Amidst a pandemic, communicating safety procedures to both employees and clients is increasingly important.
Travis Aggson, ACE, Executive Vice President and associate certified entomologist at American Pest Management Inc., was at the airport returning home to Kansas from NPMA’s Legislative Day. The President came on television announcing a halt to all international flights. The goal was to stop the spread of COVID-19, but Aggson knew it would have a far-reaching impact.
“When that message hit, my conscience told me we’d better get something ready. Our employees and clients were going to have a lot of questions.”
There were questions for sure: How the virus was transmitted. Whether it could live on surfaces. And whether a technician entering one home might carry the virus into another. It didn’t help that any certainty was quickly replaced with other questions and often contradictory information.
“We visit a lot of people,” Aggson said. “Nobody wants to get sick and you don’t want to be blamed as the one who passed something on.”
What happened in those first crazy weeks was a lot of trial and error and changing policies as new information became available. Now, though, with the pandemic more day-to-day life, some of those policies are becoming more certain—and some of the lessons learned are providing more direction to the future.
THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT
David Billingsly, president of Washington, D.C.-based American Pest, had a bit of a leg up when it came to moving his office staff to remote operations. Technicians had take-home vehicles and in-home offices already. With the office personnel, “probably one-third of our team was already working remotely,” he said. “My communications center manager lives in Tampa, Fla. My vice president of customer experience lives in St. Louis. We were already used to dealing with a remote workforce.”
For those employees who did use the main office location, the company’s weather policy—which told workers to take home computers and phones when inclement weather was forecast—was adapted to COVID.
“Because we’ve embraced the technology and had a remote working philosophy, we were able to roll that out more broadly,” Billingsly said.
That is likely to stay, he said. A recent staff survey found more than 85 percent said they’d prefer to continue working from home. “We haven’t really seen any efficiency drop,” he said. “Fundamentally it will change my view even more about how we utilize brick and mortar. I don’t think I’ll ever do anything with a full-scale office again. We may have depots with supplies, maybe some signage that I can use for marketing efforts on a busy road and maybe a couple of conference rooms where we can do some smaller team gatherings.”
An added benefit of the expanded remote work: “I don’t lose team members anymore when they move somewhere else in the country. I had one of our team members who had to move back to New York. We said, ‘Awesome. When is your internet going to be up?’ She was able to stay working with us.”
But there were issues, particularly in getting personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees.
The company already required gloves, long shirts and shoe coverings. But face masks and PPE equipment were hard to come by. Hand sanitizer also was a challenge, but Billingsly worked with a couple of local distillers who converted to produce the product.
As the company began to offer disinfection spraying, the PPE was necessary—and so was regular training on using PPE and fit-testing.
Aggson also had challenges finding enough PPE, though he had a start on supply. “We do some wildlife work, so we had the N95 masks as part of our regular PPE in stock. We had enough for everybody to start, but we had to get creative. There were a couple of points when we were like, ‘Are we going to have enough?’”
The PPE shortages have led Aggson to lengthen the typical supply. “We used to try to stay a month ahead, but now we’ll be looking at six weeks to two months.”
There were important changes in operation, as well. Billingsly’s team typically focuses on the outside of the home and only goes inside if there is a problem. Aggson’s company adopted a similar strategy during COVID. And there were impacts for both on commercial customers, some of whom had the opportunity to do deeper treatments while others postponed treatments because they were closed or struggling financially.
Communicating changes and reinforcing existing policies with customers was vital. Both companies used social media and emails to remind customers that they were still operational and how procedures had changed. Customer service representatives and technicians were taught to ask a few simple health questions to assess safety on the jobsite.
Communication was equally important for employees—particularly with so much changing so rapidly. Billingsly’s leadership team began to meet daily, while service managers contacted technicians every morning. While that last task had been done pre-pandemic, the length of the calls increased dramatically, he said, to ensure that technicians understood new procedures and were comfortable with the work ahead.
He also began a monthly town hall meeting, something he believes will continue post-pandemic. “I felt it was important to make myself available to all of my team members and to address the situation publicly, which has been really helpful. We are constantly pounding on some of the basics to make sure everybody is feeling safe.”
Aggson’s company also began daily meetings, largely just to update staff on anything new, and the instant messaging tool Slack was used to push information out throughout the day, if needed. There certainly was a lot to keep up with. Aggson’s technicians had long used a nine-point checklist of important reminders. “Now it’s a 32-point checklist that includes the PPE you should have on your vehicle to how to disinfect equipment if you need to take it inside. We include questions to ask the clients and how to deal with it if those questions are answered in a way that creates concern.”
While much has been made that the pandemic is “unprecedented,” handling the immediate fallout and ongoing challenges has proven to be successful, Aggson said. “I don’t think I’d change anything that we did. I’m not saying it was perfect. We probably should have prepared for something like this earlier and had an emergency plan set up, whether for a pandemic or something else. We have a fire escape plan at the office, but I can’t say had a plan for what to do next. If nothing else, we ought to learn that anything can happen at any time.”
BY SANDY SMITH