8 minute read 11 Jun 2020
Two workers cycle over a bridge towards mill

Five key steps for a resilient and safer factory floor amid COVID-19

By Jerry Gootee

EY Global Advanced Manufacturing Sector Leader

Consulting leader with nearly 30 years of experience. Passionate about developing people, building relationships and serving clients. Guitarist and vocalist. Golfer and Cleveland sports enthusiast.

8 minute read 11 Jun 2020

In a post-COVID-19 world, the manufacturing sector will face unique hurdles operating in the new normal. 

In many ways, manufacturing workers are the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though our day-to-day lives have been altered significantly, by and large, we’ve had access to the goods we all need to maintain some semblance of normalcy. Rising to this challenge hasn’t been easy for manufacturers though, and there are critical concerns to address.

Production plants face unique hurdles, as working from home is not an option for workers on the factory floor. For them, social distancing can be difficult or even impossible to maintain. To confront this challenge, the first step is to recognize that returning to the status quo is not an option and embark on your action plan accordingly.  

After the financial crisis and other times of distress, manufacturing companies developed robust business continuity playbooks that have been refined over the years. These plans are no doubt proving invaluable, but the reality is we find ourselves in largely uncharted territory, with a host of factors that vary depending on end customers, geography and more.

COVID-19-adjusted ways of working will evolve and take form in fluid conditions. Your workers may need new safety protocols — even just to get inside the building. Meanwhile, demand for a certain product may have dwindled to nothing or suddenly surged. A responsive framework, enabled by robust scenario planning, is needed to act decisively under such extraordinary circumstances.

Creating a flexible plan that confronts uncertainty  

1. Plan your phased approach, guided by risk

The need for diligence on the front end is critical. A pre-vaccination period of “semi-normal” for the near future — involving more safeguards and additional procedures in place to protect workers, vendors and customers — will be required. Such a setup could fluctuate on a month-to-month or even week-to-week basis.

Perform an initial risk assessment to identify your vulnerabilities. Are COVID-19 cases increasing in your community? Have any of your workers tested positive? How would your operations be affected if your workforce was reduced? Perform regular checks, with lower-risk items requiring less frequent reviews. Then develop scenarios and plan for them, guided by the high-risk priorities you identified, with variables such as increases and decreases in affected employees and customer demand.

2. Look at your end customers and the impact of swings in demand

As part of scenario planning, you must account for consumer demand, knowing that historical data is unlikely to be helpful. Analysts are putting information out about all the scenarios, while many companies are taking a conservative position and adapting that based on new data.

This again highlights the need for thinking through scenarios and being able to pivot, because ultimately customer demand is the crucial variable dictating the impact on your production and supply base. Some of the critical questions to consider include:

  • What can you make, and what’s the demand right now?
  • What are the key materials and suppliers involved to get the resources to produce when you hit the restart button?
  • Which suppliers will you need to get the resources to produce as you start over?
  • What is the impact on your workforce’s needs if you’re producing a different mix of SKUs?
  • Can you simulate how to optimize production when you have less than a full workforce available?
By putting people first, organizations can build and maintain trust with their employees, their customers and their stakeholders.
Michael Bertolino
EY Global People Advisory Services Leader
3. Revisit your policies, procedures and processes for workplace health and safety

Each plant is different. Within the framework of scenario planning, you must consider critical questions, such as:

  • How does a worker enter the building?
  • Can you stagger start times to accommodate social-distancing needs for a larger workforce?
  • Will you be testing employees for COVID-19 when they develop symptoms, or is your plan to do random testing, as spreading by those without symptoms is also a concern?
  • Do your policies for dealing with potential incidents need to be updated?
  • How will you sanitize the equipment?
  • Do you have the required amount of personal protective equipment?
  • Is it appropriate or feasible to deploy technologies to assist in distancing and tracing?

Using the answers to such questions, develop reopening criteria and a schedule, also relying on information and guidance from local and federal governments and scientific authorities. Stage a return to the workplace, creating worker personas or categories and prioritize them while encouraging remote work when possible. Critically evaluate who needs to be on site, at which site, and consider the possibility that workers who have made remote work successful may not need to physically return at all.

Establish clear policies on workplace social distancing, meeting protocols, health, hygiene, and daily cleaning and disinfection requirements to support adaptive guidance — as it is developed and socialized. Modify your workplaces accordingly — for example, by reconfiguring workstations to accommodate greater distance between workers.

Take a people-first approach to your policies. According to Mike Bertolino, EY Global People Advisory Services Leader, “By putting people first, organizations can build and maintain trust with their employees, their customers and their stakeholders.”

4. Communicate clearly and effectively

This is a disconcerting time for employees, who are naturally concerned for their lives and their livelihoods. Not only is it a time for empathy, but it’s a time to be as clear and thorough as possible in your communication plan. All key stakeholders — including employees, landlords, visitors and vendors — must know new workplace procedures. The tone and messaging should remain direct, honest and empathetic. Communicate return-to-workplace expectations across appropriate channels early and often.

And it is critical to establish two-way communication throughout the crisis. Establishing a dedicated channel or hub for workers to submit questions, feedback and concerns can go a long way in ensuring seamless communication. Also, consider deploying pulse surveys on a regular basis to gauge employee health and productivity.

5. Keep an eye on your cost structure

The costs of not getting this balance correct are high as many manufacturers are also facing liquidity challenges. Stimulus dollars and the opportunities to preserve cash and defer taxes are available, but planning should also explore how to pull cost out when reacting to scenarios — for instance, outsourcing some back-office functions, suspending R&D, marketing and non-fixed costs, or revisiting short-term staffing models.

While the challenges are steep and the learning curve is short, this crisis is an opportunity to usher in a new way of working that could ultimately benefit your business, your employees and your customers. The journey there may be difficult, but with new resiliency, the future can be more focused on what’s possible, not what’s in your way.

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COVID-19-related lockdowns, restrictions and isolation practices have taken a toll on business operations across sectors. However, some sectors, such as manufacturing, are experiencing more challenges as current standards, including working from home and other remote-working options, are not practical for factory and plant-based operations. As social distancing becomes our new reality, manufacturers have critical concerns, ranging from employee well-being to production demands, to address. 

About this article

By Jerry Gootee

EY Global Advanced Manufacturing Sector Leader

Consulting leader with nearly 30 years of experience. Passionate about developing people, building relationships and serving clients. Guitarist and vocalist. Golfer and Cleveland sports enthusiast.