News & Updates: Port Bureau News: May 2020

Captain's Corner: Sail Forth with Crew in Mind

Thursday, May 28, 2020  
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At the Coast Guard Academy, we sailed a lot: FJ dinghies in the Thames River, 44’ sailboats in Long Island Sound, and the Barque Eagle across the Atlantic.  If you have ever sailed, you know that in rough seas you need to be decisive and commit to a course - either into the wind or against it.  If you do not, you waddle in the trough of the waves and get pounded.  I am reminded of this because we are all in rough seas now with COVID-19, and which way to sail is unknown.  But leaders must decide on a course and set their sails again. 

How do we proceed? Obviously, there is no one perfect course of action. However, I can tell you whatever course you take, it must consider the safety of all on board.  In the Coast Guard, we put crews in harm’s way. We were not reckless, and we never did it without involving them in the decision, considering all the options, and then picking the one that presented the lowest risk. 

As we decide on when and how to bring people back to work, we all face tough decisions.  I believe that as a nation -- and as a port community -- we have a good track record for inventive solutions.  To that end, I recently listened in on a Port Bureau virtual roundtable we held for HR professionals.  I wanted to learn more about the challenges they were facing in these unprecedented seas and what courses might be set for the new normal. 

What I heard was everyone is facing a myriad of challenges: efficient workplace access; keeping the work environment healthy; balancing employee work vs home life priories. For example, a simple, yet challenging issue: how do employees in large office building return safely to work knowing that could mean piling into elevators?  How many people is it safe to put into an elevator right now?

On the water, the challenges are even greater. How do crews on inland waterway fleets maintain the needed personal distancing?  It is a near impossibility. What can we do to lessen the health risks? Complicating this is concerns for loved ones as crews are often on two-week rotations away from their families – a circumstance that generates increased stress for the workers these days. What is the best support for employees worried about paying bills if their spouse is laid off or a family member falls ill with COVID-19?

How do all these working parents keep up school requirements for their children?

We know employees struggling with elementary safety and security fears will not be the most effective.  Maybe if we just acknowledging this to them, it will give some comfort. Landside or shoreside, our crews are more focused and productive when they feel they and their loved ones are safe.  The overarching opinion on the HR call was that the best thing an employer can do is communicate and be transparent with employees. 

Some smaller companies or department areas are holding daily or weekly calls with leadership, while larger companies are holding virtual townhall-style meetings for their employees to give feedback. Several are encouraging employees to take a few vacation days to relax and reset, even if they are not allowed to travel. Others are surveying their employees to understand their readiness in returning to the office.

I left the call thinking about how important the HR staff is to the success of our companies. They may not have the answers to all the issues, but it was very apparent that they were skilled at and dedicated to addressing the delicate balance of taking actions that are in the best interests of both employees and companies. I was very impressed.

 You are an innovative, problem-solving community, and we would like to know more about the solutions/course you are setting out on to get your businesses back up to full speed. One of our Port Bureau missions is to find and provide critical guidance to help businesses weather the current economic downturn and sail out of this with their ship and crew in good shape. Let us know how we can help you avoid getting pounded by the trough of the COVID waves as you sail forth with your crews.

About the Author

CAPT Bill Diehl, USCG (Ret.), P.E. is president of the Greater Houston Port Bureau. Utilizing his 30+ years of marine safety and port operations experience, he guides the Port Bureau in bringing members and community partners together for cooperation and collaboration to improve and advance the port region.