How Culture Helped One Team Pivot to Fight the Pandemic
February 12, 2024
February 12, 2024
Dr. Matthew Sperry, Pulmonologist at Utah Valley Hospital ICU, wearing one of the first O.C. Tanner face shields.
When the 2020 pandemic hit, the people of O.C. Tanner immediately adapted to new challenges, solved new problems, and found new ways of working. The crisis did more than inspire some of our manufacturing pros to switch from creating recognition awards to producing face shields for healthcare workers practically overnight. It put our culture to the test and revealed who we really are. Here is the story of what we learned.
We have been inspired by the ways other companies have responded to the COVID-19 health crisis. From the local RV company that’s donating motorhomes so doctors and nurses can sleep at a safe distance from their families, to global biotech organizations chasing a vaccine, people everywhere are pulling together to accomplish amazing things.
We are one of thousands of companies that have shifted from their usual business (clothing, shoes, tents, backpacks, etc.) to manufacture face shields, face masks, gowns, ventilators, and other medical equipment to battle COVID-19. But it’s important to note that it’s not these organizations that are generating amazing ideas, or doing the work. It’s their people.
Thriving workplace cultures are our business. And we strive to practice what we preach. But no organization is perfect. All any of us can do is embrace our values and do our best to live by them. The pandemic is giving us all a chance to assess our cultural strengths and weaknesses and deliberately plan for the future.
“We’ve never had a better social experiment to show us how much we depend on each other.”
– MINDI COX, SVP, PEOPLE & GREAT WORK, O.C. TANNER
Our COVID-19 Weekly Culture Pulse Survey revealed that 77% of employees in the US, Canada and the UK doubt if workplace culture will ever return to “normal.” As leaders, we have the opportunity to rethink what “normal” should mean, and shape our workplace cultures to match.
Culture is the heart and soul of an organization: the sum of its agreed upon attitudes, values, actions, and beliefs. At O.C. Tanner, principles like gratitude, appreciation, and kindness, are part of our DNA. We also track core competencies like innovation, client care, excellence, and elevating others. But what happens when forces outside our control disrupt our daily routines? “A group of people may agree to a set of principles, says Mindi Cox, “But you don’t know how deep that runs until a problem comes along. That’s when the real culture manifests itself.”
When the pandemic became a reality, we had 1600-plus employees around the world wanting to do something to help. During this time, a few people in our manufacturing group began to think, “We’re great at making custom recognition awards, but we can use these skills to make anything. Where is the greatest need?”
Gary Peterson, our EVP of Supply Chain and Production, began networking with coworkers, friends, and clients in the healthcare industry to see how we could apply our manufacturing expertise to help combat the pandemic. Within hours, emails began to come in. That week, two of Gary’s team members, Josh McEwan and Rex Morgan, started attending weekly meetings with bioengineers and medical device specialists at the University of Utah, to assess needs. It quickly became obvious that our local hospitals would need help keeping frontline healthcare workers safe.
When the hospital engineers showed us an adaptor they would need to connect a Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) to a hose and fan system, Josh and Rex said, “we can make those.” Within just a few days we had every 3D printer at our headquarters, and others sourced throughout our community, making the PAPR adaptors day and night. Everywhere we turned people said, “Yes, of course, I’ll do anything I can to help.” Within days we had delivered 300 adaptors free of charge.
“It’s fun to throw out a challenge to a team. Don’t tell them how to do it. Just give them a problem to solve and watch what happens.” - GARY PETERSON, EVP, SUPPLY CHAIN AND PRODUCTION
Meanwhile, the need for more effective personal protective equipment for healthcare professionals, including face shields, was targeted as a need. Within two days, Josh and Rex were in front of the University’s experts with prototypes for face shields. The engineers were impressed to see such welldesigned options in such a short time. Two more team members, Robin Puri and Seth Barney, both in supply chain procurement, were rallied to the cause.
Within less than a week, the team had ideas for a new production line, raw materials sourced, designs for new machinery completed, and were preparing How culture helped one team pivot to fight the pandemic 5 to produce as many face shields as they could as quickly as possible. A week later they were producing 1000 face shields per day. They are presently retooling and tweaking production to reach 2000 per day. All of this happened in just days after the pandemic reached our community.
While many of our employees are currently working from home, it’s also important to note that this project is being accomplished by our frontline manufacturing heroes, who come to work in face masks and maintain the recommended 6 feet of social distancing at all times. They are working harder, under more difficult conditions, but they are highly engaged and working with a smile because they feel they are doing something important.
“This is a unique opportunity for us to help people thrive in a different way; to be part of something vitally important to saving lives.” – JOSH MCEWAN, DIRECTOR, MANUFACTURING
Muscle memory is an amazing thing. It allows a musician to practice a motion over and over so that when they need to perform on stage they can do so with little or no conscious effort. Workplace culture is a lot like that.
O.C. Tanner has a long history of community involvement and giving back that has influenced our approach to the pandemic. We’ve always given 10% of profits back to our communities, education, and the arts, so doing our best to help out during the pandemic comes naturally.
“We never contemplated any option but giving these items away. We have never asked, ‘what are we going to charge?’ Our conversations have all been about who needs them the most, how many will they need, and how can we help?” – DAVE PETERSEN, CEO
We’re actively reaching out to healthcare clients and other organizations in hardest hit areas and to offer face shields for free. We’re also taking requests from healthcare organizations who have read about our face shields in the news. We plan to say ‘yes’ as often as possible. Our only limits are the availability of raw materials and the physical limits of production.
The first shipments of O.C. Tanner face shields went to local hospitals in Utah. Reactions were swift, with frontline heroes expressing gratitude for what could very well be life-saving personal protection equipment.
“The staff described it as Christmas. These face shields are so much better than what was available before! From the bottom of my heart: thank you.” – DR. MATTHEW SPERRY, PULMONOLOGIST AT UTAH VALLEY HOSPITAL, ICU
Since then, we have shipped 5000 face shields to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, at the epicenter of the pandemic in America, and are currently shipping 1000s more every day to hospitals and healthcare centers nationwide.
In the vast scope of the COVID-19 pandemic, O.C. Tanner’s face shields may be a small piece of the story. But to a doctor or nurse walking into harm’s way every day to keep the rest of us safe, they make a significant difference.
We’re pleased to combine our efforts with other great people and organizations doing their part around the world. Together our efforts add up. And for us, helping these frontline healthcare heroes feel just a little safer is a cause closely related to our company’s purpose: to help people thrive at work.
O.C. Tanner’s executives downplay their role in the face shield manufacturing project. “All we did was cheerlead and stay out of the way,” says CEO Dave Petersen. But it’s not as simple as that. Long before the 2020 pandemic came along to test its mettle, the company’s board and executive leadership team spent decades shaping a high-trust culture that encourages autonomy and invites employees to dream big and do good.
“What I love most is, nobody asked permission. Some people recognized a need, made some calls, and began a chain of events. By the time the executive team knew about it, raw materials were acquired and production lines were ready to go.” – DAVE PETERSEN, CEO
As we look at the way our people have met this test of our cultural values and principles, we can’t help but feel a sense of pride for the members of our team. There are many things we can learn and apply as we get intentional about the culture we hope to sustain when the pandemic is over. Lessons from our manufacturing team’s agile processes and quick actions can be shared with other teams. We will be looking at all the lessons learned from the pandemic, good and bad, and refining our culture for the future. We invite organizations everywhere to join us.
For insights to help you deliberately shape your workplace culture beyond the pandemic, check out our Global Culture Report.