When Mercedes Austin realized she'd have to close her business as the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., she was flooded with emotions.
"For the first few weeks I cried, and went through frustrations, then anger, then fear," Austin says. With production shut down, her only stream of revenue was lost. She didn't know when her, or her employees', next paycheck would come. "We just had to have a little faith that it would all work out."
Austin is the founder and CEO of Mercury Mosaics, a Minneapolis-based manufacturer of unique handmade tiles that has been in operation for 18 years and has been growing so fast that it landed on the 2019 Inc. 5000 at No. 3,302.
Most of her 32 employees, such as those in sales and marketing, were able to work remotely. But her production team, those who make custom tiles in-house at the company's studio, were not. No production team meant no product, and no revenue, so she had to make some quick decisions when it came to reopening. Here are her tips on how to get production up and running quickly, and safely.
Create a safe environment.
In mid-March, Austin knew immediately that she'd have to change her workspace fast, and first that meant cleaning.
"We've been told we're clean for a ceramic studio," says Austin. "However, we went through the studio with new eyes relative to what's happening, what's the safest way to operate this place, and how can we make this as clean as possible."
The company spaced out workstations so there's more than six feet between employees. Austin purchased touchless thermometers from Amazon to ensure employees who come to work don't have fevers, as well as medical-grade gloves and facemasks--the company retrofitted a sequin maker to produce the masks. Employees have extra duties, such as cleaning their own workstations and tools and taking turns wiping down communal areas, on a daily basis. Austin hired a service to come in on weekends to deep clean the studio and disinfect all surfaces. She says it costs around $600 a month and is well worth the peace of mind.
The company also placed informational signs around the studio, including reminders for six-foot distancing and adequate hand washing. About a half-dozen people still work in the 15,000-square-foot converted warehouse. She notes that even though employees have ample space, the cleaning and protective measures are necessary. Some of them, she says, such as providing employees with their own carts, sets of tools, and cleaning materials, will likely stay in place once the pandemic is over. "We're going to take better care of ourselves," she says.
The best thing you can do is stay informed about federal and local guidelines, which may vary, says Robyn Boerstling, vice president of infrastructure, innovation, and human resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers. "Employers and employees need clear, current, consistent, and easily accessible information from the CDC and OSHA, and information from health officials and local government."
You can find guidance on reopening by state and by sector at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Re-opening Business Digital Resource Center.
Give your employees options.
When the pandemic started, Austin had about two months' worth of payroll in the bank. The company is not backed by investors, so besides a small line of credit, her safety net was thin. She applied and was granted a loan $226,000, loan under the Paycheck Protection Program for payroll and rent expenses.
"It's like we were playing Super Mario Brothers, and we are down to like one-and-a-half lives," Austin says. "The PPP gave us two more."
Austin offered all her employees who make tiles the opportunity to temporarily work on other projects remotely. Minnesota state guidelines require that employers prioritize remote work, says Austin. Of 32 employees, 28 took the offer -- one left the state and the other three waited for ceramic production to recommence. When the studio had its safety procedures in place and employees could then return, she made it clear that returning was a choice. With the PPP funding, Austin could still pay employees, even if they declined to return to work.
"Everybody was able to make an individual choice and decide what was right for them," she says. "We made it a small victory when there were five people back in the studio."
While production was down, the company lost about 40 percent of its usual revenue in the first quarter, but Austin says the drop was worth it to provide a safe and functioning environment for employees to return. She says that she's hopeful that all of her employees will once again be able to return to their combination office-studio, but that it likely won't happen until September at the soonest. She's also looking into getting more office space. Previously employees who weren't in the studio worked in the showroom, a brick-and-mortar space for customers to view products in the front section of the warehouse.
"When this started, no one had a process in place," remarks Austin. "We did have to deal with a couple of refunds to clients who were mad at us, because we did not get open and up and running fast enough, but our first priority was our operations, and we'll take the safety of our employees over a tile sale."