Attendees were asked to answer poll questions during the panel discussion on COVID-19 and manufacturing.

Several industry experts came together during the Fenestration and Glazing Industry Alliance (FGIA) Summer Conference in a panel titled “Managing Manufacturing Operations and Customer Connections through the COVID-19 Crisis” to discuss how their company handled the shutdown and what they expect for the near future.

Danny Smith, vice president and principal at Ceridian, moderated the panel discussion. He started off by asking about current operations and how different companies handled workforce challenges and communication with employees and customers.

Matt Nuss, vice president of operations for Vitrum Glass Group, said that less than 10% of the company’s employees were furloughed. Since then they’ve done recalls and recruiting.

“Many people received decent benefits from the government which has impacted our ability to recall and recruit employees. That’s something we have to figure out how to manage,” he said.

Greg Lambas, senior director of window and casework development at Katerra, explained that his company was quick to act at the beginning of the pandemic by restricting travel, moving to remote work where possible and putting distancing/safety measures in place at all of its facilities.

He said the executive team was surprised by how productive the team has remained despite working remotely. However, he does see a downside to remote work.

“The spontaneity from the office is lost,” he said.

Lisa Bergeron, director of business development and regulatory affairs at Jeld-Wen, emphasized the importance of concise and timely communication.

“The pandemic has been at different stages in different jurisdictions so communication is paramount. The pandemic also showed us how small of a world it is. It’s important to share best practices effectively so we can all weather the storm,” she said.

Bergeron said that the COVID-19 pandemic has required her company to keep a finger on the pulse of policies and safety matters from the global to local level.

“Another lesson we’ve learned is to not underestimate the anxiety level COVID-19 creates with employees. It impacts personal safety in ways that we’re not used to,” she said.

At PGT Innovations, president and CEO Jeff Jackson said the company extended payment and credit terms. The company also furloughed its at-risk employees on a volunteer basis and made up the difference between government unemployment assistance and employees’ normal pay.

“Early on we were very aggressive in how we approached communication and how we were adapting to change. Change is still happening. Just this week we decided that employees will wear masks where appropriate and we communicated this to the customer level,” he said.

Richard Braunstein, vice president of research and development at Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope® (OBE), said his company has been conservative in its recovery approach.

“We would like to see a V-shaped recovery but we’re planning for a W-shaped recovery,” he said.

Braunstein pointed out that during the beginning of the pandemic employees were looking for something positive they could do. This led to OBE creating a line of COVID-19-related security products.

Next, Smith asked panelists about what the future holds for glass industry manufacturing.

Bergeron anticipates that higher levels of sanitary measures will become the new normal and that there will be a reduction in air travel.

“I think a certain percentage of meetings will be replaced by web meetings when they can be more effective. We also need to get accustomed to higher rates of absenteeism. In a post-COVID-19 world we won’t allow associates to work with flu-like symptoms and we need to come to grips with that,” she said. “There’s also the possibility of formalizing remote work for certain positions.”

Braunstein explained that he expects there to be a change in architectural layouts to facilitate social distancing. He said it also opens the possibility of product solutions. Braunstein also expects more meetings to become remote, such as design reviews.

“I don’t expect that we will stay with this completely. Clearly we need to engage with employees and interact socially with our peers. We will find a new balance to leverage the things we’ve been forced to use in a productive way that probably wouldn’t have been done if not for this situation,” he said.

Jackson pointed out that while some of PGT’s office staff will continue to work from home to some degree, that’s only a small percentage of the company’s population.

“Eighty percent of our employees are not impacted by work from home or Zoom meetings. They’re in the factory, unloading trucks and in the field servicing windows,” he said. “It’s important to be in the plants with folks. Our executives have been strongly encouraged to show up to work every day to talk to folks. That’s important. It’s the blood of the company.”

Nuss agreed with Jackson’s perspective. He started working for Vitrum in February and was unable to meet one of the company’s key leaders before the shutdown.

“We met for the first time last week and found out we were born in the same town. There’s value of having face-to-face meetings,” he said.

Nuss expects that events will require more advance planning than in the past. Factory visits can’t be same day or next day, he said.

Jackson also expects there to be more paid sick leave from now on as companies encourage people to stay home if they’re sick.

“In the past when people came in sick, that attitude may have been rewarded. That’s changing. I think staying home when sick is going to be a tipping point for human resources and our folk,” he said.