There is a lot that engineering firms could be doing right now to better manage their people and business through COVID-19. create spoke with two experts who said it begins by sorting the ‘critical’ from the ‘important’.
How does a manager at an engineering organisation manage staff who are separated and working from home, perhaps for the first time ever?
How does an engineering body responsible for vital infrastructure such as power or water ensure that their people are healthy, happy and capable of carrying out their essential roles?
And what about internal processes? How does a business figure out which are ‘important’ and which are ‘critical’ – and what difference does it make, anyway?
Actually, it makes an enormous difference when you’re in a time of pandemic, said Gavin Freeman, Director of The Business Olympian.
Emergency management, Freeman said, is all about managing the first five minutes after an event – making sure life-support machines still run after a hospital suffers a power outage, for example.
Business continuity management is about anything from 24 hours to one month after an event, ensuring a business can continue to operate.
Pandemic planning, however, is a completely different creature. It’s about making sure a business remains viable for 12 to 24 months after an event.
No matter the length of time involved, Freeman said, success centres around separating critical from important in terms of both projects and people. Then it’s a case of managing staff to ensure they remain engaged and have the tools they require to get the job done.
Critical vs important
Most businesses, Freeman said, make the mistake of misinterpreting some processes as critical when in fact they are only important. Because of this, their focus can be so broad that the development of a pandemic plan seems overwhelming.
Think about a local government body that employs engineers to manage vital water infrastructure. Suddenly, in a COVID-19 environment, these engineers and their processes are absolutely critical to the running of that infrastructure. If an engineer is sick, or has to care for a loved one, or simply doesn’t want to put themselves in a potentially risky situation, the resulting issues could be serious.
“If the completion of a building is delayed by a few months, society is not going to fall apart,” Freeman said.
“Even if power is cut off, people become irritable but it’s probably not the end of the world. Construction and power, therefore, are defined as important. But if the water supply is interrupted, that’s critical.
“This now introduces a new layer known as ‘staff criticality’. The process has been identified as critical, so the people with the knowledge, experience and skill to carry out the process must be defined the same way.
“Businesses must separate out critical team members during a pandemic. Those people mustn’t be allowed to work in the same space at the same time, because if they all go down with an illness, critical infrastructure is at risk.”
Protect and engage with staff
Geoff Hurst FIEAust CPENG CHOSP, Director of ENGENEOHS, agreed that it’s a very good idea to split employees into groups and keep them in those groups for the duration of the pandemic.
And during a pandemic this means all employees; in some Australian engineering firms, Hurst said, he has heard that senior managers have been sent home to work while other staff are expected to stay on the front line.
However, “some businesses are splitting staff groups very well”, Hurst said.
“For example, one of the groups will come into the office or onto the site one day and the other group on another day. In between, the office will be thoroughly cleaned. It takes some effort and organisation, but it means that if one group catches the virus, the business can still run with half of its staff. The more groups there are, the more resilient the response.”
There are three types of risk to look for, said Hurst, who is also President of the Engineers Australia Risk Engineering Society.
One is ‘personal’, which is connected to the fact that individuals are enormously concerned that the virus could harm their health or end their life.
Another is ‘societal’, which is what government deals with around the spread of the virus throughout society and its roll-on effects, such as economic consequences.
Finally, ‘outrage’ risk comes from moments when people are forced to do something they don’t want to do.
All of these risks exist outside an organisation, Hurst said, but they also exist within.
“It’s important to demonstrate to staff that everything that can be done must be done so they can be more certain that they’re not going to contract the virus,” Hurst said.
“That helps manage the feelings of personal and outrage risk.”
It’s also important to recognise that staff desire human connectivity and consistency for their own emotional wellbeing, Freeman said. If they’re working from home for the first time, that’s a foreign work environment, so they’ll need regular check-ins and daily group chats with their colleagues.
“There should be consistency around work,” Freeman said.
“If staff chat with colleagues over a coffee each morning, that’s an important routine. Companies need to find ways to recreate those connectedness routines, and that can be challenging. I encourage companies to have an online check-in, a block of time where people can jump in and just chat, to replicate what happens in the office.”
Practical steps to avoid infection
Hurst recommended the following checklist to all engineering staff who are unable to isolate full time as precautionary measures to consider.
As much as possible, all staff should work in a bubble, said Hurst. Although he compiled this list for those who work in an engineering capacity, he said it is equally applicable to people in most other industries.
- Shower when you get home and disinfect what you touched before you were clean.
- Wear coveralls while at work and change daily into clean overalls.
- Only speak to people on the telephone or FaceTime, etc. If you must be face to face, stay three metres apart.
- Disinfect all equipment that is shared.
- Dedicate equipment and jobs to separate/dedicated groups of people.
- Split staff into many smaller groups – as many as is practicable.
6. Work 12-hour shifts, to reduce changeovers.
- Work less days on site, to reduce exposure and to maintain high standards.
- Do critical work first, then do the important work if there is time.
- Eat in isolation in a personal space, or at least a dedicated team space that is cleaned daily.
- Disinfect cars (personal and business) each day.
- When any team member gets sick, that team must be isolated as best as possible, ideally in a fully stocked house with a bedroom and bathroom for each person, for two weeks.
- The sick team member’s family members should also remain under lockdown for two weeks.
- Have at least one team in reserve that is not exposed at all. Rotate that team every 14 days.