Managing an Engineering Team in Lockdown

Moving from hands on engineering, fabrication and manufacturing to having a virtual team.

Like many companies in New Zealand, our business norms were abruptly changed as Covid-19 pushed us into Alert Level 4. With the engineering workshop initially empty, the milling, turning and welding machines fell silent. Our job turned to communicating with customers, looking after our staff and planning for the recovery.

Going into lockdown, with only a few days’ notice, left us scrambling to complete work we had committed to, not knowing at that time whether we would be able to operate as an essential service and needing to quickly engage with our team.

Keeping in touch with the engineering team

Once we were in lockdown we needed to contact our staff and complete paperwork around a wage variation agreement (so we could pay staff at a reduced level during the lockdown). This was something we had verbally spoken about as a team, but had not completed.

The process of personally talking to each staff member (18 in total), sending each one an agreement to consider and sign, and then following up with another phone call to discuss any concerns took a lot more time than I had imagined.

The phone calls however, provided a great opportunity to hear any concerns or worries that staff raised.  A benefit in doing this was it kept everyone engaged, even though it was one on one at this stage.

An outcome of these conversations was arranging ‘Zoom’ meetings twice a week to touch base as a team.  We have used these meetings to advise of some essential work we needed to complete, and each staff member had the opportunity to talk to the group about what they have been up to during the lockdown.  Certainly a well received boost to morale and a chance to connect outside of your ‘bubble’

As a business we discussed things that members of the team might be interested in doing such as e-learning. Several staff members took this on, which has been a really positive result.

We also sent out Health and Safety documentation to all for review and evaluation, to make use of this time and ensure our processes were up to date.


Checking in with customers

We have continued to communicate with customers during the lockdown.  Many, like us, are not seen as ‘essential’ and we have just kept in touch with these businesses to get an idea of their thoughts on what demand might be like ‘on the other side’.

The other priority we had was to understand the needs of our essential service customers and then to prepare small teams to start producing components during the lockdown. This presented it’s own challenges, a topic we’ll touch on in our next blog post.

Readying for restart

We set up a ‘war team’ on the last day before lockdown, with this small group meeting 3 or 4 times a week on the Microsoft Teams platform.  We have shared ideas on what work we can complete during this time, arranged how we will operate to complete the essential work we have as well as discussed how we can make it work when we have the full staff back once Level 3 is announced.

At times the issues we are facing seemed overwhelming, and it was heartening to receive the strong support from staff during these uncertain times.  It was also much appreciated to see the enthusiasm to return to work from those few workers who were needed to come in and complete the essential work.

The last few weeks have certainly taught us a fair amount about resiliency, planning and being innovative. We must say however, we are looking forward to returning to work as soon as the Government decree that it is safe.

Mark and Fiona at Myriad Engineering