In Midst of COVID, Industry Executives Voice Optimism about Path Forward

On April 17, executives representing more than two dozen chemical, pharmaceutical, and agricultural companies and academia gathered in a virtual meeting to discuss their organizations’ response to COVID-19 — and offered reflections about the changes wrought by the pandemic — during the AIChE Foundation’s Corporate Council and Industry Leaders forum. In the meeting, the executives expressed admiration and gratitude for a workforce that has demonstrated resiliency in the face of unprecedented circumstances. They also described the associated challenges related to strategic planning, logistics, and workforce deployment beyond spring 2020, across a landscape still clouded by ambiguity.

“We know that the world will be different,” said AIChE President Monty Alger, “and while we can imagine some things that might change, we just don’t know at this point.”

Optimistic prospects

In spite of the unknowns, participants expressed pride in their companies and their colleagues, and voiced optimism about the prospects for their industries at a juncture where the world seems ready to accept new things and needs new ways of getting things done.

“Chemical engineers are problem solvers by nature,” said Michael McAtee (BASF, retired), who added that the current crisis is an unprecedented opportunity for chemical engineers to contribute to the global well-being through their expertise. “We have a mission ahead of us that is exactly what we’re geared for,” McAtee said.  

Leaders lauded the industry’s combating of problems posed by COVID, such as the accelerated search for vaccines, the invention of new decontamination technologies, and the shifting of production assets to make disinfectants, masks, and other personal protective equipment (PPE). “I’m optimistic about the pace at which science is addressing these challenges,” said Stuart Thomas (Veolia). “This is an opportunity for the industry to show people how science can impact the world.”

The Human impact

Along with this inspired stance, leaders did not neglect comment on the human impact of these disruptive times and unsettled circumstances. Ken Reid (BASF) reminded his colleagues to stay cognizant of the fact that people are dealing with unanticipated personal hardship. "When we check in with our staff,” said Reid, “we have to recognize that everyone in their own way is experiencing some type of grief in regard to normalcy and what a person may be missing in their personal life.”

Adapting through technology

Individuals also shared some of the practices their companies had instituted in order to adapt to the pandemic. With the chemical process, pharmaceutical, and agricultural industries deemed an essential U.S. business sector, employers have reconfigured the deployment of staff, with some remaining onsite and others assigned to work from home using expanded online technologies to help with the shift to virtual working methods.

In making these staffing adjustments, some executives reported that their U.S.-based locations were able to leverage tactics tested by their sites in Asia and Europe, which had dealt with pandemic-related disruptions in the months prior to the U.S. shutdown. Other companies have tapped existing emergency response systems to manage staffing complexities. Al Cusson (Air Liquide) stated, “Air Liquide’s operations control center in Houston, TX, manages over 2,000 miles of pipeline along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coasts, and its facilities are susceptible to hurricanes. In preparation for a natural disaster, Air Liquide has instituted a business continuity plan which includes a backup remote virtual control room in the event that the main control center is not operational.” Cusson said that this preparation has proved beneficial during the COVID-19 pandemic. “To ensure that social distancing guidelines were met, the employees operating in the control center were split between the main site and the backup center.”

 Business practices and processes that used to take weeks are now being accomplished in days.

Others described enhanced employee health and safety measures for manufacturing sites and labs that require in-person staffing. William Raiford (Chemours) said, “We took early steps to implement strong social distancing and safety protocols across our locations —including augmented shift schedules, limited site access, and health checks—to provide a safe workplace for our employees.” Jennifer Phillips (Celanese) noted that her company had added a hygiene ambassador onsite to ensure that everybody is following social distancing and PPE protocol. Leaders attested to the indispensable role of ramped-up digital communication and online conferencing technology as keys to business continuity and a new culture of employee engagement. While some organizations were receiving crash courses in the use of these technologies, Jennifer Chan (ExxonMobil Chemical) noted that her organization had already adopted teleconferencing platforms and employee discussion forums, “so the atmosphere and the behaviors were already in place to enable the online dialogues we’re having” in the remote work environment.

Many of the executives are engaging staff through digital discussions. Ana Davis (Syngenta) uses a digital platform to engage employees with a one-stop portal that can field employees’ questions in real time.

Frank van Lier (Lubrizol) observed that the new digital productivity processes has resulted in faster communication and faster action overall. “Business practices and processes that used to take weeks are now being accomplished in days,” he noted.

Adopting new practices post-pandemic

In that regard, the group also considered how organizations might assimilate some of the practices associated with the disruption that are deemed worth holding on to, such as reduced travel schedules and the new virtual connectedness. The discovery that digital communications and work-from-home arrangements have been productive has invited speculation on which COVID-era workplace tactics might help shape the new normalcy when it emerges.  

With the awareness that business might not return fully to the “old-normal” way of doing things, a common theme of the meeting was the practical prospects for a safe re-opening, with leaders asking when, how, and to what extent businesses will be able to do so, within the guidelines that will be in place.

...I’m cheering for science and engineering.

Among the obstacles, many of the leaders said that their companies are working to get a handle on the differing timelines and rules related to re-opening and commerce, which can vary from state to state and even between facilities of the same company. While some organizations have designated emergency operations staff to monitor regulatory affairs and jurisdictional rules and re-opening schedules, others leaders recommended the development of a national standard that covers and coordinates the COVID-imposed mandates and restrictions in effect between states and across geographic boundaries.

Envisioning a time down the road when COVID is no longer such an unsettling emergency, individuals expressed their hope that organizations and communities everywhere will learn from these times and work together to be better prepared for future events. “As with past incidents, such as those associated with process safety,” suggested Armando Lara (LyondellBasell), “we need to update our procedures to be prepared for ‘next time’.”

Changes in internships and education

Aside from the needs of industry and the active workforce, the group also considered the next generation. Representatives from several organizations sought advice on how to assist new professionals experiencing their first economic downturn, as well as undergraduates, who are facing the disruption of summer jobs and internships. While many organizations intend to continue their internship programs, how those experiences will be managed and delivered successfully was still unclear at the time of the meeting.

Speaking on behalf of universities, Nada Marie Anid (New York Institute of Technology) said, “We’ve seen a paradigm shift in higher education, where we were forced to move everything online in a matter of weeks.” Aside from her concerns about sustaining research and keeping students engaged and healthy, Anid speculated about what chemical engineering instruction and degree programs might look like in semesters to come, suggesting the possible need for blended modalities of teaching and the prospect of new types of credentialing and micro-degree programs.

Anid concluded, “The pandemic is showing us that the public understands how important science and engineering are for society. Although these times haven’t been easy, I’m cheering for science and engineering.”