All 50 states are now moving toward reopening, to varying degrees, following weeks of closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the economy works to ramp back up, companies everywhere, including those in the promotional products industry, are weighing how to most effectively return to “business as usual” while keeping their employees and customers safe.

“The biggest challenge has been to make sure that the Logomark team has a safe environment to work in and how this will impact all moving forward,” says Trevor Gnesin, president of Tustin, California-based Logomark, which reopened earlier this week. “We decided to make sure that all orders that were in-house are produced and delivered before we do a hard open. What we have to do is see how we can operate while keeping everyone safe.”

For those PPB Newslink spoke with, and likely the wider promotional products industry and U.S. business community, staff safety is top of mind in all conversations about reopening. Businesses are pursuing a variety of measures, from extensive PPE set-ups and scheduling changes to telecommuting and other measures to ensure the highest level of workplace safety.

“We had to move stations around on our production floor to accommodate for social distancing,” says Bridget Dahlgren, inside sales and marketing manager at St. Paul, Minnesota, supplier Crystal D, which recently reopened. “In addition, we created new policies that all Memory Makers would need to follow when they returned to work. These policies were created with not only physical safety in mind, but also psychological safety—we wanted Memory Makers to feel secure in their environment. There are so many ideas and opinions about COVID-19 and how to handle this that we wanted to take all perspectives into account. We have kept as many Memory Makers working at home as possible—less people, less risk.”

Supplier Larlu, in Winona, Minnesota, voluntarily closed its facilities on March 17. Executive Vice President Joe Durand says, “After six weeks, we submitted a plan to our governor to begin returning our associates in phases. Safe work areas are implemented in our plants and offices. The common areas are cleaned throughout the day. And while our factory associates are working in the plants, our sales associates are working remote. Zoom meetings and email are great tools to keep us connected!”

Derek Hansen, vice president of operations, for supplier ETS Express in Oxnard, California, says, “Our first priority was to ensure we had a safe work environment. During our closure in California, we were continually working to follow updates, and research and consult with appropriate sources for information. Our goal was to prepare each business unit to exceed the recommended guidelines for an employee work environment prior to reopening our facility. The team was extremely motivated to return to work, but we also wanted to ensure they felt safe and comfortable upon their return. After being closed for two months, it took a couple weeks of internal coordination and execution to manage the workforce, scheduling and shifts in human resource needs. Our office staff continues to work remote in California, but our production team is phasing back in to work and will continue ramp up more over the coming weeks and months.”

The reopening process has been an education for all involved and carried with it a series of challenges unique to each company going through it, albeit sharing many common themes, such as ensuring clear communication and sharing the latest information.

Companies with facilities located across several states faced their own set of concerns as well. Larlu’s Durand says, “Because we have plants in Washington, Florida and Iowa, as well as the corporate headquarters in Minnesota, each work area had to meet local shelter-at-home regulations. Our products were not all deemed essential until we developed a new product—patent pending—called ‘Maskdana’ that is a mask and bandana in one. This became an essential product for us to manufacture and sell.”

A multi-state presence also factored into Hansen’s planning at ETS Express. He says, “Understandably, there have been a lot of changes to recommended procedures from local, state and federal guidelines. Sometimes information and procedures conflicted, making it a challenge to operate a business. Our policies had to continually evolve as we worked to manage an operation that was in full swing in North Carolina and at the same time formulating a plan to reopen our California facility.”

He adds, “While we were fortunate to be able to keep our North Carolina facility open, this also created significant challenges on changing production schedules, inventory levels, shipping closures and more. At the beginning, we were able to use our state-of-the-art order system to shift all orders scheduled to be produced out of California and had them rerouted to our North Carolina facility with virtually no notice. When we had more visibility on when we may be able to re-open, it required very focused attention to re-balance all those challenge areas and re-onboard another facility. All these changes required consistent communication and updates to our customers. We are extremely pleased with how these transitions came into place and were able to make this as seamless as possible for our customers’ orders.”

Crystal D’s Dahlgren says, “To be honest, it was a big endeavor. It was much easier to say we were reopening than it was to create and execute on a plan. The process consisted of meeting after meeting after meeting, with the inability to predict and anticipate what could happen in the future being more frustrating than the lack of data and guidance by the government. In the end, we kept falling back on two objectives: No. 1, keep every Memory Maker financially whole and No. 2, keep every Memory Maker safe. It was much easier to make the right decisions based on these outcomes.”

Dahlgren notes that one of the greatest challenges has been separating the personal from the professional. “I felt the biggest challenge was balancing my personal opinions versus my professional opinions—bottom-line is that the company and each Memory Maker are more important than my or anyone on the leadership team’s opinion of how to handle COVID.”