Most maintenance organizations made significant changes to their daily routines in order to effect social distancing during the height of the pandemic. Curtailed field rounds, closed door policies for supervisors, virtual meetings, supervision by phone or radio - all of these were heavily communicated and enforced in the early days of the protocols.
As things return to a tentative new normal, however, few organizations have been deliberate about communicating adjustments to these policies. I was speaking with a maintenance superintendent the other week about this. “We never really communicated expectations. Some people just eased out of it a bit more than others. It’s probably time for a reset.”
COVID protocols have done a number on front line supervision at many sites, but much of this is invisible to management. On one hand, many front line supervisors were told to forgo in-person morning meetings for larger shops and cut back on in person field visits in pursuit of social distancing. Likewise, shifts and lunch times have been staggered, making it more difficult to manage crews and get mid-day updates across different plant areas and crafts.
On the other hand, front line supervisors have been loaded down with more, longer virtual meetings. When plant meetings went from in person to virtual, pressures to keep them short and relatively small disappeared. As a result, front line supervisors’ days are busier than ever, but leave them less opportunity for the critical work of actually supervising craft in the field.
1. Define and communicate “new normal” expectations for your front-line supervisors. These expectations will depend on your local conditions and may need continued adjustment as circumstances change. The most important point here is to set and communicate the new expectations just as decisively and clearly as they were communicated when we went into lockdown. Now that we are in a more permissive environment, update the expectations that supervisors are going to spend more time in the field interacting with their crews.
2. Conduct a scrub of your meetings. Just as a maintenance backlog needs to be scrubbed on a regular basis, so too should your meetings – especially in this new era of ballooning virtual attendance. Review the length, frequency, and attendees with an eye to paring them down as much as possible. Give time back to your supervisors to get out of the office, off the virtual meeting platform, and out where they can make things happen.
3. Remind the entire maintenance department of the goal of active supervision. This reset is a great opportunity to re-baseline everyone’s understanding of the importance of active supervision. Front line supervisors are not there to rush their crews or to “bird-dog” them – despite popular ribbing to the contrary. Good active supervision in the field drives productivity by identifying and removing roadblocks to the crews can get on their tools and stay on them. Supervisors should be making sure the next jobs and the next day’s jobs are ready for their crews, helping them work through delays such as permitting issues or waiting on another craft, and generally providing whatever support and guidance is needed to keep their crews productive.
Your organization undoubtedly made significant changes to cope with COVID. Even if it took a while to make those changes, when it happened it was done decisively, it was well communicated, and it was monitored and enforced. Do not drift idly into the “new normal.” It is time to make up lost ground, so you need to be just as clear and decisive about resetting your front-line supervision.