Volvo Cars in Ghent restarted production on Monday 4 May. And this was no easy task, because how can you guarantee a safe working environment for over 6,000 employees? The key for this car manufacturer was in its preparations, which started long before the end of the tunnel was in sight.
The preparations for restarting production at the Ghent branch of Volvo Cars started immediately after it was shut down in mid-March. ‘A group of some 200 people assessed the entire factory’s operations,’ explains Communication Manager Barbara Blomme. ‘We split this process up into workflows for non-production areas, protective equipment, suppliers, one that focussed on how people were getting on at home, and so on. This enabled us to look at restarting work from a broader perspective, which isn’t limited to just production and social distancing.’
The analysis took place in the last week of March and gave Volvo Cars Ghent a good picture of what was needed to be able to restart production. Where were the difficulties? Where are extra people needed? Where are more disinfectant hand gels or face masks required? And so on. It took a few weeks to find the right answers.
‘We have 600 work stations on the assembly lines, each with multiple people working together,’ says Blomme. ‘And you can’t fit a bumper, for example, without getting closer than 1.5 metres. So we had to look at each station individually, together with our teams, to see how we could respect social distancing.’
The factory in Ghent has also benefited from international ideas. The phased preparations for restarting production are based on a Chinese model. And the 3D printed tools for opening doors with your elbow came from Sweden.
To find out if the solutions could actually work, Volvo Cars Ghent switched to test mode in mid-April. Initially for one week, although the test run ultimately lasted for two. This was made possible by employees who started work voluntarily (and got paid). ‘We sent out a request and actually had more candidates than we needed,’ says Blomme. On the other hand, especially at the beginning of these preparations, we also had people who didn’t feel safe coming to work. ‘This was just a minority, however, and was sometimes due to medical reasons. These people are following advice from their doctors and still staying at home.’
The volunteers produced cars for the factory, but that wasn’t the priority. ‘What mattered most was the mental onboarding,’ explains Blomme. ‘We wanted to get people involved in the process and motivate them. And we wanted to talk too, with anyone who had questions.’ At the same time, Volvo Cars Ghent has also drawn up very specific plans. What happens when you have people walking round in the factories? What about showers, and washing work clothes? Among other things, the new situation has resulted in the installation of 80 extra washing units and measures such as washing work clothes at home. From the end of April, Volvo Cars Ghent invited all its employees to come and have a look in the adapted factory equipped with new signage, LED screens with explanatory videos, and other communication tools. ‘We’ve sent everyone newsletters to keep them updated since March,’ says Blomme, ‘but we didn’t want them to only see the modifications for the first time on the day we restarted production.’
Was that the end of it? ‘There was another phase after the full restart. And it’s a phase that’s all too often forgotten,’ adds Blomme. ‘You can’t underestimate what it takes to adjust to the new normal. It requires perseverance, to make sure the solutions become the new established way of working. Take the stewards at the entrances and exits who make sure everyone keeps their distance when changing shifts, for example. We have 5,700 people working here, in three different shifts. So you’ll realise that getting used to the new situation isn’t always easy when everyone is in a hurry to go home at the same time at the end of their eight-hour shift. Just like the rest of society, you have some people here who stick to the measures more strictly than others. So we’re continuing to remind people, raising awareness and asking them to persevere.’
Blomme emphasises, however, that some measures are here to stay, simply because they’re a clear improvement. The company restaurant now has a new flow with a separate entrance and exit, for example. ‘Everyone is wondering why we didn’t do it like this before,’ she laughs. ‘And we’ll probably keep the new washing units, too. It’s just always a good reminder to wash your hands if you see one of these units every 50 or 100 metres.’ These are nice benefits that make the whole process just a little bit easier.
‘It’s definitely a difficult process, concludes Blomme, ‘but the thing that strikes me the most is how I’ve seen people go the extra mile in times of crisis. It’s great to see and helps create a real bond.’