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How Joseph Robertson adapted to the challenges of COVID-19

Joseph Robertson workers

How Joseph Robertson adapted to the challenges of COVID-19

Jordan Noble, HR Manager at Joseph Robertson, one of the largest seafood manufacturers in the UK, explains how the Aberdeen-based company achieved business continuity by adapting to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trusting the expertise of our people allowed us to put in place a response to COVID-19 that's helped our staff stay safe, cope mentally and connect to a deeper sense of purpose and stability.

Jordan Noble, HR Manager at Joseph Robertson

Jordan Noble HR Manager at Joseph Robertson

5 tips on achieving business continuity

1. Effective leadership is about honest and transparent communication

The start of the COVID-19 was a particularly challenging time for our business. We didn’t know if we would be going into lockdown, and we were trying to keep on top of the increasingly frequent government updates. It became clear that having an effective communication strategy would be key to addressing the growing levels of uncertainty across the organisation.

A leader’s words and actions can help people to adjust and cope emotionally. We recognised that, although we're the leaders of the business, we're not experts in handling this kind of pandemic situation. After all, this was something no one had dealt with before.

So, we focused on interpreting the advice from officials - in particular the Scottish Government and NHS inform - and using the appropriate channels to communicate that information in a way that would help our staff make sense of what was happening. We tried to distil the meaning from the chaos.

Ensuring honesty about the situation and maintaining transparency has helped build employee loyalty and allowed us to lead more effectively throughout the crisis.

2. Leave no stone unturned when it comes to health and safety

We had very early engagement with all our departments to lessen the risks to our employees. We wanted to proactively identify employees who may be considered at risk and candidates for shielding. 

A COVID group was formed, which included senior executives. Since the start of March, the group has met on a weekly basis to review actions, progress and next steps to try and stay ahead.

Our factory operates 24 hours, 7 days a week, which meant any changes we made had to be done during operating hours. Screens were installed between workstations, breaks were staggered and we removed every second seat in the canteen so that social distancing could be practised.

Risk audits were carried out by managers, and our visitor sign-in process was moved online, removing the need for physical contact. We also updated our induction training to reflect new advice.

We carried out extensive research and critical appraisal of COVID-19 guidance. And we would frequently provide the wider organisation with clear, reliable and fact-based communication and repeat this until we knew it was embedded.

For those who needed to continue to come into work, we made sure that management were visible and had a presence. It was a priority for us as the leaders of the business to make sure from the very start that our employee’s felt supported and that we were in this together with them.

3. Be aware of the challenges of remote working

As a large-scale food manufacturer, we knew that specific changes would need to be made in order to ensure the health and safety of our factory workers. At the same time, we also needed to make sure that we supported the health and mental well-being of staff who were now being asked to work remotely.

It can be difficult to keep employees engaged and focused when times are normal, so to be able to do that during a global pandemic is challenging for any business. A key thing for us was to challenge the widespread perception that visibility in the office automatically equals productivity. If the quality of work is meeting expectations and there's no drop in performance levels, then managers shouldn't have a reason to be concerned.

We needed to have realistic expectations of our staff and take into consideration any personal circumstances which may impact on work performance. It's been vital for our staff to know that their manager and colleagues are available to them if needed. Even if that's just for a 'virtual chat' over a coffee - as if they were still in the office. This helped us make sure we didn't lose touch with those working remotely.

The pandemic created an impetus for change which has accelerated progress, particularly with our use of technology. Using tools like Microsoft Teams has allowed us to bring our virtual teams together.

We do this regularly, so that work streams don't fall apart. What we've seen is that when a 'virtual working' infrastructure is implemented well, it allows the cross-function of team members to form. And this can create efficiencies and reduce costs and has even helped us to share skills.

Another example is our rainbow competition, where we encouraged staff to get their children involved in drawing rainbows for our front window. The winner and runner up received a prize and the winning drawing was displayed on our company emails. My favourite part of that was that, not only did we get a high level of engagement from staff, but it was successful in reaching out and including their families.

4. Focus on doing the right things for your business

It can be very easy in a crisis to try and replicate what other businesses around you are doing. A big part of our success has come from keeping focus on what our organisation and workforce needed, and doing the right things at the right times for our business and our people.

In order to really understand the needs of our business, we’ve had to adapt our leadership style during this pandemic, and the company as a whole has become a lot more all-inclusive.

We know that the people working on the factory floor are the experts at what they do. And when they've raised concerns or suggestions, we've ensured that they're quickly  escalated to the management team. Trusting the expertise of our people has allowed us to put in place a response to COVID-19 that's helped our staff stay safe, cope mentally and connect to a deeper sense of purpose and stability.

It’s also allowed us to further demonstrate that communication in our business is not just top-down. Being flexible, listening to feedback and not being afraid to change course if necessary, has been important to the whole change management process during the crisis.

5. Recognising the efforts of your staff is vital

Now more than ever it’s so important to let our staff know how much we appreciate the hard work they are putting in. Reminding them that they play a vital role in feeding the nation was a critical part of our leadership, and it definitely boosted morale as employee’s saw the positive impact of what they were doing on a daily basis.

We also received letters and emails from our customers thanking our workforce directly for their commitment and efforts during these uncertain times. We made a point of displaying these in public areas for all to see and to gain recognition and thanks for their efforts and sacrifices in attending the workplace as a key worker.

The key worker status definitely had a positive impact on morale across the organisation. And the management team reminded colleagues on the shop floor just how much we appreciated their efforts by organising a round of applause for them each week and on different shift regimes, to ensure all colleagues felt valued by the organisation.

Small gestures like this can make a huge difference, and I would say that our colleagues are now more appreciative and supportive of each other than ever before.

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