WILTON, CT — Priests and pundits have been promising their flocks that they'll "get through this pandemic and be somehow stronger than before" for months. But one Wilton manufacturer has been walking that walk since March, and there's never been any "somehow" in their calculations.
At their facilities in Wilton, the Dutch manufacturer ASML makes the equipment that semiconductor companies need to create microchips. As such, employees there were deemed "essential" when the coronavirus pandemic broke. The plant employs 1,900 workers, and immediately sent 1,200 of them to work from home.
This was a sea change for the company, according to ASML Vice President of Wilton Factory Bill Amalfitano. The thinking in the manufacturing industry had always been that every employee needed to be on hand, whether they spent their shift on the factory floor or in an office.
“We collaborate a lot, and we have to be there to provide support," Amalfitano said. It was such an ingrained belief institutionally that the company did not even have a work-from-home policy.
To facilitate the new ethos, ASML allowed employees to sign out their comfy office chairs and big screen monitors to give them every workplace advantage at home. They implemented Microsoft Teams for communications, and that, too, proved a revelation.
"Now people are talking more to each other in these Teams meetings, versus just sitting next to each other and not communicating," Amalfitano said.
For the three shifts of 700 workers who continued to report to the facility each day, the company began pulling out all the stops.
Management assembled a Crisis Team, who recommended isolating the three daily manufacturing shifts, ensuring there was no contact nor overlap among the personnel from each shift. The company implemented temperature checks in early March, before they were required by the state, and also restricted exit and entrance points. On-site visitors were limited to those who were "business critical," and even interviews with new applicants for the growing company were conducted remotely. (Some new employees were hired "sight unseen," according to Amalfitano). ASML began providing free bagged lunches to their workers at their work spaces so that they need not congregate in the cafeteria. Door knobs were converted to touchless access points, and even a mask protocol was enacted, all before state mandates made these the new normal.
As prescient a decision as that seems now, it would have been a tough sell to most CFOs back in March. Then, masks were a rare and pricey commodity, and even the national public health agencies weren't clear they were going to be of much use against the coronavirus.
"We purchased a huge quantity – a hundred thousand masks – in our first purchase," Amalfitano said. The company made sure they bought enough to be able to provide 10 free masks to all their workers for home use, "because you could not buy them at the time."
When the virus finally turned deadly in the area, the first Connecticut patients to succumb to COVID-19 were Wilton residents. It was a grim distinction, and an ominous bit of news that gripped the community for weeks.
"April was horrible," Amalfitano said. "If you turned on a television in this area… the number of new cases, the number of deaths… the constant ‘stay home! Stay home!’ put everybody in a panic."
That made the work of ASML's Crisis Team that much tougher. Communication became of paramount importance due to the fear, which spread as widely and even more rapidly then the virus.
"You still had your issues of some people feeling very nervous and not wanting to come to work,” Amalfitano said. "And so your absenteeism rate would be higher than normal, simply because people had a lot of fear."
So the company began publishing a daily newsletter, explaining the steps it was taking to mitigate the threats and risks at the workplace. Employee feed-back sessions were convened twice a month. The early fear gave way to an appreciation of the safeguards the company was putting into place. Soon, that workforce once fearful of showing up, didn't want to leave.
"Now when you talk to our employees — and I do it all the time — people feel safer at our place than anywhere else," Amalfitano said.
Good thing, too, because, while many other businesses and competitors were counting themselves lucky to just keep their doors open during the pandemic, ASML was in the middle of a growth spurt. Production hit record levels in April, and the company has hired close to a hundred new employees since the start of the pandemic (and is looking to hire around 60 more).
As tricky a challenge it may have been keeping everyone happy and focused inside the factory, that was an order of magnitude easier than keeping ASML vendors and customers on point. A factory's only as strong as its supply chain, and weak links began popping up on ASML's the minute state governors began calling for business shutdowns. Amalfitano said some of his suppliers needed to be reminded that if ASML was an essential business, any of its key vendors were likewise essential, and needed to stay open.
Customers presented a different set of problems. ASML's product line of extreme ultraviolet lithography equipment is as complicated as it sounds. When those machines fail, they're beyond the skill set of the local Maytag repairman to fix. So the company would typically fly in one of their engineers to the customer site for the repairs. The virus grounded that operation.
Unable to ship engineers, the manufacturer began mailing goggles. The HoloLens, manufactured by Microsoft, is mixed reality eyewear that enabled ASML technicians in Wilton to look over the shoulder of their goggled-up customers wherever they were in the world. Once the problem was diagnosed, the ASML tech could draft a service plan that would fix it, and overlay that holographic scheme into the remote technician's field of vision at the site.
It was not only an exceptionally elegant solution, it may also be a roadmap for the future. As pricey as mixed reality goggles are, they're still a more economic solution than the T&E from the traveling troubleshooters.
"There's been a lot of lessons learned during this pandemic," Amalfitano said. "And when you come out of the pandemic, you're not going to abandon these."
To that end, ASML's Human Resources scribes have been busy drafting up a work-from-home policy that will continue after the pandemic. Management's long-held assumption that employees would not be able to work as efficiently in their fuzzy socks has officially changed.
"We're finding that they're actually sometimes more efficient," Amalfitano said.
The success and growth at ASML's Wilton plant has been mirrored in the corporation's bottom line. Second-quarter sales for the corporation came in at €3.3 billion, a staggering growth of over 35 percent compared to Q1. The Financial Times ranked it 25th on a list of 100 companies prospering in the pandemic.