A year of COVID-19 measures in Germany – Interview with Frederike Beckhoff
As early as a little over a year ago, we began to take comprehensive safety measures at our headquarters in Verl to protect the company and all employees from the coronavirus. This allowed us to maintain our operational and delivery capability at all times and means that we will be able to supply required components for all of our customers in the future, too. The company is emerging from the global crisis in a stable position and is very pleased with the positive business performance. We are currently expanding production and delivery capacities further to meet the increasing demand. Together with the coronavirus action team, Frederike Beckhoff has been looking after all COVID-19-related issues for Beckhoff since the beginning of the pandemic. We took a look back with her over what has been an exceptional year and review the lessons we have learned as a company from the pandemic.
Looking back, how was Beckhoff able to adapt its operation so quickly and introduce wide-ranging safety measures?
We established the coronavirus actions team very early on in January 2020. Crucial to this were the, at times, alarming developments unfolding in Italy, then in the ski resorts in Austria, and also the personal reports from our colleagues in China. Beckhoff has a subsidiary in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the first massive outbreaks of COVID-19 were registered at the end of 2019 or beginning of 2020 before spreading to the remainder of China. It quickly became clear to us that it was only a matter of time before the coronavirus would become a global incident and also arrive in Germany. We therefore decided early on to take measures for the company and our colleagues in order to protect the people themselves and to maintain our continued operation.
What exactly do the pandemic officers from Beckhoff’s coronavirus actions team do?
The working group I head together with my father Hans Beckhoff is made up of various departments within the company, including colleagues from HR, IT, international sales, and work safety, as well as management of course. We have been holding team meetings regularly for almost a year now in order to evaluate all new developments relating to the coronavirus and then proactively adapt and realign our measures accordingly. My job is to keep an eye on all developments and new requirements, to coordinate these across the entire company, and then ultimately make final decisions concerning all measures together with our working group.
What does that mean in practical terms?
The team has been gathering and monitoring all the latest happenings with the pandemic worldwide for more than a year now. We analyze the trends in case numbers as well as reports and strategy papers published by the Robert Koch Institute, which is the independent federal authority in Germany with responsibility for monitoring the occurrence of diseases and relevant health hazards for the population. Based on this, we adjust the necessary and relevant protective measures for our company, decide, for example, on our company’s internal quarantine strategies, and take care of all associated changes to our internal processes together with the respective departments. A small internal core team deals with all travel regulations. We carry out serial testing in our own coronavirus test center so that we can detect infections early on and prevent further spread of the disease. We assess every case reported by our colleagues individually and then decide which measures to take. It’s about striking a balance between health and safety, the functioning of the company, and the pressures on the individual colleagues.
What are the greatest challenges?
We continually have colleagues who are in quarantine – either officially prescribed or arranged by us as a precautionary measure – and are therefore absent. We have to find solutions here so that we can handle such bottlenecks as efficiently as possible. The most insidious thing about the pandemic is that we still cannot predict when it will end and are confronted with new twists and turns every day.
These are very elaborate actions. Why are they necessary?
Our most important concern is to ensure the health of each of our colleagues. Equally, we have to make sure that we remain functional as a company at all times and therefore satisfy our customers and safeguard all jobs. At this point we can report that our production facilities have remained fully functional throughout. Our delivery capability was not impacted negatively by working from home and the staggered production we introduced before the first nationwide lockdown in March 2020. We were able to fulfill all customer deliveries as usual. In addition, business performance is very positive at the moment, which is a good sign for all of us. Our task now as a company is to increase productivity again and therefore continue to ensure the security and safety of all colleagues. In this respect, we are also currently evaluating new and more efficient protective measures for our colleagues, especially in the production departments.
Which specific measures were taken in the past year by the coronavirus action team for Beckhoff in Verl?
The first protective measures we put in place – before the coronavirus had really properly arrived in Germany – included restricting travel to China and customer visits from China and, of course, introducing various hygiene measures and distancing rules. Further restrictions were then put in place on business travel and external Beckhoff visits. Major organizational measures primarily included introducing shift work in our production facilities and making arrangements for working from home for 80 percent of our office workplaces in order to allow for physical distancing and staggered working hours. Both measures have already been in place since March 2020. In general, we ensure that the required minimum working distance of 1.5 meters is maintained in all parts of the company. This reduces transmission routes and therefore infections. As regards technical measures, we installed additional partitions between workplaces and improved airing by means of the air conditioning and ventilation systems to ensure the required flow of air in the production buildings and therefore clean fresh air always. In addition, we procured protective masks very early on through our Chinese colleagues, made these available to all employees worldwide, and prescribed their mandatory use. At that time, there was still a severe scarcity of masks almost everywhere. People were still looked at with amazement at the time when wearing their masks in supermarkets and on public transport.
Do the measures in Verl differ from those in other branch offices?
Yes, definitely. This is because all of our foreign subsidiaries are pure sales offices that have office workplace almost exclusively. With very few exceptions, the colleagues can do their usual work from home. The situation in Verl and surrounds is different as this is where our production sites are located and the staff are needed on site here. In general, however, measures have been taken in all of our branch offices. Each country obviously has to modify the measures slightly, since the pandemic situation is not the same everywhere and the legal requirements therefore also vary.
There are many standards today in relation to the virus, but on what basis did the coronavirus action team begin to establish rules for the company in spring 2020?
At the very beginning of the pandemic, there were only very few standards and recommendations in Germany. In particular, there were no specific provisions. That situation has improved somewhat since. At the beginning of the pandemic, in particular, we got many suggestions from our colleagues in China and learned from these, whether in relation to the wearing of masks or partitions in the offices. It was exciting to see how these measures were discussed and introduced sometimes weeks later by the policy makers. We had a head start in this respect.
Will the safety concept continue to be developed?
As long as the virus is still around and even further mutations appear to emerge, the safety concept will never be completely finished. We owe it to all colleagues and the company to remain up to date at all times and, if necessary, to make changes or improvements. Only when the virus has been defeated or a large percentage of the population has been vaccinated can we allow ourselves to relax our efforts a little. I sincerely hope that the day when we no longer have to keep developing the COVID-19 safety concept comes sooner rather than later.
What are the protective measures costing the company?
It doesn’t take long for a figure of several million euros to accumulate, when you consider the entire procurement of materials such as masks, tests, partitions, IT equipment, etc., the working hours of colleagues who have been working full-time on the topic for a year, and of course especially the absentee rate of colleagues who we arrange to quarantine ourselves as a precaution.
Once large parts of the population have been vaccinated, will Beckhoff return to business as normal or will some of the measures remain in place?
Naturally, we want to return to normal operation as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how things will develop. A wide range of factors have to be constantly considered and reassessed. A definite pronouncement for the future also cannot be made as yet unfortunately since the situation can always change again at short notice, as we have all experienced ourselves in the past. However, we will of course also assess the positive things we have learned throughout the coronavirus crisis and which measures we could maintain, for example the concept of digital meetings or ideas around working from home.