The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many industries, turning business models on their ear and driving prices for commodities like steel through the roof. While COVID is still a part of our lives, we can look back at the last two years and see how the construction industry has changed while evaluating lessons learned about key business elements.
In part two of our series, we dive into the world of Human Resources, taking a look at obstacles HR teams had to overcome and lessons learned along the way.
Lexi: Welcome back to another episode of Metal Minutes by Cornerstone Building Brands. I’m your host Lexi, and this is part two of our lessons learned from COVID series, based on our recently published white paper. In part one, we talked about the new pricing reality and how COVID impacted different pricing strategies, both at the peak of COVID and in the years to come.
Lexi: Today, we will dive into the world of human resources, including safety protocols, identified obstacles, and lessons we learned along the way. To help me answer these questions, I have Cheryl Mikolay. She is the Vice President of Human Resources for our Shelter Solutions segment of Cornerstone. Hi, Cheryl.
Cheryl: Hi, Lexi. Happy to be with you today.
Lexi: So Cheryl, looking back at the last two years or so, in what ways did COVID affect your department?
Cheryl: Yeah. I feel like the HR team was thrust full throttle into figuring out how to navigate COVID-19. This was really unchartered waters for HR organizations, not only our HR organization, but any HR organization. How do you deal with a pandemic? I don’t think there was a playbook for that anywhere.
Cheryl: So I joined the Cornerstone Building Brands organization in the Commercial, or now Shelter Solutions team, in 2020. So the team had a lot of great best practices already established for employees and managers. So really it was picking up what the team had already done in the beginning and ensuring that we were following the guidelines, implementing them properly, looking at each situation and its uniqueness, in order to provide the safest work environment possible, knowing that we’re in a manufacturing environment. Our business still has to run and we need people to do that, so they need to come to work every day.
Cheryl: So how can we put protocols and practices in place that are going to, number one, allow employees to feel comfortable coming to work, safe coming to work, and then want to come back again the next day. So there was lots of try and see how things work. How do you get people to socially distance appropriately when they’re working on a line together? All of those things were challenges that we had to address and ensure that we were following those types of protocols.
Cheryl: So I don’t know that our team was prepared for it. I don’t know that the leadership team was prepared for it, in terms of managers and supervisors, but certainly it was something that we were all in it together. We just had to figure out how to navigate it appropriately. Looking back now, I think that the team did a fantastic job. We did the best we could with what we were working with and what we knew, which is what was coming out from the CDC. We based all of our guidelines on CDC recommendations and requirements.
Cheryl: We monitored COVID rates amongst employees in different plants across our business. We provided the right protocols related to quarantine, return to work, and just making sure that there were safety practices in place when people arrived on site within the plant. To ensure proper signage for social distancing, providing masks, providing hand sanitizer, and things like that for everyone.
Lexi: So going back, you had mentioned at one point you don’t think that HR or leadership or anybody was prepared, but to be fair, who in the world was prepared?
Lexi: I think every safety protocol, every strategy, every role that was put in place, there wasn’t a lot of time to think about them or to test it out. It had to be done very quickly and immediately. So I think we all deserve a pat on the back just for making it to this point.
Cheryl: Yeah. This is a great example, Lexi, of building a plane while you’re flying it. So navigating COVID while you’re in it. So our COVID guideline, I think we’re on version 32. That’s how fast things were changing, especially in the height of COVID. The protocol’s you have to quarantine for this number of days. No, no, no. You have to quarantine for this number of days. Just things were changing so rapidly. It was constant updates and making sure that everybody was informed.
Lexi: So for our business, like you said, we have our manufacturing plants, we have products that still need to be produced. So some people were not able to work from home, while some were able to take their laptops, take their work phones, and they were able to proceed with remote work. How did your team go about providing materials and resources to those who could not work remote?
Cheryl: Really all it was, was some basics. So making sure that our employees that were required to come to work, because the work that they do can’t be done remotely, which is basically all of our manufacturing employees, which is 80% of our workforce. Those folks, making sure that we were providing them with the proper safety equipment. So a mask, hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, that we had proper signage in place, all of that stuff was really our obligation, in my opinion, to make sure that we had that available to employees. If we were requiring them to either wear a mask or socially distanced, let’s make sure we’re clear on where you can stand and where you can’t stand when you have multiple people working a line. That’s incumbent upon the employer to provide those basic things, and so I think we did just that.
Lexi: Okay. Now, on the other end, those that were able to remote work, can you talk a little bit about some of the obstacles that we faced, or that the HR team faced, at least at the beginning? I know that was probably a learning curve for a lot of employees. So can you talk a little bit about some of the obstacles and how we overcame them?
Cheryl: Yeah, I wasn’t here at the very beginning of COVID. I wasn’t with Cornerstone Building Brands, so I don’t know that I fully appreciate. I’m sure there were bumps to navigate. When I came in, everybody was fully remote. So I joined the organization and everyone was working fully remotely who could. At that point in time, everybody was in somewhat of a routine. So utilizing Teams, onboarding employees virtually was very much in practice and everybody felt relatively comfortable with that.
Cheryl: I think we all had to get used to using our cameras a lot more during the pandemic. How do you build relationships with coworkers and maintain them when you’re virtual, and using your video is an important part of that. So I think employees got used to that to varying degrees. Then managers had to learn how to manage remote workers. So how do you drive accountability when you can’t see what someone’s producing necessarily? So managers and supervisors had to get really clear on expectations and ensure that they were communicating them clearly, that there was alignment with the employee, so that there weren’t disconnects, that you might not experience if you were in a shared office space together.
Cheryl: So when I joined those sorts of kinks and bumps were pretty well worked out, but I would say, technology enabled relationships. So the use of video, I think really helps to enable those connections in a more meaningful way than just using the phone. I know I’ve felt the video fatigue. I use my camera all the time. There are some days where I’m like, can I just not have my camera on, but it’s been a way for me to build relationships, when I’d otherwise be remote.
Lexi: That’s great. So while the whole industry was turned upside down and everyone is adjusting to new working conditions, at the same time, you’re doing what you have to do to keep your employees safe. There was a lot of volatility around emotions and politics at the time. So how did you navigate in that space to make sure that you stayed neutral and sensitive to everyone’s viewpoints?
Cheryl: Yeah. Certainly it was a highly politicized topic and navigating that wasn’t necessarily easy, but we grounded ourselves, I would say, in two things, Lexi. So the first is one of our core values is safety. So our main obligation is to ensure that we’re providing a safe work environment for all employees, regardless of their political views or personal views of COVID-19.
Cheryl: Then second is we grounded all of our protocols in what the CDC was recommending. So this wasn’t us just making it up or putting our own personal views into what these things should be. It was really, okay, what’s the Center of Disease Control telling us? Then how are we going to design a guideline or policy around that, that is applicable to everyone and weeds through all the noise that the politics of the day were offering on COVID?
Lexi: Okay, great. So we’ve talked about our reaction to COVID and how our HR teams responded with safety protocols and ways to keep productivity and morale high. Let’s shift gears and talk about moving forward. So what are some of the lessons we learned from COVID 19 and how will it affect our industry in the years to come?
Cheryl: Yeah. This is not necessarily an effect to our industry. I think this is across the board. I think people are looking at work differently. I think you’ve heard of the Great Resignation.
Cheryl: COVID is the impetus for the Great Resignation. People are choosing to reprioritize their lives, having had this experience. They want different things from their employer. They are looking for greater flexibility, and it’s employers who recognize that the needs of employees have changed. So there are some fundamental things that haven’t, but it is more important than ever that employers look at their talent as whole humans, that have a work life, that have a personal life. We have to figure out how to accommodate those both.
Cheryl: Flexibility going forward is going to be the key to success for employers, whether it’s in our industry or outside of our industry. Those who can crack the code on offering flexibility to a manufacturing workforce will win in this environment. Those who aren’t able to do that are going to continue to struggle with retention challenges and turnover. So I think really the landscape for employers has truly changed. We continue to see employees make choices to leave their organizations, and oftentimes not go anywhere. So it is a very challenging environment.
Cheryl: I would say the focus now is on driving an employee experience that can offer flexibility, not only for our employees that work in one of our offices or now remotely, but also, especially within the manufacturing environment. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, but it is incumbent upon the employer, I believe, to understand, be empathetic that people are whole people. It’s not just about the work and that we have to figure out how do we offer more flexibility within our work environments.
Lexi: Yeah. I think you worded that really well. So sticking with our series theme of lessons learned from COVID, is there any other advice that you can offer to our customers or our listeners?
Cheryl: I say this to my team all the time, and I think I would give this advice to anybody, but we firmly believe, I firmly believe, that when you care for your people, they will take care of your customers. So I truly believe that it’s our job as HR practitioners, so my team, to help instill and grow leaders for our organization that will care for their people so that they can care appropriately for our customers.
Lexi: That’s a great outlook. Well, Cheryl, I appreciate you jumping on today to provide insight into the world of HR and safety.
Cheryl: Great. Thanks so much for having me Lexi. I appreciate it.
Lexi: Stay tuned for part three of our lessons learned from COVID-19 series, where our topic will be the use of technology and how it was implemented to assist at the height of COVID-19.
Metal Minutes podcast shares insights from metal construction subject matter experts deep dive into trending industry topics. Learn from industry leaders with knowledge relevant to many different project types. This podcast episode was created by Cornerstone Building Brands, Heritage’s parent company.