Protecting What Matters: Caring For Our Automotive Workers

Aswin Mannepalli

As the world grapples with the spread of COVID-19, old certainties are being replaced with new concerns. Leaders of automotive companies around the world are in especially stressful positions. Facing disruptions in supply chains, uncertain demand, retooling to manufacture medical devices, and many other operational challenges, mobility executives are confronting multiple once-in-a-generation crises.

For now, the most pressing concern for many automotive leaders is protecting their workers. The CECA (Communicate, Engage, Stay Compliant, and Activate) framework protects automotive manufacturing talent in ways that safeguard their mental and physical wellbeing. Moreover, this framework allows automotive leaders to engage in a continuous two-way dialogue with their talent. Taken together, executives that apply the lessons of CECA can navigate the present first-order crises and position their firms for the future.

Communicate

The coronavirus is causing incredible disruption in the lives of many people at the heart of the automotive industry. Government orders to “shelter in place” are now commonplace and driving much anxiety in our communities. Multiple plant closures and the move to remote work are also forcing us to bear multiple burdens.

How can automotive leaders bring some sense of informed calm at this time? Research suggests that executives have a unique role in managing workforce anxiety. Without visible and calming leadership, stress and uncertainty can paralyze organizations.

An honest presentation of facts and commitment to protecting the livelihoods of your talent are challenges. The difficulty is compounded when the facts on the ground are rapidly shifting and market realities are volatile. Instead of running from this hardship or remaining silent, automotive executives should treat this as an ongoing dialogue with their most precious resource, their workers. Therefore, honest delivery of important news, such as shift changes, plant closures, and other critical events, must be executed transparently.

Engage

It is worth stressing that information that flows only one way from executive to workforce often fails. In such volatile times, executives must listen just as closely as they formulate and communicate policy.

For example, getting feedback on shift changes from talent can uncover hidden complexity that must be addressed. Workers might also have novel solutions that those in the C-suite have not considered. In general, feeling like a real stakeholder in the destiny of a company (especially in such powerless times) is a powerfully unifying force.

Moreover, listening does not simply have to involve business topics. The physical and emotional stresses of battling illness, remaining at home, homeschooling children, and countless other hardships in the COVID-19 crisis are impacting all of us. Automotive leaders who can understand these stresses are better able to formulate strategy and save their companies. Imagine the concern and care your workforce would feel if someone simply asks, “how are you feeling?” in a genuine way.

Stay compliant

Workplace safety guidelines ensure the health and safety of automotive workers. In a time of public health crisis, automotive executives must be even more vigilant in ensuring such compliance.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently clarified guidance to workplaces to ensure that workers are protected from COVID-19 exposure. “Protecting the health and safety of America’s workforce is a key component of this Administration’s comprehensive approach to combating the coronavirus,” said one of OSHA’s lead regulators.

In fact, the way work is done in the factory will fundamentally change. Work cells may need to be redesigned to respect “light social distance” protocols. For example, workers need to be six feet apart on the factory floor when lines slowly come back to life. Testing will be a fact of life in plant and most corporate environments until there is a vaccine. In fact, contact wristbands that geo-track where you move and whom you meet can be useful at a plant or campus level to determine self-quarantine.

How do line managers ensure that their facilities are operating in compliance with the latest health and medical advice? It is an incredible challenge to comply with all workforce protection guidelines across the organization. Failure to do so will not only lead to stiff monetary penalties, but the reputation hit of being known as a company that doesn’t take care of frontline workers will fundamentally damage an automotive brand’s long-term earnings potential.

Activate

A workforce, especially given the high caliber of talent that is attracted to the automotive industry, must be engaged and activated even if the factory floor needs to be idle. Understanding which sectors of the company can be activated through collaborative remote working is a valuable competitive advantage for automakers.

Some tasks map easily to the remote work paradigm. A recent graduate working in the financial forecasting arm of an automaker can work with minimal difficulty from home. Others, perhaps in sales functions, might have a larger challenge to close in-person deals. Finally, assembling a car cannot be done remotely.

It must be said that being aware of the disconnection and miscommunication that remote work can sometimes lead to is essential. Given the highly collaborative nature of work in the auto industry, leaders must ingrain the right practices and support the right technical infrastructure to ensure that their workers can work effectively in teams.

All workers – even those working in idled assembly lines – can continue to build their human capital. This activation through learning ensures that current skills are not worn out through attrition. Equally important, a centrally approved training program can upskill the workforce to ensure that the company is ready to take on additional challenges during the recovery.

What do you think about the CECA framework? Do you have other things that automotive leaders need to consider? Let us know below in the comments section.

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Aswin Mannepalli

About Aswin Mannepalli

Aswin Mannepalli leads global industry marketing efforts at SAP with an emphasis on the automotive and industrial manufacturing sectors. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and lectures at the Wharton School. In his spare time, he enjoys learning Mandarin Chinese and swimming.