How Ethanol Producers are Staying Safe and Connected

The biggest morale boosters have taken a direct hit this year, but ethanol plants and other industry organizations are evolving to keep spirits as high as possible. Open communication, schedule flexibility, coaching and kindness are going a long way.
By Lisa Gibson | November 24, 2020

The best workplace cultures are the ones where people feel safe and connected, says Bart Nichols, talent advisor for KCoe People. Both of those are challenging with a COVID-19 pandemic limiting human contact. Still, ethanol plants have stepped up and overhauled morale strategies to keep employees as safe and connected as possible.

“I think the morale is good, from what I’ve seen,” Nichols says. “People are being resilient and figuring out what they can draw upon to get through this period of change, and businesses continue to look at how to run in this time period—what changes are affecting them. I think ethanol is the same way and I think they’ve done a good job of keeping things going as well as being in touch with employees.”

A few strategies to keep employees safe and connected have been successful in this incredibly challenging year.

Open Communication
“Obviously, dealing with the biggest collapse in our market that we’ve ever experienced in the industry was difficult to say the least,” says Dan Sanders, vice president of Front Range Energy in Windsor, Colorado. “I think a lot of companies did a lot of unique things as far as employees go, to make sure that communication is open, that benefits are provided, that flexibility is provided.”

Back in March, Front Range included all employees in the process of developing COVID-19 safety protocols. “This new pandemic and creating new policies around sanitation and quarantining and all this stuff was brand new to us, and so we were just very open with our employees,” Sanders says. “We held employee meetings with the entire employee base to communicate our production plans, our new sanitation protocols, new visitor protocols, etc. We were just very open with communication.”

Those new safety protocols include limited visitors, reduced staffing in some areas of the plant, mask mandates, daily health checks and routine sanitation rounds, specifically at shift exchange. “We developed a multipage COVID policy that no ethanol plant thought they’d ever have to do, but we did it,” Sanders says.

Employees, of course, leave work and interact with other people off site, but Front Range has done everything it can to help protect employees while they’re at work, Sanders says. “Having them involved in that process of developing those processes was beneficial to us.” Feedback from employees on the new safety strategies has been positive. “We haven’t come across any real critic of what we’ve implemented. Everyone had their own opinions and we tried to boil it all down to best practices, not just in the industry, but from CDC guidance and other recommendations to come up with the best policies we thought we could put in place to protect our employees.

“Everyone is concerned about the future,” Sanders adds. “So we held those open-forum meetings with our employee base to just let them know what we’re faced with and how we’ll handle getting through it. And we will get through it and do our best to keep everyone employed, and give flexibility to deal with schools shutting down and kids at home.”

Open communication between management and employees also has been crucial to stave off the spread of rumors, Sanders says. “Rumors are not good for morale. As much as management can lead by example and get in front of any sort of issue that might come up, I think it’s beneficial. I also think that having that open door policy where an employee can feel comfortable talking to a direct supervisor or even the general manager of a facility to deal with a personal issue … from our experience, that’s really worked well for us.”

Personalized Communication
Wade Rummel, technical services manager for Lallemand Biofuels & Distilled Spirits, agrees with that personalized strategy. “It’s more important than ever to know your employees personally,” he says. Some ethanol plant managers are reporting no anxiety among staff, but on-site, Rummel sees a different picture. Employees might not report feeling anxiety, but might show it on the job in their attitude, work performance and level of focus. A manager who knows his or her employees can read them better, he says.

“Make that conscious effort to continue to get to know your employees better,” Rummel says. “By knowing that person a little more on an individual level, you will be able to do more things for that person to help bring morale up.”

Individual flexibility is crucial, Rummel and Sanders agree. With more demands in their personal lives, employees might need help with their schedules to make room for their children’s virtual learning, a spouse’s changed schedule, or any number of issues that have come up during the past year’s pandemic.  

“We directed our management team to deal with each employee on a case-by-case basis, obviously in confidence,” Sanders says. “And we encouraged employees to go to their direct manager and deal with those issues as they come up, whether it’s a family issue or a fear or anxiety. We’ll work with them on a case-by-case basis and provide the flexibility we could to give that employee some comfort in dealing with this crisis.”

Nichols emphasizes spending just 10 minutes per day with an employee on some aspect of training or coaching adds up to 40 hours per year. “So in as little as 10 minutes a day, you can have a big impact on morale.”

Morale is bound to slip a bit under the pressure of the current circumstances, but Sanders says these measures have helped. “I think we did a good job keeping it as high as we could. At the end of the day, everyone is facing great uncertainty with the economy, with schools, their own health, family members’ health and friends’ health. I think we did the best we could.”

Rummel suggests boosting morale by continuing to celebrate milestones—years of employment, gallons produced, etc.—in a safe way. “Have a little more fun,” he says, adding managers should spend more time in the plant, talking with employees.

LBDS has opened communication, he adds, holding frequent virtual meetings and virtual happy hours every Friday. “It’s more of a social means for employees to connect again.
“Go out of your way to have those video calls or safe gatherings,” he says.

Evolving Strategies
For businesses in the ethanol industry that can operate virtually, strategies have evolved, Nichols says. The training he provides has changed to tweak or completely cut hands-on, group-based learning exercises. But group discussions can take place in Zoom breakout rooms, and the Zoom whiteboard and polling functions have proven useful for interactive learning, he says.

“Nobody wants to hear an old guy like me go on for three hours,” Nichols says, adding that learning should be experiential—listening, talking and formulating ideas. “They should feel like, ‘I got something; I’m empowered by my organization to do this.’ Those are the kinds of things that keep morale going in uncertain times.

“We’re retooling everything that the firm delivers to our people next year to be virtual because we don’t have the certainty and we need to keep training in place because training does build that morale.”

At the start of the pandemic, training calls slowed for KCoe, Nichols says. But by mid-summer, businesses had started embracing virtual training.

Slow Recovery
“The industry is slowly recovering, like the rest of the economy, with fuel demand coming back,” Sanders says. “I think plants are, for the most part, back up and operating, at some capacity, which is always good for morale.”

The pandemic and its fallout have 100% changed how staff is managed in a plant, Rummel says.
Again, Nichols emphasizes that the best cultures are ones where people feel safe and connected. “And if you set that foundation of a good culture, it also goes into the interpersonal relationships where trust can be established or enhanced. And not just from an operational aspect … If those things are in place, they feel safe and connected. It deepens the relational aspect of trust. People appear more sincere. People appear more attune to what you’re thinking.
“Culture and trust are big morale boosters.”

Author: Lisa Gibson
Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine