This is the final post in a two-part series on the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis and the chemical industry. Part one looked at how the crisis has impacted companies so far and what their response has been. Here, we’ll cover how organizations are adjusting to remote work and look to what the future might hold.
We spoke with four industry experts to get their take on how the changing global landscape has affected chemical manufacturing and distribution companies:
- Tom Jackson, president at Datacor
- Dan McCusker, vice president of sales at Datacor
- Eric Byer, president and CEO of the National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD)
- Colie Whitaker, president of Whitaker Oil Company
Growing need to automate manual processes as companies go remote
Wherever possible, essential chemical businesses are having staff work from home. Up to two-thirds of staff at NACD member companies have been able to transition to remote work, Byer says, with only a few instances in which staff have had to be furloughed.
The remaining one-third of workers are in production jobs, such as shipping, receiving and quality control; not only have they had to physically go into work, but many of them have been busier than ever. These workplaces are taking all proper precautions, such as staggering the days workers come in and adhering to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines around proper handwashing, sanitizing guidelines and social distancing.
In addition to following these measures, says Whitaker, he’s made sure to keep everyone in the company informed as the crisis unfolds: “I’ve been sending out a weekly communication to all our employees to keep them updated on the local government restrictions [and] how they affect them and their families, as well as our business.”
The NACD has done the same for its members; for the past six weeks, they have produced a daily newsletter that covers the evolving regulatory climate. They also offer an online resource center where members can track information and regulatory changes from the CDC, the World Health Organization (WHO) and individual U.S. states.
“Our job is to make sure [members] know anything and everything out there that could affect their business,” Byer says. “There have been a number of rules that have been pulled back or temporarily put on hold, so keeping track of all that [across various government agencies] is a lot.”
With so much of the workforce now remote, one of the biggest logistical issues the crisis has highlighted for chemical companies is the need for enhanced technology, our sources say. While some companies and teams once shied away from these solutions, now they see the benefits.
“The use of technology [by our members] is something we encouraged them into that they weren’t doing before,” says Byer. “Staff and external meetings that used to be done in person are all being done on Microsoft Teams, Zoom and FaceTime. Because everyone has had to do it for the past six to seven weeks, now there is a comfort level … and they’re doing it effectively.”
The transition to working from home has caused many Datacor customers to re-evaluate the ways they do business, Jackson and McCusker observe. These customers are realizing the importance of using technology to bring manual methods online while automating key aspects of business operations. While processes such as sending paper checks to suppliers or manually rebooting a server in the office can’t be taken home, industry-specific software solutions, such as Datacor ERP, offer options from online payment processing to cloud-based hosting.
“Everyone has wanted to move processes from a manual system to a digital system, and we have opportunities within our software to digitize just about every transaction that occurs,” McCusker says.
What’s more, he adds, most manual systems aren’t up to the task of meeting spikes in demand:
“Times like these really highlight the value of using software to automate processes,” Jackson affirms.
As for Datacor itself, both Jackson and McCusker note that the transition to a fully remote workforce has been seamless for Datacor.
“More than half of our staff was remote already,” says Jackson. “In some ways, our services have actually improved; we have more cycles to get new development done.”
Bright spots in an uncertain future for the chemical industry
While not even our experts can predict what the future holds, there may be opportunities for many chemical manufacturers and distributors. For example, an increased focus on personal hygiene and on commercial and industrial sanitizing policies and practices will likely be part of the landscape for the foreseeable future.
“Studies show it takes approximately two months for something to develop into a habit, which means the use of hand sanitizers in our daily routine will likely become habitual,” Whitaker says. “Demand for these products will eventually slow down as production and packaging catches up with the lack of available supply. However, overall demand ... will be much higher going forward, as the American consumer will come to expect sanitizing stations at the entrances of most businesses — from banks to grocery stores.”
McCusker shares this philosophy, predicting lasting policy changes within the travel and hospitality industries in particular.
“Just like companies have privacy policies, they’ll have sanitizing policies,” he says.
Perhaps the most positive trend to emerge out of the crisis is the way the chemical industry has united to help those who have been most affected, Byer observes. He describes NACD member companies donating critical supplies such as sanitizing chemicals, personal protective equipment (PPE) and disinfectant wipes to hospitals, emergency clinics, law enforcement officials and the fire department in their local communities.
“Their priorities are very much in line with giving back as much as they can while … still keeping in business,” says Byer. “That’s what makes it so fulfilling for us at NACD; … whether it’s by donating a product or working with other groups within the industry, our [members] really do care. That’s something we’re really proud of.”
Not only are member companies giving to the community, he adds, they are also supporting one another in meaningful ways, such as buying products from other members who are struggling and helping them access the resources they need:
Even for companies whose business has suffered, the period of reduced economic activity can be seized as an opportunity to improve operations and become more efficient, McCusker says.
“When business is good, it can be a double-edged sword. You have the capital to invest in projects, but your best people may not be available,” he explains. “But now the best people in the company have much more availability.. … It takes a lot of courage to spend money while you’re not making it, but the strongest leaders are able to say, we're going to be here a year from now, and this is the time to fortify our company … to make it better on the other side.”
As local and global economies slowly begin to reopen, chemical manufacturers and distributors will follow CDC guidelines to safely integrate remote employees back into the office with the front-line workers. But having seen the value of their employees working from home, our sources predict many companies will rethink their workplaces.
“You realize that you care about someone’s output and what they produce,” Jackson observes. “No one goes to the office and brags about sitting in a seat for eight hours. They talk about what they did and what they worked on. Being able to measure people in that way and have that be their goal is a much more fulfilling way to work.”
“Now everyone understands that [remote work] can be done, and they’re doing it effectively,” Byers affirms, adding that they must have the proper technology in place to facilitate this.
Datacor can not only help chemical and process manufacturers digitize nearly every aspect of the operations and automate key business processes, but can also help companies transition to or maintain a remote staff, Jackson says:
To learn how Datacor can help your business adapt in these uncertain times, contact an advisor for a free demo. You can also subscribe to our blog so you never miss an update on the latest news about the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on chemical companies.