In times of uneasiness and confusion, employees look to their leaders for guidance and support. But how can leaders build a positive workplace culture under external pressure? Pacific Research Labs CEO Norine Martinsen has some sound advice for companies who want to show more support for their valued employees, particularly when stress levels rise.
Under Norine’s capable leadership, Pacific Research Labs has not only continued to provide high-quality designs, prototypes, and products to essential clients, but has also created a safe space for employees. In an in-depth interview, Norine discusses the methods she uses to maintain a positive workplace culture at Pacific Research Labs, even as Covid-19 disrupted the world’s industries.
What Was Your Vision for the Company Culture?
Norine stepped into her role as CEO for Pacific Research Labs in January 2020. Initially, she had plans to diversify the company’s product offerings and give engineers even more opportunities to come up with creative engineering solutions for clients. However, almost immediately after transitioning into her role, Norine faced a serious and unexpected challenge: Covid-19.
The spread of Covid-19 and subsequent lockdowns made it difficult for nearly every company in the world to operate as usual. To cope with this change, Norine had to think on her feet. She decided to focus her efforts on building a positive workplace culture, ensuring first and foremost that every employee felt cared for and protected.
The seeds for this positive workplace culture were already planted long before Norine transitioned into her role as CEO. In its 40-year history, Pacific Research Labs has always been an employee-centered company. In fact, in December 2010, the company became fully employee-owned. Norine adds,
|“There is so much rich talent here, and leveraging that talent to create and build a product that makes a difference is exciting to me. We do great work and I know there is more that we can do in the future.”|
However, while Pacific Research Labs has always had a talented, close-knit team of employees, Norine knew she had to strengthen these relationships in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. She understood that employees would feel worried about their safety, job security, and the health of their families. To respond to these concerns, Norine got to work immediately.
How Did You Build a Positive Workplace Culture?
To put employees at ease, Norine focused on five important principles for building a positive workplace culture:
- Community involvement
- Low turnover
- Active listening
- Flexibility and open-mindedness
Pacific Research Labs has always prioritized these principles, but Norine amplified them in response to the pandemic. Here’s how she safeguarded employees at a time when they needed it most.
#1: Community Involvement
Pacific Research Labs is the largest employer on the island of Vashon, Washington, and has remained there for more than 40 years. As such, many of our employees are also neighbors and close friends—some have worked together for decades. In this community, everyone takes care of each other, particularly in times of stress.
This is actually one of the reasons Norine wanted to work with Pacific Research Labs in the first place. She loved the sense of community and the company’s strong focus on family. For Norine, building a positive workplace culture meant tapping into this communal way of thinking. Norine encouraged everyone at the company to treat one another like a family and support everyone’s emotional needs. Even as many employees began working from home, Norine and her management team kept in touch and checked in on them frequently to ensure they were coping well with all the changes.
#2: Low Turnover
People who work for Pacific Research Labs tend to stay with the company for many years—sometimes even their entire careers. Having a low turnover rate is a major boost to employees’ morale. When employees know they’re valued, employees are much more satisfied with their work. We also encourage our employees to learn new skills and expand their expertise with advanced technology such as CNC machinery, 3D printing, and CAD systems. Our goal is to drive the manufacturing industry forward and mentor a talented young workforce.
This concept became even more important for Norine during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many people around the world were losing their jobs or worried about layoffs. In response, Norine made sure that every employee knew they were a valued team member and that the company was committed to keeping them on the team in whatever capacity they could. While many other companies cannot avoid layoffs, Norine believes that retaining staff and keeping turnover rates low is still a crucial step to building a positive workplace culture.
Whether a company is responding to a pandemic or operating as usual, Norine says that safety should always be a top priority when building a positive workplace culture. This is especially true in prototyping and manufacturing, as employees work with complex machinery and other equipment.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Norine also implemented new safety measures at the plant. For example, when a temporary employee was diagnosed with the virus, Norine and her team immediately reached out to King County’s health officials. They put quarantine measures into place for anyone who had been in contact with the employee and sanitized the plant thoroughly. This quick action kept other employees at the plant safe and helped halt the virus’ spread.
Norine also ensured these safety measures stayed in place when the company was declared an essential business. She focused on providing essential products to clients in the healthcare industry while keeping every worker safe. Some of the safety measures included:
- Mandating a 6-foot minimum distance between employees in the plant
- Reducing on-site production staff by 60 workers
- Assigning remaining employees who are cross-trained to work in different areas of the plant
- Limiting the total number of people on campus at any given time
- Encouraging as many employees as possible to work from home
- Keeping production lean to reduce strain on these smaller teams
With these measures, Norine and her teams were able to continue producing products for industries that needed them while retaining employees and making sure they were as safe as possible.
#4: Active Listening
One of the most important qualities of a good leader is the ability to listen and consider other perspectives before acting. Building a positive workplace culture means talking to employees about their concerns and needs and having compassion for what they’re going through. Norine says,
|“When you treat people with honor and dignity, they’ll want to work with you.”|
In times of stress, it’s difficult to know what people are going through in their personal lives. This is why Norine made sure that she and her HR manager connected with employees frequently by phone, video chat, or at a safe distance in-person. Norine explains that sending an email just doesn’t have the same impact. It’s important for leaders to have real-time conversations so employees can ask questions, offer up solutions, or just connect face-to-face with someone who cares.
#5: Flexibility and Open-Mindedness
Leaders don’t have all the answers. The sign of a good leader is one who is willing to change based on new information or scenarios. This was especially true during the Covid-19 pandemic. The situation was constantly changing and no one was sure what would happen days, weeks, or months in the future.
Building a positive workplace culture in this environment isn’t easy, but it’s essential. To address this uncertainty, Norine not only spent each day on the manufacturing floor ensuring employees had what they needed to succeed and stay safe, but she also connected with people working at home.
In fact, she gave the Pacific Research Lab team the choice to work on-site or at home. To make this possible, the company even provided 30 laptops to employees for their home offices. This flexibility was especially important for employees who were taking care of vulnerable people and didn’t want to put them at risk by coming in to work.
According to Norine, the most important thing leaders can do for their employees during times of unprecedented stress is to remain calm and steady. When employees see that leaders have control over the situation and are willing to change as needed, they’ll feel less anxious.
What Lessons Can We Learn from This Difficult Time?
Building a positive workplace culture can be complicated in even the most profitable and relaxing times. When external stressors start impacting employees, this task becomes even more challenging. Through her experience managing a team during a pandemic, Norine has rediscovered the importance of compassion and care in leadership.
While it’s important to have a clear vision and direction for a company, it’s just as important to remember that companies are built by people—people who have needs, fears, hopes, and ambitions. Shifting the focus to the people who make the products possible is the first step to building a positive workplace culture that feels more like a supportive and loving family. After all, a positive workplace culture isn’t one that only exists when times are good. It’s one that endures when times get tough.