Continuing our weekly series of posts on the theme of Lessons from Lockdown with the help of Sarah Coleman, Vicki Griffiths, Ian Cribbes and Tim Lyons who are gathering and collating stories and insight drawn from the P3M community.
“Necessity is the mother of invention” English Proverb
When the government announced that the country had to go into lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID 19, people were faced with a sudden shift in the world that they had been comfortably working in. How we lived, ran our projects and our businesses changed overnight. Faced with this we have had to evolve and adapt to the “new normal” to ensure that business continued. This sudden change in our terrain has sparked an incredible amount of creativity and innovation and has resulted in businesses doing things that they would never have even considered previously. Most businesses or even governments had no playbook for this scenario to turn to, so they had to get creative. Examples can be found on many levels which I would like to explore further in this article.
The issue that confronted many businesses and projects early on was how to allow employees to work from home if at all possible. Working from home has not always been encouraged by many businesses but has rapidly became a way of life over the last few months. Many IT departments had to come up with ways to support the majority of staff working from home by providing hardware, laptops, extra monitors, enhanced cybersecurity systems etc. . Technical support was enhanced to allow a large number of users to log into the company servers at any one time and to call up with queries.
Once the hardware, software and broadband issues had been solved, then a new set of problems arise. How to work together remotely as a team when previously you have all worked together in the same office? As a project manager in a global company, I am no stranger to working with people in different time zones, countries and offices. Keeping the team focussed on the end goal and moving towards it are essential skills. However even though I am used to working with geographically dispersed teams, I found that I missed the water cooler conversations where ideas are bounced around and you connected with other people about life both inside and outside of work. As a fairly social person, the lack of social face to face interaction was very tough to get used to. Using technology like Teams, Skype and Zoom have made remote working possible, imagine what it would have been like trying to do this with dial up internet, but still have limitations. At the beginning of lockdown, I was inundated with meeting requests and I wondered how I was actually going to get anything done. At the end of the day, I found that I was exhausted from watching people on a screen, trying to pick up on nuances of body language. Getting creative on time management was essential but I also carved out time to talk to my team and see how they were coping with the rollercoaster of coronavirus.
There was a different set of questions for businesses that cannot work online or were essential services like supermarkets. How can you continue to provide goods and services in a way that keeps employees and the general public safe.
The supermarket experience is probably familiar to everyone. How we all do our grocery shopping has undergone a dramatic change with limited people in store, barriers, one way systems and buying limits on key items. At the beginning of lockdown, supermarkets and other grocery shops were stretched to breaking point to keep the country fed. Supply chains were strained as countries all across the world have shut down their borders and getting hold of certain items became nearly impossible. In my local shops it was impossible to get pasta, flour or yeast for weeks. Whenever they did come into store, they were snapped up rapidly. Finding alternative suppliers has been a primary focus for many shops.
Many businesses, particularly small ones, have had to evolve or face possible extinction. Some pubs and restaurants have started working on a takeaway model and delivering food and drink to customers at home. Businesses like pubs that carry a lot of perishable inventory were faced with finding new ways to sell their product or seeing it go to waste. Vegetable suppliers that traditionally only sold to businesses have expanded into serving the general public. My local pasty shop in Truro was faced with possible closure during lockdown, so they started advertising their pasties on local Facebook groups. They have been delivering uncooked, frozen pasties to people’s homes so that they can have a favourite meal during lockdown. Although the turnover of these businesses would not be as high as it was in their more traditional niche these approaches have helped them to keep people employed and to survive. Some of these ideas may even continue after lockdown is a distant memory.
It is not just businesses that have had to change. Charities like the Scouts have also had to rethink their offering. All face to face Scouting activities were stopped in the UK following the closure of the schools. Scout groups across the country have come up with different ways to take Scouting online using Zoom and other platforms. These sessions have enabled the young people to still have a sense of community with their friends which has been especially important when they have been confined to their homes. Creativity has again come to the fore. There have been virtual campfires, camping, waterfights, quizzes, bake offs and Hogwarts escape rooms to name but a few of the things that have been going on. Leaders have been developing and sharing new ideas through forums.
Manufacturers have also made changes to their way of working. At the beginning of lockdown, the UK government sent out a plea for help producing ventilators to help manage the expected demand for this vital medical equipment. James Dyson offered to make 10,000 of them. Dyson, more traditionally known for their vacuum cleaners and hand dryers, spent £20 million to develop and manufacture a ventilator. They went from a blank sheet of paper to design and manufacture a ventilator in a month. This process typically would take years to achieve. The effort and expertise that went into this was incredible. Although the demand dropped in the UK for ventilators, this equipment can still be used to supply other countries. Dyson were not the only ones to do this. Another consortium of medical, military and civil engineering companies – including Airbus, Meggitt, GKN and others – have also been working on producing ventilators from an existing design.
Other manufacturing businesses have altered their equipment to begin making PPE for the NHS Distillers like Tarquins Gin and Alderman’s drinks have switched production from making gin and other spirits to making hand sanitiser when supplies rapidly ran out in the initial panic.
Coventry-based flooring manufacturer, Amtico has modified its manufacturing facilities to help produce up to 20,000 parts for protective face shields per day. A dedicated team of technical, CAD and cutting specialists modified the design of the headband to make it faster and more efficient to assemble, and ensuring the best balance between flexibility and rigidity, with the ultimate aim of making them as comfortable and practical as possible for frontline NHS workers. Many other manufacturers have also retooled to produce PPE, tamper seals for drug vials, parts for oxygen masks and water isolation valves for local Nightingale hospitals.
Even brands like Burberry and Barbour have changed some of their production lines to make non-surgical gowns and masks for their local NHS trusts. I have always admired Burberry’s products for their style and good design but have never been able to afford to buy them. Knowing that they have contributed to the great effort to keep NHS and other front-line services supplied is heart-warming.
These stories are the tip of the iceberg as many companies have pivoted at short notice to ensure survival, maintain jobs and support the country in need. I have been deeply impressed with the creativity and innovation shown by so many over the last few months. My question is how do we continue this spirit of innovation once things return to some semblance of normality? Will we still seek to find new and better ways of doing things or return to our comfortable ways of working? As a project manager, much of what I do is working with teams of people with a vast array of expertise to bring about change. I feel that these skills will be in demand going forward to create a new future. My hope is that one of the key lessons that we have learned from lockdown will be to look at the art of the possible and find new ways to make it happen.
Vicki Griffiths, ChPP, FAPM