definitely yielded some new insights about how to prepare for the worst.”

One of those insights was that, yes, employees could work from home if need be. When the pandemic hit, he says, more than 90% of Acme’s office staff were suddenly working from home—“something that, before the pandemic, many would have likely said was impossible.” Reaching out to others—both during and after a crisis situation—can also be very instructive and very helpful, Kochie says. He found regularly scheduled calls with colleagues to be invaluable.

No, you will not be able to proactively identify every specific crisis or calamity that might impact you, but what you can do is be prepared generally to hit the ground running when the worst happens.

Kochie says, “We never could have predicted or prepared for the pandemic. Yet, by and large, we have survived it.” He credits the entire leadership team and outstanding workforce for their ability to weather this storm and to prepare for whatever may lie ahead.

PortraitLin Grensing-Pophal is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer and a frequent BoxScore contributor.