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Navigate a lockdown


At the spring of 2020, the organization I was leading, with local branches all over the country, was hit hard by the first lockdown triggered by the French government. Indeed, it had become almost impossible to serve our customers during the onsite implementation of their building projects: all building activities had become forbidden in practice, until a safe way of conducting them had been found and officially validated. Only the engineering-related work could continue through videoconferencing mostly.

At least, that was the official line, what data scientists call the bias. In reality, the situation was far less uniform than that: some zones were complying strictly with the national restriction, some even went beyond and stopped all activity, and some others, often in more rural regions, more or less continued as before. The noise, in data-scientist-talk.

For us, furlough was about our best option to weather that storm, but we couldn’t resign and shut down our operations! We did just that, nonetheless, for one week of general forced leave, to give ourselves the time to regroup and plan our way forward.

With my team, working from our respective lockdowns, we thus undertook to build the best option for our company, but also for our own people, and for our customers. There was work to be done, mostly on the blueprinting phases, but how could we make sure it was work every time, not make-work? In other terms, would the work our employees would perform bring value to our customers?

That was an intense couple of days until we resolved to restart with a partial furlough scheme on all our sites, that would be linked for each local business unit to its weekly revenue. The aim was to allow those who indeed had value to bring to their customers to work, and to make sure those whose clients were off to stay home… Well, figure of speech as they were there already.

That week of March 2020 is to remain very special for all French, and it is for me as well, with a specific twist added. It was the opportunity to build that system, summarized in ten words into an operational reality encompassing sales, production, and social dimensions. In terms of competition, we knew we would come out on top if we could do this, as we expected most of our competitors to close shop. In practical terms, it meant building from scratch a homogeneous process that we could lead and monitor nationally, and would leave enough flexibility for the local managers to make something out of it, to navigate through the following weeks.

The system we implemented in the end allowed each local business unit to know how many days of work (or of furlough) it would need for the next week, based on its cumulated revenue since day one of that system, and its cumulated days worked (paid) since that same date. It also allowed him to allocate those paid day to his employees so they would get paid. Driving that were some “simple” productivity targets for each of the hundred units, for each of its business lines.

Our biggest challenges to make the system work were of course to build it from scratch in three days, but also to access the revenues, invoice by invoice, of all those units, for each of their business lines, and to monitor the actual presence of employees to feed back into the loop of their planned presence.

The system worked. It worked fine actually, thanks most of all to all the managers who adhered to it and used it for themselves as well as for the greater good, while juggling with fright – their own that of their people, that of their customers – and an ever-changing situation. We had many other adventures that spring, and then… lockdown was over.

Navigate a lockdown

Cody Chan on Unsplash

That period has left me with a heady mix of pride for my teams and humbleness in front of the vulnerability of those organizations we spend so much time and mojo creating, adjusting, optimizing… I could also experience for myself that it was perfectly possible, even shattered as we were, even frightened by what was happening to our country, to our people, to the whole world, to reorganize thousands of peoples work, to base that organization on rational and transparent data, and to do that in just… one week!