remote-working-chemical-engineers

Remote Working Takes Hold

July 25, 2022
Increased acceptance spurred by the pandemic is leading to a lasting role

More than half of the respondents to a recent CP online poll indicate they want to do their jobs from home at least half the work week. While the pandemic has prompted companies to allow, if not foster, remote working, prospects for continuing such flexibility longer term seem strong. Companies in the chemical industry are taking note of employee desires as well as the productivity provided by remote working. For example, Evonik, Chemours, and BASF are refining and expanding hybrid working initiatives established during COVID-19 lockdowns, and building upon the benefits such schemes bring.

Catalyzing Change

Evonik, Essen, Germany, prides itself on having a family-friendly human resources policy that is geared to different phases in employees’ lives.

“More than 95% of our employees worldwide have access to respective initiatives. Flexible worktime models are an essential part of this approach. However, before the pandemic, homeworking in the traditional sense was used only sporadically and in consultation with the respective supervisors,” says Thomas Wessel, chief human resources officer and labor relations director of Evonik Industries. “COVID-19 has had a profound effect on this thinking and acted as a massive catalyst for using home offices and mobile and flexible working,” he adds.

In North America, for example, most of the company’s employees work in production. Before COVID-19, the majority were expected to do their jobs at an Evonik location. For the most part, only people in sales had fully mobile positions.

Since then, Evonik has increased use of mobile working and home offices for administrative employees, quickly setting up the information technology [IT] conditions to make that possible.

“We thinned out shifts for production employees in the plants and created reserve shifts. At times, more than 16,000 of our approximately 33,000 employees worldwide worked on a mobile basis — not all from a home office, but still mobile,” notes Wessel.

The company encouraged mobile working for all employees for which that was a viable option, including those in technical departments. This applied to engineers, chemists, chemical laboratory technicians and mechanics.

“By mid-2020, we realized that a ‘new normal’ was developing, and there was little performance or productivity loss associated with remote working. In an internal survey, 85% of managers agreed that the productivity level of their employees is the same or better using virtual collaboration,” he explains.

Many teams, managers and employees had more flexibility, a better work-life balance, and more time without commuting. The company saved on travel and office costs. In addition, hybrid working allowed for the introduction of new, modern office-space concepts.

“Negative aspects, however, included a lack of social interactions and challenges in implementing some processes and workflows virtually,” cautions Wessel.

Tailoring The Approach

Besides strongly spurring use of home offices and mobile and flexible working, the lockdowns accelerated development of a modern way to collaborate that better meets the requirements of multinational teams spread across myriad time zones or locations.

A global survey of more than 2,000 Evonik staff in early October 2020 resulted in a global framework for hybrid working called #SmartWork.

This aims to optimize and institutionalize virtual collaboration to benefit both employees and the company. It includes a mix of physical presence and remote access that is tailored for each individual and that balances the specific needs of disparate workplaces. It is well adapted to the different experiences and ways of working in all regions, believes the company.

“We are a specialty chemicals company. We have production. We have laboratories. We have research and development. We have administration. 33,000 employees are spread across 170 sites in over 100 countries worldwide. This requires a basically uniform but flexible approach that works worldwide, rather than a rigid program,” stresses Wessel.

In the United States and Canada, Evonik began the rollout and implementation phase of #SmartWork in the summer of 2021. Managers evaluate productivity, effectiveness and efficiency, and regularly look at employee satisfaction, commitment and engagement in connection with the flexible working models used.

“#SmartWork in North America is about more than just where you work. It involves a genuine shift in mindset about how we will work and interact in the future,” he notes. So, mobile working is linked to individual job profiles. Managers are asked to examine job profiles and create alternative flexibility options wherever possible.

For on-site personnel, this could include flexible shift models, influence on upcoming shift schedules, shift swaps, job sharing, and home days for administrative tasks.

Depending on the job profile, process engineers at Evonik can work “regular” (<40% remote) or “alternating on-site” (>60% remote) hours. They often can perform planning and calculation tasks from home.

Meanwhile, the company is testing new digital options in plant control such as remote control and improvements in plant monitoring to make work easier and more flexible. It expects digitalization to significantly reduce the need for workers to check equipment in the field (Figure 1).

“At Evonik, entire units are working on digitizing plants, enabling remote control/wireless technology and remote maintenance. The potential is great, and much can be achieved technically through automation and sensor technology,” Wessel concludes.

Overcoming Initial Hesitancy

Chemours, Wilmington, Del., introduced its “flex for your day” initiative for office employees in 2019 on the premise that employees should be able to work wherever and whenever it makes the most sense. Since the Wilmington office reopened without restrictions on April 4th, “flex for your day” remains the guiding principle.

“The ‘flex for your day’ initiative, and our overall commitment to be policy-light regarding how and when our people come to work stem from our principles of fostering autonomy and choice at Chemours. We trust our employees to make choices that work best for them, and which enable them to be their best and most productive selves when, where and how they are working,” says chief people officer Susan Kelliher.

The same thinking applied in the company’s approach to managing COVID-19, she adds; protocols regarding masks, social distancing and health checks are based on local threat levels.

“We empowered people to do what they felt was best for their personal health and safety. That relationship of mutual trust is extremely important to us and what has driven our flexible approach to reopening and managing our workforce without the boundaries of strict policy dictating their decisions,” notes Kelliher.

COVID-19 has played a major role in how the company’s flexible strategy has evolved.

The launch of “flex for your day” prompted some concerns about how effective people would be in a remote environment, admits Kelliher. However, the experiences during and since COVID-19 lockdowns showed that team members found value in remote work. This has softened fears around lost productivity or lack of connectedness with fellow workers, she stresses.

“Once we announced the opening of our Wilmington office building, we realized our people wanted to maintain the ability to choose their environment and schedule, whether in the office or at home. Our guidelines are simply that people do what works best for them,” she adds.

Modernizing Monitoring

Figure 1. Company expects digitalization to reduce the need for workers to physically visit equipment. Source: Evonik Industries.

“In functional groups like finance and procurement, for example, many of those jobs are not on the clock, allowing teams to base their schedule around the timing that works best for them. On the manufacturing floor and in our labs, we are looking at other options such as part-time work and job sharing, if that’s what our teams need to make their jobs work for them. We feel strongly that schedule flexibility should exist for everyone,” Kelliher emphasizes.

Even so, after the uncertainty brought about by COVID-19, employees came back to work with many questions about hybrid working, not least about what it really meant and what Chemours’ expectations were.

“Interestingly, many were concerned about whether Chemours was genuine about ‘flex for your day,’ or if we would actually enforce a certain quota for time spent in-office. We realized that we needed to reinforce that we are a company founded on trust. We learned we needed to have more informal and very open dialogue with employees than we thought we needed to. ‘Fireside chats’ are now regular touchpoints for our employees to ask me and my team questions and for us to listen to the needs of our people,” explains Kelliher.

As a result of this dialogue, the company has taken steps to increase the quality of and access to physical and mental health resources for all employees. For example, Chemours recently upgraded its care provision so that both physical and mental health services are managed through one group, which lowers the hurdles for employees to access the care they need and provides better comprehensive management of care.

Other actions include access to qualified childcare and online ergonomic assessments by the company’s occupational health team to ensure staff have the right equipment to work in a safe and healthy way. The company offers a home office stipend to offset set-up costs, too.

Forging A Flexible Model

Meanwhile, BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany, is developing a hybrid work model that allows employees to choose between in-person meetings and virtually connecting with their co-workers.

Based at the company’s Ludwigshafen headquarters, the Flex Work @ LU project focuses on the shift toward greater flexibility as well as practical answers on how to maintain and strengthen connectedness in an increasingly hybrid working environment. It includes everything from new office concepts to IT technologies and tips for teamwork.

“The Flex Work @ LU project has created a digital toolbox with comprehensive answers to all these questions and is available online for everyone,” says a spokeswoman. “From team charters to desk-sharing concepts and the Flexikon reference book, the intranet now has numerous practical solutions,” she notes.

Designed to be a helpful and practical source of information, the toolbox can be used by employees, teams and units to implement the entire flexible working process — from an initial cautious approach, up to analyzing eventual success.

“The project team will continue to consult and accompany teams while, at the same time, our comprehensive toolbox is also a self-service portal which everyone can access. In addition, units who share a desk can now use a booking tool for workspaces,” explains the spokeswoman.

The toolbox has four main sections.

The first is a consulting option that offers advice on how different units within the company can optimize flexible working for their own situations. Point people on the Flex Work @ LU project team help find the right approach for each team. Recordings of training courses show how to structure workshops. The Flexikon reference book contains an A-to-Z of key points on the topic of flexible working.

Pilot Project

Figure 2. Staff at Ludwigshafen are developing on-site and mobile working models. Source: BASF.

Next, there are specific workshop concepts designed to strengthen users’ understanding of flex working generally, how to identify the right working model for a team, and then how to develop its own charter.

Another section covers how the “new office” works, with a step-by-step guide to the concept of desk sharing, plus details of different furnishing options and guidelines on BASF’s booking system.

Finally, specific templates allow employees to give feedback on their flex work experiences. “Employee opinion is decisive for the acceptance of new working models,” stresses the spokeswoman.

At the same time, however, flexible working models do differ from job to job within the company. “At the moment, our pilot teams at Flex Work @ LU project are still in a transitional period due to the COVID-19 situation, but we are sure that the switch between working on-site and mobile working will work well,” she adds.

Although developed and piloted at Ludwigshafen (Figure 2), BASF is applying the Flex Work @ LU guidelines globally to all employees and teams who want to and can work flexibly.

On a broader level, members of many major German companies — including two senior representatives from BASF — have been involved with a report published by the Human Resources Working Group of the German National Academy of Science and Engineering. “From a Presence Culture to a Culture of Trust — Seven Theses on Mobile and Hybrid Working” proposes seven ideas on how digital transformation can serve to promote productivity, innovation and good working practice in German industry.

Many of the ideas focus on building trust and collaboration between managers and employees. However, the report cites as indispensable an ability to handle digital technology and media confidently.

“Given the increased amount of work being done using hybrid working models, being able to handle digital tools to make virtual and international collaboration possible is becoming ever more important. Key competencies, which will become increasingly important in future, continue to include creativity, problem-solving skills, the ability to collaborate and a capacity for self-management and self-directed learning, a willingness to embrace change, and independent thinking and decision-making,” notes the report.

Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's editor at large. You can email him at [email protected].

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