When Le Mars, Iowa-based Wells Enterprises adopted its first digital communications tool in 2017, the company could not have foreseen the timeliness of the decision. In the three years since it began the transition to digitized communication, the company has grown from operating a single production facility to operating multiple plants, with locations in New Jersey, New York, Nevada and Iowa. As a result, the number of employees at the company jumped from about 2,700 to more than 4,000.
The largest privately owned producer of frozen treats in the United States — the company churns out 200 million gallons of ice cream each year — Wells Enterprises has faced many of the same industry pain points that are ubiquitous to today’s large frozen treat product manufacturers. In particular, it faced the logistical challenge of communicating critical information across multiple operations sites, languages and levels of access to technology.
To tackle the need for improved employee engagement, connectivity and operations knowledge, Wells Enterprises partnered with Beekeeper, a mobile communications platform for frontline workers. Now used by more than 30% of employees and counting, the digitally powered communications tool has proven to be a critical component in maintaining safe and successful operations and efficiency during Wells Enterprises’ expansion.
Connecting a growing, distributed workforce
Like most other ice cream manufacturers, Wells Enterprises has a workforce consisting largely of operations workers who spend virtually no time in front of a computer screen, without access to a company email. While break rooms are equipped with intranet-based computer kiosks for employee use, short breaks and lunch hours offer employees little practical time to use them.
To get the necessary operations updates in front of its workforce, Wells Enterprises previously relied on traditional methods. This included providing talking points to supervisors or pinning paper fliers to the wall, which added complexity to new site integrations. Furthermore, as the company grew, its workforce transformed from a predominantly English-speaking group to a multilingual one.
In manufacturing industries, safety updates and quick deployment of information are critical both to job performance and safety on the production floor — mired further in an onslaught of pandemic regulations and requirements. By modernizing its communications system, Wells Enterprises has been able to sustain its rapid growth while also improving employee engagement, efficiency and operations.
Consider a common disruption in facility operations: weather-related closures. Before Wells Enterprises made the shift to digital communications, employees were responsible for either watching the lower-third of their local newscast for closures at a particular job site or calling the hotline to listen to a series of prerecorded voicemails. With up to 2,000 people working in one building, providing those updates quickly was an arduous task for management and employees alike.
Following Wells Enterprises’ partnership with Beekeeper, employees can access company updates through an app or on a desktop computer, and the communications process is instantaneous. Now management teams send out a mass message either to everyone at a particular job site or to select specific teams, circumventing the process of sorting through irrelevant updates.
Like many other ice cream producers, the primary method of communication for safety policies or company news has been through talking points. While face-to-face communication is still prioritized, the addition of a digital solution has provided a secondary method to ensure nothing slips through the cracks. When time constraints or geography prevent a face-to-face meeting, managers share updated information — anything from new handbooks to situational operations messages — in a central location that employees can access on the job site. Now they don’t have to spend their breaks searching for company updates, and managers can prioritize what they need to say during limited team meetings.
The communication goes both ways: Employees who opt to use the Beekeeper app can respond to messages and company broadcasts directly. To answer more immediate questions, employees can still call their supervisors. Employees who prefer not to exchange personal information can instantly message a supervisor on-site without the need to provide their private cell phone number.
Similarly, team feedback has taken a more central role at Wells Enterprises. Managers historically faced challenges in generating enthusiasm about culture-related surveys, and legacy methods required management to share news of an employee satisfaction survey by word of mouth and to distribute/collect the questions and responses manually.
Employees can now access company surveys directly on the Beekeeper platform, and management can share the results with the team via the app. The renewed visibility lets employees know their voices have been heard and that Wells Enterprises values their input.
Employee recognition initiatives
Unique to using a digital communications platform is a renewed ability to recognize exceptional employees. Managers often use the Beekeeper platform to give kudos to team members in a central location where the entire company can share in celebrating that person’s success and build team relationships.
Consider the types of “everyday hero” situations many production workers face. What if an employee is working on a piece of equipment and notices that the machine is about to jam? That team member may spring into action, alert a supervisor and prevent a costly equipment failure. These types of successes happen all the time, but are not often celebrated by large companies. With a central, mobile communication system in place, Wells Enterprises has prioritized recognition to elevate its exceptional employees and to let the team know their contributions are noticed and appreciated — both by senior management and by fellow workers on the floor.
Delivering pandemic updates
Pandemic regulations delivered a particular blow to pen-and-paper processes. Health regulations are critical in the ice cream industry, especially in the current environment, and sanitation requirements have eliminated traditional fliers and safety quiz materials from breakrooms altogether.
As an unintended consequence, communications at Wells Enterprises have actually improved since the onset of COVID-19. The elimination of these manual processes has driven increased digital connectivity. Equipped with a mobile solution, the company can conduct safety quizzes and send regulatory information in one centralized location, instantly and from a safe social distance. This year, the rapid ability to coordinate information helped in organizing the company’s first-ever socially distant drive-through flu shot event, which received high levels participation from the team.
On-site employees are asking every day: “When should I be tested?”; “What counts as a close contact?”; “How long do I stay in quarantine?”; ‘How does the virus spread?” These updates are now delivered quickly to Wells Enterprises’ multi-site teams — directly into their pockets or desktop devices at home without the need for meetings or email access.
Overcoming communications barriers
For a multi-site ice cream company such as Wells Enterprises, delivering the right information to the right location is vital. Email use among production employees is unreliable at best and impossible at worst. Urgent facility updates, without a designated communications tool, previously involved organizing a complicated system of email groups or a time-consuming deployment of paper fliers to the job site.
Digital communication technology has allowed Wells Enterprises to break down a more manageable approach. Now, supervisors can either disseminate a widespread alert instantly to the entire workforce or streamline news and deliver that notification to the affected teams at a particular site.
Wells Enterprises also faced a language barrier as the company grew. Certain types of safety messages are more accurately delivered in an employee's first language. Prior to adopting a mobile solution, Wells Enterprises would send out manually translated, printed letters to deliver these types of updates, which were costly and slow to produce. Having selected a platform with an inline translation functionality, the company is reaching its multilingual team more quickly than ever before.
The ability to break down language and geographical barriers has been especially valuable in navigating new site integrations. When they joined Wells Enterprises, most incoming production sites were operating on their own separate communications channels. During large-scale integrations, a mobile solution is much more nimble than an intranet or email system. Apps are quick to download and more user-friendly to smartphone users than cumbersome on-site systems, a benefit that ultimately allowed Wells Enterprises to carry over important messages, ease transition for impacted existing teams and onboard new staff.
Employees who have adopted Beekeeper have expressed enthusiasm over the transparency and accessibility that digital communications have brought to the team. Empowered with access to regulatory information, company updates and critical safety news during the tumult of the pandemic, the teams at Wells Enterprises have come through a period of rapid company expansion and shared successes with a greater ability to connect, improve engagement and efficiency, and celebrate new opportunities together.