Managing Crisis: How we Avoided Layoffs and Furloughs at Blue Raven Solar
This article was published in the Winter 2020 issue
by Trevor Weed, COO, Blue Raven Solar
On March 11, 2020, the NBA shut down and the rest of the in-person world including movie theaters, retail shops, restaurants, and playhouses quickly followed. March 12th was among the strangest days I can remember. Every hour or so my Google News feed announced another industry or event shutting down without a plan for reopening. Toward the end of the day I learned March Madness would be cancelled. COVID-19 now had my full attention.
As a leadership team at a solar company, we were worried. Solar is an inherently in-person business. Our sales are consultative and nearly always rely on a conversation, typically across the kitchen table. We physically inspect the roof and take in-person pictures of the electrical infrastructure of the home. At installation, we run wires through the attic, which means a person must walk through the house to wherever the attic access is. There were plenty of reasons to be concerned about the viability of our business model.
As we followed the news, we became aware of similar companies to us (in solar and otherwise) that were beginning to pull levers to insulate themselves from the looming crisis. Layoffs and furloughs were the most visible levers.
As things continued to worsen, we asked all our employees what their willingness would be to take fewer hours or no hours for a period of weeks or months. The response from the team was humbling. People were willing to sacrifice their own income for the sake of co-workers and for the sake of the organization. When we saw that response, we got serious about pursuing any avenue to avoid layoffs, furloughs, slowdowns, or shutdowns.
As I’ve reflected on what we did, some of it seems obvious and some of it was lucky. Much of it depended on the flexibility, trust, dedication, and talent of every person at Blue Raven Solar.
Here is a brief recap of our approach to managing the crisis:
We decided to not panic – as a company or as individuals
We took a thoughtful approach to transitioning to work from home. We did not send everyone home immediately (read: in a panic) but opted to run a test with about 30% of our staff working from home one day. We wrote down what we learned and used it to inform a strategy for getting everyone home safe (and productive). Serendipitously we had just adopted Microsoft’s Office 365 Cloud Suite and rolled out Teams the month prior. We enlisted our supply chain group to quickly source PPE for our hundreds of sales and field employees. We spoke openly about the pandemic in a transparent way. Our CEO Ben hosted weekly virtual check-ins with the whole company and to talk about the week’s news, discuss implications for Blue Raven, and provide any updated policies or procedures. His openness and detail put everyone at ease. We continued to crowdsource feedback from our employees, reading every piece of feedback as a management team, implementing ideas and answering all the questions.
We focused on our customers
We communicated in words and actions that we were taking the pandemic seriously and put masks, gloves and suits on our installers and site surveyors. We offered remote conversations to any homeowner with an existing sales appointment and altered the text on our website to reflect our sensitivity to potential transmission and our mitigation efforts with new schedules. In conversations from company-wide to one-on-one, we talked about our first value, which is to develop a high-trust culture. The first element in building trust is keeping our commitments, and we had a lot of people (customers, employees, families of employees, etc.) looking to us to deliver on our commitments. As we worked from home, we asked all managers to proactively engage with each member of their team each day and continue to manage to our standards (maintaining daily team and individual accountability through reports and huddles, keeping our pre-pandemic standards, etc.)
We had some nice tailwinds
Solar companies were declared an “essential business,” along with other companies whose function made them indispensable to the supply of food, electricity, health care, etc. That mandate was important for our success and we had plenty of work. It typically takes several weeks from the time a homeowner decides to purchase a solar system to it being installed, so we are always working with a pipeline of projects. When things slowed down in mid-March, this pipeline of work suddenly felt luxurious, as it allowed our operation to stay productive for weeks while the sales engine waded through uncertain times. Our sales machine proved exceptionally resilient. Despite the limitations on in-person contact, our salesforce found ways to safely stay at work. We applied for and received some PPP funds. This helped us breathe a little easier.
In short, the leadership team at Blue Raven Solar was thoughtful in its approach and ultimately avoided layoffs and furloughs. The Blue Raven team proved resilient, generous, and strong (and maybe a bit lucky, as well) and we turned a year that started out looking scary into our best year so far. I always knew solar isn’t afraid of governments, utility companies, HOAs, inspectors, or any other group that can get in its way. Now I know solar isn’t afraid of global pandemics, either. Bring on 2021.
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*Read the latest issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine, Winter 2020