When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many plant sites minimized onsite staff to essential personnel, and restrictions prevented in-person collaborations for projects. Following CDC recommendations, aeSolutions equipped its team to overcome technological hurdles and pivoted to meet client requirements amidst the circumstances. Through virtual meetings and ongoing learning, we were able to support client projects and maintain a range of deliverables—all while working remotely.
One of the best examples of remote meeting success has been conducting virtual Process Hazard Analysis (PHA) studies. Here, aeSolutions and our clients not only overcame travel restrictions and technology challenges and lowered the risk of exposure to COVID-19 but also capitalized on the availability of highly leveraged staff working from home to produce high-quality process safety work products.
Our Process Safety Management team was able to rearrange work schedules to coincide with the availability of client teams both in the US and internationally from the safety of their homes. The flexibility of working remotely has fueled innovation that led the team to provide additional services virtually, such as Factory Acceptance Tests (FAT), Compliance Audits, and site walk-downs with the use of modified work plans and a GoPro camera.
Remote work has come with inherent challenges. We found participants are less likely to interact and engage in virtual meetings, especially when convenient features like the mute or camera button is just a click away. As our Senior Project Manager, Chris Hickling explained about the struggle facilitators faced with virtual meetings: “(they) do not get as much body language feedback.” If someone doesn’t agree, for instance, facilitators can’t see typical social cues because every member may not be visible on the screen.
To counteract this relatively new virtual issue, facilitators made sure to pose questions that generated higher participation rates and engage with team members before the meeting, as they come back from breaks and outside the meeting on parking lot issues. To further ensure quality and maximize productivity, aeSolutions has learned to meticulously plan virtual meetings beforehand, which includes structuring meetings so participants can take breaks and refresh before continuing the session.
As Hickling says, “we have to be very structured about the handling of client information and in our preparation for the actual PHA meetings.” We have to ensure access of information to all participants using available technology and establishing backup plans in case of technical difficulties.
aeSolutions has found that remote PHAs with multilingual teams are far more effective with teamwork. aeSolutions has a multilingual team of facilitators and engineers on staff to bridge language gaps. The value of this has been even more important with the necessity of remote studies. aeSolutions uses our bilingual staff to lead or translate/scribe the meetings, as well as translate technical documents in-house or through a vetted partner. This collaborative teamwork enables an immediate one-on-one response to technical inquiries and accuracy on documenting the team input during the meetings.
While there’s no substitute for traditional face-to-face communication and boots-on-the-ground activities, aeSolutions will continue to offer services through a remote interface when necessary or desired by a client. These alternative remote work plans have offered both a flexible and cost-effective way to keep projects moving forward during the COVID-19 crisis and will continue beyond.