How coronavirus is permanently changing the defense industry’s culture

“We need to first calm down any sense of a focus on getting back to normal,” said Karl Hutter, the CEO of Click Bond, a supplier to defense companies. “There’s not going to be a going back to normal.”

A top challenge CEOs cited is trying to maintain a company’s culture and community when at least some of the workforce is working from home full-time and it’s still unsafe to gather for morale-building events such as anniversary celebrations or holiday parties.

Industry leaders are also rethinking what their companies will look like in the future, including how many employees will continue to work from home full-time and how offices will be laid out.

POLITICO spoke with managers at eight defense companies of varying sizes to see how their response to the pandemic has changed seven months in.

Caring for the workforce

The coronavirus pandemic has heaped stress on employees, many of whom are trying to juggle a full-time job with full-time child care amid a crisis that can make it anxiety-inducing to step outside. As a result, industry leaders almost unanimously said they have prioritized caring for employees’ mental health in a new way to try to both give workers coping mechanisms and ease whatever stress they can.

Click Bond, for example, has launched a pilot program in which about two dozen staff meet weekly for a 12-week program on wellness, including a focus on mindful movement and meditations. Hutter said he hopes the pilot, which is being used by many different demographics from younger workers to “hard-boiled tool makers,” will become a broader, long-term initiative.

To help working parents, SAIC has given employees access to online tutoring help for their children to help ease the burden of working full-time while also helping children navigate the virtual classroom, said Amy Benson, SAIC’s vice president of government affairs.

United Launch Alliance and SAIC both established “leave banks,” which allow employees who won’t use all of their vacation to donate that time off to colleagues who may need it. ULA CEO Tory Bruno said this will become a permanent benefit at his company once the pandemic is over.

“It forces you to take on things like this, then you learn about them,” he said. “None of these benefits I just described will stop.”

Companies have contracted with services to provide employees 24/7 virtual access to medical professionals for some health concerns. Managers are also making sure employees have access to health care. Huntington Ingalls Industries, for example, gave new hires health insurance immediately instead of making them wait 90 days, said Bill Ermatinger, the chief human resources officer at the shipbuilding company.

Some companies are also regularly testing employees for Covid-19, both to keep facilities running by quickly diagnosing and quarantining any sick people and to ease the minds of those who report to work.

“Employees have been very very grateful we’re doing it,” said Mark Aslett, the CEO of Mercury Systems. “It’s the only way to deal with employees at scale and get results back quickly enough to manage business continuity.”

One of the top challenges for CEOs is making up for lost in-person interactions at company-wide events. Bruno has also gotten creative to try to replicate some of the morale boosting and team building that would come from a BBQ at a space launch, for example, by paying for employees to pick up meals from local small businesses.

Hutter also stressed the importance of maintaining the culture of Click Bond, and is planning a “drive in theater event” for the company’s annual holiday party as a way to safely gather and raise employees’ spirits.

Embracing virtual tools

The inability to safely fly to visit vendors has forced businesses to get comfortable doing more virtually, which industry leaders say they will continue doing because it’s more efficient. Anne Shybunko-Moore, the owner of GSE Dynamics, said her team can now check on the status of parts and address technical issues virtually.

“I can see that impacting the way I do business going forward,” she said. “Vendor visits and building relationships are still critical in our supply chain, but maybe it’s not necessary to fly to California. … I could meet with eight vendors a day if I had to, virtually, all over the nation.”

Some companies also had to overcome security concerns to use video meeting tools such as Zoom. United Launch Alliance did not allow employees to turn video on for virtual meetings before the pandemic out of a concern that something in the background, such as a model or a drawing of a rocket, would be either classified or controlled by international export laws.

But after months of no in-person meetings, Bruno said he’s instead issued workers rules for what can appear alongside them on camera. This is another practice that will continue after the pandemic is over, he said.

“I started to worry about new employees never seeing their coworkers and feeling disconnected … so we’re enabling video everything and giving guidelines asking them to be careful about what’s behind them,” he said.

Planning for future business

Heather Bulk, the CEO of Special Aerospace Services, said she is already knocking down walls at her company’s Colorado headquarters to reconfigure the office to accommodate many who say they will feel safer coming back to work in a personal office with a door that closes. She also acknowledged she will need to update the break room, but is not yet sure what a space that is both communal and safe looks like now.

“I like the idea that you can have 75 people in one room and they can all share a coffee pot and chat, but I don’t foresee this pivoting back to the way it was in 2018 and 2019 for a while,” she said. “By making these changes and making them quickly, I’m able to move forward so in January of 2021, all these office changes should be up to date.”

Bulk also said she is taking steps to bring more capabilities in-house, a trend she expects to see across the industry as CEOs work to mitigate disruptions at small businesses that produce critical parts.

Many CEOs said they intend to keep some of the enhanced cleaning and distancing policies in place post-pandemic because they will keep the workforce healthy from diseases such as colds and the flu as well.

As to what the future of telework looks like once it’s safe to return to the office, CEOs are split over how much of their workforce is likely to remain at home. But most agree a hybrid model with some people in the office and some working from home at least part-time is likely to become the new normal.

“Productivity has been good. It’s been great in fact,” Bruno said. “If you’re working a five-day work week, why can’t one or two days be at home teleworking where you’re not interrupted by a bunch of meetings?”

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