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How are people teams responding to coronavirus? ...Siemens Healthineers

21 Apr 2020 By Siobhan Palmer

How the medical device manufacturer has ramped up production of vital blood gas analysers, lent ventilator expertise and given staff paid leave to volunteer for the NHS

The organisation

Siemens Healthineers manufactures and distributes medical devices including large MRI scanners, X-ray machines and equipment to assist in laboratory testing of blood and urine samples. With 2,200 employees working in offices, factories and hospitals throughout the UK, its operations have been drastically affected by the coronavirus pandemic. 

The impact so far

One of Siemens Healthineers’ four factories builds blood gas analysers, which are used to monitor the oxygen content in a person’s blood. They’re “very useful to have as part of the portfolio of tests available when you're looking at treating Covid-19 patients”, explains managing director Peter Harrison. 

An increase in demand for these important pieces of equipment has meant some “fairly radical changes in shift patterns”, Harrison says. The company has had to balance the need to ramp up production with sending a number of factory staff home because of their age or underlying health conditions putting them at increased risk of the virus. 

However, employees have been understanding about the increased working hours required of some of them, according to Jamie Wright, head of HR. “People are stepping up to the plate [...] this is a healthcare crisis and as a healthcare company everybody feels a duty to support,” he says. 

The ventilator challenge

Siemens Healthineers does not manufacture ventilators, but the company did produce them around 15 years ago. While the firm is not actually building units in response to health secretary Matt Hancock’s call for UK manufacturers to produce more of the essential machines via the ‘ventilator challenge’, it is lending its people’s domain expertise. “There was a generic call out to industry, and some of my manufacturing colleagues in the UK took it upon themselves to say 'you know what? We think we can help’,” he says.

As an accredited medical device manufacturer that formerly produced ventilators, the company is supporting ventilator manufacturers to increase their output, and offering guidance on health and safety and regulatory requirements. 

NHS volunteering

With a number of clinically trained staff on the business’s payroll, Harrison and Wright had to come up with a creative solution to allow them time off to work in the NHS at no cost to the health service. “As soon as Boris [Johnson] and the team were looking for people to come back to the NHS, we’d already started to get some requests,” says Wright. 

This was a challenge for the HR team, which ended up creating a special type of annual leave: the company now offers staff trained in disciplines from radiography to biomedical science up to two days a week (for up to 12 weeks) additional paid leave to work for the NHS. This is on the basis that the support is offered without remuneration from the NHS.

“They're going back to where they used to work to support their friends, their colleagues, their communities,” Wright says. “That's really why we thought it was something important that we had to support.”

Leadership in a pandemic

While workers stationed in hospitals and factories across the UK are classed as essential workers and are continuing to travel to work, most office-based employees have transitioned to working at home. 

Assessing the situation was a big task for the HR team, which organised the fast-tracking of occupational health assessments and identified all workers who were vulnerable, organising for them to shield at home within a day of the risk factors being announced. “That kind of agile working isn't something that's typical for us,” says Wright. “But we had to work really quickly.” 

Harrison says operating in such uncertain conditions changes the style of leadership needed from the company’s senior team. “We get the Boris updates at 5pm – immediately we're expected to know all the answers and all of the details, and we know we don't have that. And yet we have to move quickly,” he reflects. “It means that sometimes you have to direct a little bit more, and you have to be more agile in decision-making.”

While the healthcare company has sprung into action in response to the crisis, Harrison and Wright both emphasise their philosophy that “it’s not about us”. “Principal appreciation should go to the NHS staff on the frontline, and we would never want to take that from them,” Harrison says. 

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