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COVID-19 Case Study: Managing Remote Operations at a Chemical Conglomerate

Organization: A Europe-based chemical conglomerate with global plants and operations.

Key issues:
• Cybersecurity and robustness of technical infrastructure
• Social distancing for truck drivers
• Managing regional crisis management teams
• Protecting closed facilities full of valuable equipment


April 2020 Update

This large Europe-based chemical company, which has facilities all over the world, responded quickly to COVID-19 because 15,000 staff work in China—about 10 percent of their total global workers. The virus triggered immediate emergency action by the company.

A crisis management team formed in China in January 2020, leading to the formation of additional regional crisis management teams in neighboring regions and eventually all the company’s regions around the globe. The company established a corporate-level team in early March 2020 to oversee HQ and European operations, while also overseeing and coordinating with the regional teams. An HR executive who sits on the corporate board chairs this committee.

At headquarters, anyone who tested positive for COVID-19 was quarantined immediately, with full pay. As of mid-April 2020, 60 HQ employees had tested positive and were recovering at home. Now almost all staff work from home.

The company’s production, logistics, and security are considered essential, so staff are expected to report if healthy. If a production staff member falls ill, that person is sent home for quarantine, and the plant is disinfected but not shut down. A few plants have shut down, however, due to lack of demand—those factories produced paint for nonessential consumer goods.

Most plants have stayed open, particularly those that produce health or sanitary products. The CSO says that the company’s product line is diverse enough that it can rebalance production based on changes in demand, such as decreasing paint production and increasing manufacturing of plastics that can be used in surgical masks. The company used to manufacture hand sanitizer for retail sale but ceased production because of low margins. It now has resumed producing sanitizer to donate it to hospitals and doctors in nearby regions.

On the cybersecurity side, all administrative staff must work with company issued-devices (notebooks and smartphones for management), with a clear policy prohibiting connecting personal devices to the network. The company hasn’t seen an uptick in attacks on its remote network. On the few occasions when a staff member has inserted a USB stick into a company device, cybersecurity has detected the violation and notified the security team.

Early on, the mass shift to remote work overloaded the corporate VPN, slowing down transactions and communications. Management asked employees to work on their unconnected devices until they needed network connectivity, such as to download updates or share files, to take the pressure off the VPN. Managed use of the VPN has been successful.

Part of good cyber hygiene is continually training staff on working securely while remote, such as reminders about phishing attacks on unsecure public Wi-Fi. IT also performs remote patch management.

With the global economy in a downward spiral, corporate security is anticipating thefts at closed facilities. That is why security officers are posted around the clock at shuttered production sites.

However, there is currently no need for guards to shelter in place. Roads have been empty, so commuting hasn’t been a problem. Guards typically do not use public transportation to get to work sites. The company does, however, furnish boxed lunches to them because restaurants are closed.

All business travel has ceased. Pre-pandemic, 600 staff members from the home base would be traveling on a typical day. Within a week or two of the crisis unfolding, that number dropped to 40, and soon fell to zero. Board members are prohibited from flying on their private jets.

Logistics has undergone some transformation to enforce social distancing for the 2,000 to 2,500 trucks that come and go each day. Drivers emerge from their trucks to show papers to the guards on duty, which frequently results in a queue. Staff have marked the ground to keep the drivers at a safe distance from each other.

 

Michael Gips, JD, CPP, CSyP, CAE, is the principal of Global Insights in Professional Security, LLC, a firm that helps security providers and executives develop cutting-edge content, assert thought leadership, and heighten brand awareness. Gips was previously Chief Global Knowledge Officer at ASIS International, with responsibility for Editorial Services, Learning, Certification, Standards & Guidelines, and the CSO Center for Leadership & Development. Before that, as an editor for ASIS’s Security Management magazine, he wrote close to 1,000 articles and columns on virtually every topic in security. In his early career he was an attorney who worked on death-penalty cases.

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