Life After COVID-19 (Part 1)
COVID-19 has had a drastic impact on in-plants, altering their production processes, how they interact with customers, the types of pieces they print, their mail delivery procedures, and worst of all their finances. Thousands of self-supported in-plants that were off to a promising start in January are now deeply in debt, with no clear path to solvency. The predicaments of in-plants during the pandemic have varied greatly.
- Some have been busy, yet are running with fewer employees due to social distancing requirements. How will this affect their staffing needs permanently?
- Some have been dormant for months, all organizational printing deferred. What faces them when they restart their shops?
- University in-plants are dreading the prospect of empty campuses in the fall, with no events to print materials for. How will they need to change to adapt?
- And how has the sudden transition to remote working permanently affected in-plant staffing?
We talked with nearly a dozen managers to get their takes on how COVID-19 will change the in-plant industry. This story is just the first segment of a longer report that will appear in the June/July issue of In-plant Impressions.
“The future will probably be much like what we’re seeing now,” remarks John Bartik, director of operations for Western & Southern Financial Group’s Print, Mail and Fulfillment department, which has been operating with reduced staffing since March. “We’re wearing face coverings, keeping people apart, sanitizing common equipment, buttons, folders. Everybody’s in the routine.” Employees even get their temperature taken each morning, he says.
“We’re thinking the mask — wearing a face covering — is going to be with us for the next eight to 12 months,” agrees Mike Lincoln, Colorado State Printer.
In-plants have installed plastic “sneeze guard” barriers at customer service desks and mail counters, locked their doors to visitors, closed their lunchrooms, and split their staffs into shifts, which literally never cross paths.
At Western & Southern’s in-plant in Newport, Ky., the team was divided in half, and each group works a week, then stays home a week. Bartik has not seen members of the other team in person since March.
“I suspect we’ll be still doing the rotation for quite some time,” he says — as long as it takes to assure the safety of his associates, he adds. Reduced staffing means foregoing the luxury of having two operators on a machine during a busy time.
“Typically, we’ll have two people on [an inserting] machine, and right now we’re getting by with one person,” reports Bartik. “It slows them down, but it keeps them separated.”
This necessary adaptation, however, may make a company question the need for the additional team member, leading to eventual staff cuts.
Right-Sizing Your Staff
At in-plants that are slow right now, staff reductions seem even more likely. Consultant Howie Fenton has devised a spreadsheet that uses analytics and metrics to help managers calculate their staffing needs.
“Based on your revenue, you can … estimate what staffing you should have,” he says. More than likely it will go down.Automation and Web-to-print will help you do more with a smaller staff, he notes. This may be the time to fire up features of your Web-to-print software that you had not yet been using, he says.
Fenton worries about how some in-plants will handle another of the requirements of this new COVID-19 world: social distancing.
“There are quite a few in-plants that really are limited in space,” he notes. Not only that, manual inserting and fulfillment projects that require people to work side-by-side are now risky scenarios. Managers must come up with new solutions to keep people apart, and also to keep them from getting lax about safety precautions. Wearing masks is already a contentious issue; continuous sanitation will get tiresome; six feet of separation may turn into two feet over time. Yet these measures are crucial in preventing the spread of COVID-19 — and the closure of your in-plant. After all, what else can an in-plant do if one employee gets sick and it doesn’t have the luxury of A and B teams?
“That would shut us down until they’re tested, and if they are [sick] we’d have to quarantine,” says Martin James, manager of Graphic Communications at Deer Valley Unified School District (DVUSD), in Phoenix, who runs a one-shift, eight-employee operation. “Bottom line, we would be down.”
Managers must come up with a backup plan for this possibility. IPI has already learned of operators testing positive for COVID-19. As a result, they and their in-plant coworkers are home for a two-week quarantine, requiring other staff to fill in.
To minimize the chance of that happening, James has taken steps to keep people from touching the same buttons and tools. “I have equipment assigned to specific individuals,” he says.
Watch for the rest of this in-depth report in the June/July issue of IPI.
Bob has served as editor of In-plant Impressions since October of 1994. Prior to that he served for three years as managing editor of Printing Impressions, a commercial printing publication. Mr. Neubauer is very active in the U.S. in-plant industry. He attends all the major in-plant conferences and has visited nearly 170 in-plant operations around the world. He has given presentations to numerous in-plant groups in the U.S., Canada and Australia, including the Association of College and University Printers and the In-plant Printing and Mailing Association. He also coordinates the annual In-Print contest, co-sponsored by IPMA and In-plant Impressions.