COVID-19‘s Impact on Brin’s Team
By Bill Sulllivan, President and CEO of Brin Glass Company
In early March 2020, the pandemic went from being a “That won’t happen here” attitude to “Holy $#it! The governor issued an executive order to shelter in place on March 27!”
I remember attending the National Glass Association’s BEC conference in Nashville, TN, held the first week in March. COVID-19 cases were starting to increase but I didn’t notice any changes except the hand sanitizer at the beginning of the buffet lines. I remember the awkward tension of going up to speak with industry peers at a networking session. We didn’t know whether to shake hands or not, and so fist bumps became the norm.
By the time I returned from my March trip, cases on the East Coast were exploding, and Minnesota cases were growing as well. Leaks from Governor Walz’s office indicated that they were considering a shelter in place order in the case that COVID-19 numbers started to rise. The ramifications of this concerned me, and so I took the unprecedented steps of scheduling a Zoom meeting with our entire leadership team. Prior to this meeting, the leadership team never met together on a regular basis. That was about to change!
When this crazy season started back in 2020, I never imagined it would positively impact our communication and workplace environment; much less help our core values to shine. But through it all, we have supported one another and learned four main valuable lessons along the way.
Lesson 1: Be proactive when change is headed your way.
Our leadership team consisted of our five division managers: CFO, Controller and our HR/Safety manager. I knew that we all had to be on the same page for decisions we were potentially going to have to make, so our communication had to be consistent. We started out meeting once a week and then as cases increased and the state and federal governments started to take measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, we moved to meeting twice a week.
Prior to the pandemic, our ability to work remotely was limited to the leadership team. Our leadership team meetings allowed us to identify what was necessary to create a remote work environment for the rest of our team. This included purchasing additional equipment (laptops, monitors, cameras) and contracting with our MSP provider to create VPN and RDS environments. At the time, we were unsure if our operations would be considered “essential work” and so it was critical to prepare as if we weren’t going to be classified as such.
Governor Walz announced that effective March 27, 2022, a shelter in place order was in effect for all non-essential workers. Because construction trades and certain manufacturing operations were deemed essential, all our operations were going to remain open but most of our office staff were going to work remotely. Our production team and field staff were to continue with business as usual except that they were required to wear PPE (masks) when working. I must give our leadership team and our MSP provider all the credit in the world. The fact that our team of 80 was able to switch to remote working with two weeks’ notice is truly amazing!
Lesson 2: Technology is key, plan for the unthinkable.
Even though we were considered an essential business, our leadership team made the decision to go to a remote environment to keep our workforce as safe as possible. Keeping our team safe was our number one priority. Keeping our business operations open was a close second. To keep operations open we had to make the decision to reduce hours and lay off staff as our revenue dropped when the shelter in place order was issued. These were tough decisions, and I reminded our leadership team that we had to deliver the news with compassion and honesty. We didn’t know how long the reduction in hours would last. However, those who had been laid off were in for a surprise when our PPP application was later approved in April. (Read more about this within Lesson 3).
Throughout this whole adjustment, technology was the key to keeping our team connected. On April 10th, we held our first virtual happy hour across all the Brin divisions. Our leadership team recognized that having part of the staff work remotely and others continuing to work in the office could create a divide between our team members. We didn’t want people to feel isolated and being able to connect with peers for a light-hearted online event was important. The happy hour was a momentous success and was the first of many before we returned to the office. If your team is working remotely, or you have multiple locations, consider a virtual happy hour.
Lesson 3: Keep people connected and be transparent about challenges.
Keeping the team connected through communication and transparency about challenges was another way that Brin stayed grounded during the pandemic.
The first week in April, the federal government issued plans to support businesses that had to shut down or modify operations due to the pandemic and shelter in place orders. The CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act 2020) was created, and several programs were spawned from that act. Our leadership team researched the options, and it became apparent that the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) would fit us best. I made the decision to hire an outside consultant to take on the application process on our behalf. I recognized that our team did not have the capacity to review the rules and keep up to date on the almost daily program changes. With the consultant’s help, we were able to submit our application to our financial institution, Bremer Bank, on April 5.
I vividly remember when I received notification that our PPP application had been accepted. It was Friday night, April 10, I was at home watching a movie with my wife when I received the loan documents. After signing the document for a multimillion-dollar loan/grant during a commercial break, I was awestruck. Looking back on it now, I must recognize the federal government for how important this was for our business and many others across the country.
Knowing that our application was approved allowed us to bring back everyone that was laid off and return everyone to 40-hour work weeks despite revenue levels that did not support the full return. It was crucial to our leadership team that we were able to support team members and their families. Our employees are our greatest asset, they have allowed us to exist and serve our clients for over 100 years!
Lesson 4: Value people over profit when everything is on the line.
The final lesson our team has learned during this experience has been valuing our people over the profit, even when everything was on the line.
The shelter in place order was set to expire by May 1, 2020 but was extended by the governor. I started becoming concerned about having our staff out of the office for an extended period. I was worried about our team culture and the development of our younger team members. Much of a person’s development in the office is the result of conversing with a peer in the next office, usually at the water cooler or during lunch breaks.
We began preparing for return to work beginning July 5, 2020. This was far sooner than most companies, but I felt really strongly that it was important for who we are as a team. Our best work is a result of collaboration, and collaboration comes from being in the same room with the team. Sharing the same environment aids in recognizing body language, having full attention and being able to follow up with a person after a meeting to ask questions.
Our team came back to work with few exceptions. We allowed those with health issues or childcare issues to continue to work remotely. We recognized that we were going to use working remotely as a tool rather than a permanent solution. To help make everyone feel safe, we enacted safety protocols at each location which included temperature taking, wearing a mask everywhere except at your desk, and disinfecting the common surfaces three times a day during office hours. In addition, we also had full cleanings at night when our janitorial service was scheduled. These decisions were made to keep our team safe. I am proud to say that we did not have any documented internal spread of COVID-19 between team members while they were in the office.
As the pandemic waned, we removed some of our safety protocols and finally eliminated them by the spring of 2021. The summer of 2021 was filled with optimism that we were over the hump. Optimism was tempered by the fact that we were experiencing the effects of the “Great Resignation” as was much of the country. We replaced 25% of our workforce in 2021 which took time and created stress for those that had to pick up the slack. We saw a dramatic uptick in the use of our health insurance mental health services by our employees. We also recognized that the work/life balance was not healthy in some situations, and we had to enforce “no overtime” rules to prevent burnout. The pandemic forced an evolution in how we manage. Caring for our employees became more of a focus than it was before.
This optimism and hopes that the pandemic was dying out was short lived with the arrival of the Delta variant and later the Omicron variant. The lessons we learned from the pandemic’s early start were invaluable. With transparent and timely communication while responding to the virus, we reissued a mask mandate across all divisions and reduced the number of in-person meetings. Having to cancel all our annual holiday parties for the second year in a row was tough. Seeing people outside of a work environment is always a fun and enjoyable time.
Looking towards the future
Covid-19’s impact on Brin’s team was different than we had originally thought it would be. As we enter year three of COVID-19, we’re back to in-person work with the added benefit of remote work policies for applicable jobs. We’ve increased our communication efforts and are consistently raising the bar on how we engage with team members in transparent ways. Our core values have never been more important to our team – we’ve truly learned the value of saying: We Show Up; We Bring It; and We Do It Right. And we’ve learned the art of working together as a leadership team to conquer challenges – large and small.
What we learned about our company, and our people.
- The safety and health of our employees is paramount.
- Transparent and frequent communication is essential.
- We must adapt and pivot to new situations.
- Collaboration and support of team members is critical.
- In-person work environments are important to our culture.
Learn more about how Brin Glass Company can help you.
#We Show Up #We Bring It #We Do It Right
Additional Links & Resources
Learn Why Work for Brin?
National Glass Association’s BEC Conference, March 2020, Tennessee
Virtual Happy Hours Are The New Way To Go Out: Here’s How To Plan A Great One
10 Ways to Enhance Team Collaboration
The Great Resignation is Finally Getting Companies to Take Burnout Seriously
Accounts Receivable/Account Payable Specialist
Journey-level and Apprentice Glaziers