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Catching COVID - lessons learned.

Covid-19 is coming again. Only this time it is surging. At the time of writing there were 2365 new cases. Omicron is more infectious and more transmissible through the air, and Delta is still circulating. However we are now a well vaccinated population, and making solid progress with boosters.

“Three months ago I didn’t know anyone who had had Covid. Now every one of my friends has had it.” This is the comment of a colleague in Sydney, as new Omicron cases continue challenge NSW businesses and the health system there.

On Auckland Anniversary weekend, NSW reported 13,026 new Covid cases and 27 deaths. These figures were for a single day and for context the NSW population is about 8.2 million. There were 2779 Covid patients in NSW hospitals, including 185 in intensive care.

"For most people, if you're up to date with your vaccines, the risk of getting severely ill with Omicron is very low. However, the small percentage of serious cases still has the potential overwhelm healthcare systems. This is why…measures such as mask use, gathering limits, and minimising time in crowded indoor places will be crucial to flatten the curve,” said Covid modeller and Canterbury University professor Michael Plank.

Looking at these daily infection numbers, it is clear that most businesses will be affected, either indirectly directly by being a place of interest and having staff isolate for 10 days, or directly because of absenteeism by staff being ill. Either way the challenges for your dealership or place of work are real and likely to be highly disruptive.

In the very worst case scenario, you might have staff ill and unable to work and virtually the whole business will be closed as other staff have to isolate because they are close contacts. While the author is no medical officer, clearly there are some areas within your facilities that are higher risk; common areas such as lunchrooms, as masks have to be removed for eating, and desks, when staff remove their masks to snack or to have a drink of something. Then of course there are all the high contact points such as doors.

The great thing about summer here is that it is easier to have doors and windows open for improved ventilation. However, as we have seen in the last week, when the sun is out and the AC is off (because we have the doors open for better ventilation) it gets pretty hot. Masks are uncomfortable in the heat, which in turn means they are more likely to be removed. The more effective the mask the less comfortable they are in heat.

Lessons from Australia tell us a number of things. It is not, ‘if’ but ‘when’ Covid will hit your business.

Your workplace will need some pretty strict protocols in place. It will already have many of them. We are already used to contactless transactions for customers. However, it’s time to make sure that your teams fully understand contactless means. As Covid fatigue kicks in, keys are passed to customers, social distancing becomes less rigid, fewer surfaces are wiped down and handshakes seem to be slipping back into use. New Zealand has not yet seen what New South Wales has seen, nor has it been exposed to the worst horrors that the rest of the world has seen. Simply put, we don’t fully know what to expect and our guard is lower than it should be.

A Dealer Principal or business owner should have three clear objectives in mind. The order of these is subjective:

  1. Keep my staff safe

  2. Keep my customers safe

  3. Keep my business operating while minimising the medium term risk

It is this third component that is the hardest to get right. If your controls are too light now, you may dodge a bullet and be ok. Alternatively, the whole business could have to close due to infection and subsequent self-isolation rules as a result of a breakout.

Therefore you should consider partitioning your businesses into zones. By isolating each zone and only having contactless or remote operations with other zones, should one zone become infected, the whole business operation isn’t affected. A zone might be parts, or the workshop, or service reception or sales (or each of these).

Create teams within zones if your operation has scale. Create A and B teams (or A, B and C teams) and make sure that restrooms, lunch rooms and common areas are dedicated to one team only. Consider how your teams work together (remotely) and what protocols are in place at the end of the shift or day, and for when the shifts change.

For sales staff that might be three days in the dealership and 2 days at working at home doing customer follow ups and appointments for when they are back in the dealership. For techs it might mean longer shifts but fewer days (3 days at 7am – 8pm then 2 days off for example), or two shifts per day (for two teams) with an early day shift and a late day shift.

The key here is to create as much separation as is practicable, to break the train of transmission. Separate the teams and interact remotely with customers and other departments. This goes back to reviewing what remote or contactless transactions should look like, and make sure your staff are crystal clear on their role in maintaining contactless transactions.

Dealer Principal Kim Nguyen of MG Sydney City in Sydney said she created a separated aftersales function for her businesses. She created a new separate lunch room / kitchen, and brought in a fridge, kettle and microwave, to keep the aftersales team separate from the sales team. However Nguyen also said that team culture was important. “My team really looked out for each other. There was a respect for each other, and that helped make sure that they all did the right thing to keep their colleagues safe. None of my staff have contracted Covid”.

In NSW, like in Victoria, customers are being patient and understanding. So many facets of daily life have been affected by Covid, that there is generally a high level of understanding that things take longer. There have also been some great lessons learned as businesses have adapted.

In a recent mystery shopping exercise that Boost Auto undertook, one test drive was entirely contactless, and online, whereas another required an onsite paper demo waiver form to be signed and countersigned. Even these small differences illustrate that some dealers have really thought about processes, whereas others have not.

What will be clear over the next few days and weeks as cases increase rapidly, businesses cannot function safely and without disruption using old Covid protocols. If your business is ‘one location’, and operates in the traditional sense as one team, then your business is at a higher risk than using a zones and team based approach.

Ask yourself these questions: If your business becomes a location of interest how to you operate? If you have an outbreak at work how will you operate?

  1. Contactless transactions with customers.

  2. Contactless transactions and interactions with staff.

  3. Social distancing.

  4. Mask wearing review.

  5. Improved ventilation.

  6. Clear unambiguous sanitisation protocols (when, where, by whom, how often).

  7. Zone your businesses – including creation of secondary lunch rooms and dedicated bathrooms.

  8. Spilt shifts for your business – consider being open longer hours to facilitate this.

  9. Eliminate site hopping, shift hopping and zone hopping for all staff, including managers.

Customers are forgiving if you are slower, or booking times are extended. They will be less forgiving if you are closed.

None of this advice is designed to replace official advice, but reflects the challenges and experiences of businesses overseas.

Stay safe. Kia kaha.

For official advice on managing Covid-19 please refer to the ministry of health website:

Boost Auto is an automotive consultancy working in six main areas.

  • Market Insights & Trends

  • Sales and Marketing effectiveness for brands and dealers

  • Green fleet facilitation for large corporates

  • Go To Market strategies for emerging brands

  • Market Insights & Trends

  • Business Planning and facilitation

  • Operational Effectiveness

This article also appeared in Auto Talk.

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