Executives representing more than two dozen companies gathered online on April 17 to discuss their organizations’ responses to COVID-19 — and offered reflections about the changes wrought by the pandemic — during a meeting of the AIChE Foundation’s Corporate Council. 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.”
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 also lauded the industry’s combating of problems posed by COVID-19, 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).
Along with this inspired stance, leaders did not minimize the human and personal impact of these disruptive times and unsettled circumstances. Ken Reid (BASF) reminded his colleagues to keep in mind that people everywhere 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.”
Corporate Council members also shared some of the practices their companies had instituted in order to adapt to the pandemic. With the chemical process industries (CPI) deemed an essential U.S. business sector, employers have reconfigured the deployment of staff, with some remaining on-site and others assigned to work from home — supported by expanded online technologies to help employees 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) described his organization’s hurricane-tempered Houston location, which had instituted business continuity plans built around the prospect of natural disasters. This planning includes a back-up remote virtual control room, and Cusson explained that staff has been split between Air Liquide’s main control center in Houston and the back-up center to achieve social distancing.
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 added a hygiene ambassador on-site to ensure that everybody is following social distancing and PPE protocols.
Leaders attested to the indispensable role played by ramped-up digital communication and online conferencing technology as keys to business continuity and a new culture of employee engagement. 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 have 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.
In that regard, Corporate Council members also considered ways that 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-19-era workplace tactics will 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 reopening, with leaders asking when, how, and to what extent businesses will be able to do so, within the guidelines that will be in place.
Many of the assembled leaders said that one of the obstacles their companies are working to get a handle on is the differing timelines and rules related to reopening 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 reopening schedules, other Corporate Council 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-19 is no longer such an unsettling emergency, Corporate Council members 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.’”
Aside from the needs of industry and the active workforce, the Corporate Council 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 from the perspective of academia, 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.
“These times haven’t been easy,” concluded Anid, “but I’m cheering for science and engineering.”
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