EXCLUSIVE: Industry Remembers Covid Anniversary

A photo of an employee temperature check at a Keystone RV facility

After 2020, many agree this March feels a bit different. Although springtime often seems like a fresh start, outdoor recreation industry members are revisiting what they felt one year ago, when the Covid pandemic began to take hold.

The story began December 2019, when the World Health Organization (WHO)’s offices in China were informed of multiple pneumonia cases of unknown origin in Wuhan City. The first U.S.-based COVID-19 case was reported in Washington State two weeks later. In March, the virus’ spread and severity continued to increase – causing WHO to characterize Covid as a global pandemic March 11. That night, a pro basketball player tested positive, leading to various professional and college sports cancellations. By the next week, nationwide shutdowns began.

“I remember being in the boat business and feeling like, nobody is going to spend any money,” said Aubree Spring, Gainesville Marina’s sales and finance administrative assistant. “Nobody is out because they will be at home. Everyone was terrified thinking that the first time, but it was exactly the opposite. Sales were non-stop after that.”

Although many were uncertain about the virus’ broader impacts at the time, the effect was made certain after the most significant business disruption since the Great Depression.

“As soon as it happened, the whole industry rotated inward and said, ‘what are we going to do?’” said Carlos Lobo, business development manager at DLL, a vendor finance partner. “Similar to every organization, we pivoted internally to hunker down and get through it. People were busy with how to protect themselves and employees. We were having internal conversations with vendor partners to figure out how we can help.”

Many companies quickly transitioned staff to remote work, the first of several major shifts that impacted the workplace and individuals’ home life.

“That is what I remember most, making sure I had my equipment,” KPA Human Resources Consultant Brianna Stashak said. “I had to buy a desk and find the right spot in the house, with space for my coffee and monitor. It was all new and kind of exciting.”

A feeling of normalcy set in over time, she said.

“Once I got a routine, it was normal,” Stashak said. “It was an interesting thing transitioning to the office. I have not personally been back [since]. But I am used to working remotely and teaching classes or offering guidance online.”

Stashak said her team established internal 20-minute “Covid coffee talks” while working from home, where each member would take on topics such as the Paycheck Protection Program, Families First Coronavirus Response Act changes, state bills or upcoming webinars.

“It was eye-opening for employers to realize they did not decrease productivity by people working remotely,” Stashak said. “There was an increase in engagement because you have to reach out by email or Skype to see what is going on.”

Virtual meetings extended past business matters, Stashak said. One of her clients threw an online birthday celebration after hours.

“When the pandemic happened, there was a need for immediate rush in how we communicate and what to communicate,” KPA Marketing Communications Manager Emily Hartman said. “We had a very quick response to both meeting customer and organization needs. That is sort of the advantage we have as a compliance company.”

“We even had a pet channel,” Stashak said about DLL’s communication efforts. “We could talk to people who were not centrally located, see puppies and really get to know people in the company. Clients were more engaged in collaborating with other departments and creating innovative ways to handle sales, marketing and virtual conferencing. There are a lot of positive things that have gone out.”

At home, many workers tried to compensate for unavailable daycare – but not always regarding kids. Stashak noted difficulties when her pets’ doggy daycare facility was shut down.

“They need to socialize and be exhausted,” Stashak said. “I was always trying to coordinate work and keeping my dogs satisfied without the squeaky toys.”

Despite the rapid transition from office to home, Stashak said she noticed a trend in higher work/life satisfaction during the pandemic.

“[At first], you feel like a prisoner in your own house,” Stashak said. “But it normalized once people found a rhythm, and then they were actually really well engaged. Productivity stayed the same and business was a little better connected, which is a really great thing.”

In the RV industry, Stashak noted a sudden growth in handbooks to be compliant with Covid regulations. Some existing handbooks are older than five years and have different policies, she said.

DLL Communications Business Partner Maureen Wilbur said although 2020 was an “unprecedented” year, she considers some impacts as positive.

“From a workflow standpoint, this is probably something that allowed us to come together in a way that we never have before, on a subject we have never visited before,” Wilbur said. “We provided a unified support message to [partners] and it did really bring us together as a team. We spent days talking about things we have never talked or thought about before.”

Wilbur noted some DLL manufacturer partners switched gears from filling the RV supply chain to making personal protective equipment for local healthcare organizations.

“We really focused on our folks and the great things they were doing to really support the basics for how people were sating healthy and safe,” Wilbur said.

DLL eventually went fully virtual. “We maintained all operations as far as partner support,” she said. “There was no gap in coverage, so to speak. We moved employees into home offices and flipped the switch, so everyone was able to pick up their equipment, go home and continue to work. Our executive team is proud to keep employees safe and healthy working from home, without interruption in service to our partners.”

As the Covid vaccine continues to roll out and employees return to the office, Stashak said companies should “maintain the communication expectation” to keep business running smoothly.

“Whether that is keeping technology channels open or maintaining the expectation that we all still work together,” Stashak said. “It is nice to see people in person, but still keep those channels open for communication. Employee engagement surveys can ensure a company is still offering those benefits.

“Some companies can host Bike to Work Day or have online celebrations, but maybe [an employee] does not have time to drop everything and get with the department when getting the kids from school,” she said. “You can do more online.”

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