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One Team, One Mission

By AICC Staff

July 9, 2021

“When things change, or when people perceive inequalities or unfairness, there is going to be resentment,” says Acme Corrugated Box President Bob Cohen. COVID-19 brought unprecedented changes to the boxmaking world, as many companies shifted to home-based or off-site administrative, sales, and office staff—while plant employees were required to be on-site and safeguarded, as they were essential for keeping the machines running. It was a situation that could have brought out any lingering resentments between “office” and “plant.” For some converters, though, that was not the case.

“I don’t believe there was any animosity or tension [between administrative and plant staff],” Cohen recalls. “Everyone understood that we were in a unique situation that required a unique response.” That understanding was aided by a long-established company culture that emphasizes teamwork over an atmosphere of “us and them.”

“Everybody understood the mission,” Cohen adds. “2020 could have been a disaster, and it didn’t turn out that way.”

Flexible Management

Cohen’s ultimate success doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges along the way.

When the pandemic first hit, Acme employees experienced anxiety, uncertainty, and confusion as a result of the virus and subsequent changes in the workplace. “We had a 20%–25% absentee rate because people didn’t want to bring the virus home,” Cohen recalls. “So, as an incentive and to fulfill our client obligations, we decided to pay our hourly staff time-and-a-half for regular time. And then we paid double-time for what would normally have been time-and-a-half situations.” This approach, which Cohen likens to combat pay, continued through April and May 2020.

At the same time, Acme equipped all of its salaried administrative staff to work from home. They did not receive the “combat pay” that plant workers did, as they were not assuming the same level of risk. Neither did on-site managers, although the company did reward them at the end of the year with a “pandemic pay” bonus. “Without them present during the entire period of 2020—and most of my middle managers came in every day—we wouldn’t have been able to function or operate,” Cohen says. “They were crucial to the business, so we made sure we took care of those people who were critical to the operation.” Cohen credits his company’s flexibility for making it possible to continue operating without massive layoffs.

Terri-Lynn Levesque, vice president of administration for Royal Containers, believes the foundation for such flexibility is a strategic plan. “It’s very important to have a company strategic plan in times like this, so all staff know the role they play in the company’s overall success and how every decision they make directly impacts the customer experience.”

Unified Messages

Part of a strategic plan should be an approach to ongoing, companywide communication, which Levesque sees as the key for eliminating interdepartmental tensions, especially in times of change and challenge.

“We’ve focused a lot of attention on company communication, to make sure everyone is hearing the same message and that everyone is staying as engaged as possible, no matter where they’re working,” Levesque says. “The worst thing you can do is have a situation where only office people know about something and the plant people are a week or two behind in getting that same information. That may then be accentuated by multiple plant shifts, which make it even harder to get everyone on the same page.”

Levesque checks in regularly with her team, through videoconferencing as well as email, to ensure that everyone is on the same page, working from the same messages. On-site, monitor screens located throughout Royal’s Ontario locations deliver company news and information to keep all employees up to date. “To keep people connected with one another, we’ve launched something called ‘Meet the TEAM: People Behind the Box,’ a program that features profiles of a couple of employees every month in our social media and on the monitors.”

Royal also has launched its own informational and inspirational town hall-style meetings, at which everyone in the company is invited to join a conference call on their cellphones. “We’ve held at least four or five of those over the last year,” Levesque says. “Our president gives a short message on something of interest—maybe a company announcement, a COVID update, whatever. Everybody’s getting the same message at the same time.”

Kevin Ausburn, Chair and CEO of Southern Missouri Containers Inc., shares that commitment to transparency. “We’ve been an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) company for a long time, so our culture may be a little bit different from a lot of box plants’,” he says. “Our people are significant shareholders in our business. We hold quarterly meetings where we share everything from top line to bottom line and our financials, talking a lot about the income and expense items in between those two lines. Our employees like being included in those conversations and in the decision-making process. Consequently, whenever we’ve had difficult economic cycles, they were very understanding of why we had to do certain things, why certain decisions were made. They helped us get through those difficult periods, and as far as I’m aware, we’ve been able to do it without any animosity between departments or functions, like ‘office’ versus ‘production.’”

COVID-19, however, put that to the test. “COVID has been particularly difficult for us, because we weren’t able to have big group meetings like we used to,” Ausburn says. “It’s been awkward trying to find new ways to communicate. We just started holding quarterly meetings again, but we did so in an abbreviated fashion—standing out in the open areas in the plant, spaced out. We’re having more frequent meetings with fewer people in them, trying to get back to what we’ve been doing for years and years and years. We’ve had to rely on videos and Zoom calls and that kind of thing on multiple occasions.

“It’s unfortunate because, like everybody, we have been trying to avoid each other as much as possible,” he adds. “That’s counter to everything we have been doing for the last 25 years in our organization. But I think we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Responsibility and Reward

Ausburn is also a believer in the unifying power of compensation. “Since we are an ESOP company, we feel it’s imperative that the results we achieve, the successes we earn, are shared with our employees that made it happen,” he says. “We have multiple incentive-compensation programs that are geared to different areas of responsibility in the company. Everybody has an incentive element to their compensation. The big one is based upon profitability and how we perform on an annual basis. A significant percentage of company profitability is allocated back to employees in the form of year-end bonuses. These can go up and down over the years, and that reinforces with our employees that there are no guarantees; we have to ‘earn our keep’ every day.”

The company’s quarterly performance bonuses are credited with helping to reduce divisions between departments. “All employees can have direct daily impact on five key metrics that drive our success and profitability,” Ausburn explains. “Assuming we’re profitable for the quarter, a predetermined percentage of the quarterly profits funds a tentative performance-bonus pool. How we score on our chosen metrics determines how much of that tentative bonus is paid out.

“The element of this that pulls the team together is that everyone is paid the same dollar amount of the earned performance bonus, regardless of their position,” he adds. “The unitizer operator is paid the same amount as the CEO. This has resonated with our employees, and I believe it reinforces the fact that all employees are important. We all have to do our jobs well if we’re going to be successful together.”

Teamwork for Tomorrow

Cohen’s advice for other converters seeking to ease interdepartmental tension is simple: “Talk to people. Explain the situation, and make sure everyone feels valued for their contribution, even though how you do that may be different for different parts of the organization. I think people recognize they’re not just working for a paycheck and they’re not just working for today; they’re also working for tomorrow. Everyone, in every role, wants the company to succeed, because their personal success is tied directly to the business success for us all.”

PortraitRobert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist and a frequent BoxScore contributor.

Off-Site Engagement

“There has always been separation between the production floor and the office, and that can often lead to people having an ‘us versus them’ mindset,” notes Ben Baker, founder of Your Brand Marketing and co-author of Leading Beyond a Crisis: A Conversation About What’s Next. “When you add the physical divide that comes with having some people working remotely, that can exacerbate the situation. I know many boxmakers pride themselves on their company culture, and that culture can change when suddenly you don’t have everyone together in one place all of the time.”

Baker suggests several steps managers can take to ensure that remote workers remain engaged, productive, and positive contributors to the company culture:

Know the needs. “The first thing leaders should do is ask, ‘What does everyone need to be able to be successful?’ What does employee engagement look like now? It’s a matter of looking at not what was but what can be. Ask how we can be more effective, more productive, and best serve ourselves, our staff, and our clients now in this new environment.”

Adjust expectations. “Not every worker will have the same needs or respond to the same motivations,” Baker notes. What worked while everyone was together in a single building or office may not necessarily work for a more remote team. “If you had an expectation that your marketing department would produce X amount of content when they were in the office,” for example, “maybe that expectation needs to be adjusted if they’re working remotely.” (You may find that remote workers may be more productive.)

Constantly communicate. Ask remote workers how they feel about working from home. “Find out the challenges they’re having with working remotely,” Baker suggests. “Maybe they don’t have the right tools. Maybe they get distracted because they don’t have an effective space for working from home.” The solution may be that some people work remotely only several days a week. And be prepared for the possibility that some people simply don’t work well on their own and will need to be in the building full time.

When possible, come together. If your company is particularly tight-knit, remote workers may feel especially disconnected from their peers. Baker suggests it can help to bring everyone together at least one day a week, every week. These need not be in-person meetings, though; regular, companywide video meetings can help as well.

“Every company has its own key performance indicators, the things that are going to make it successful,” Baker adds. “There is no standard thing that’s going to work for every company. But if you’ve got good employees—people you trust who are good at what they do—you just need to work together to make sure everybody’s productive moving forward.”

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