Column: Working Through a Pandemic

Viktória Márton, vice president for sustainable development and health, safety, and environment at MOL Group, an international oil, gas, petrochemicals, and retail company, talks about experiences and thoughts for the future in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Looking For Solutions For Coronavirus Problems Concept
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Part of the role of the health, safety, and environment (HSE) department is scenario planning. For all the “on paper” strategizing, however, nothing prepared us for the speed, scale, and ferocity of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been an unprecedented event and one that has changed the world forever.

The pandemic bought with it a new vocabulary, with terms such as “new normal,” “pre-COVID era,” and “lockdown” widely used. We all now know about lateral flow testing and more about the science behind vaccinations. For HSE, there was a new set of challenges, but, possibly most surprisingly, this global disaster also bought a lot of positive aspects.

The Beginning
The information coming from China was concerning. As the seriousness of the virus became clear and it began to spread from country to country, we needed to react to keep our workforce safe. Although we had prepared in theory for any pandemic, the reality meant we needed to make quick decisions without any precedent to fall back on.

The fast pace of work that followed had a positive effect on the team members, who really went above and beyond. They did whatever was needed and were not bound by normal working hours. We had to work together, not only as an HSE department but also as a company. We pulled in expertise from different areas of the business to deliver innovative solutions to meet the needs of the dispersed and varied operations under the MOL umbrella. Project-planning experts helped ensure a successful testing program, and, if needed, HSE colleagues became delivery drivers for essential safety equipment.

Navigating uncharted territory, the right answers were not always clear. We needed to make rapid decisions, continuously review the results of our actions, and dynamically adapt our direction. Inevitably, sometimes decisions are not the right ones, but success lies in failing quickly and correcting your course to a better one. One experience that highlighted this point was the initial COVID-19 antigen test we sourced and used. As it started to show incredibly high positive results, we quickly realized there was an issue, immediately stopped its use, and sourced an alternative test kit.

Working Across Borders
MOL is a multinational business, and we needed to ensure we met the needs of different locations and that we were complying with the various local regulations that came into force in response to the pandemic. As a large company with more than 26,000 employees in more than 30 countries, we needed careful coordination of our activities, but we were also well placed with access to medical services and the ability to work together with state authorities to provide on-site vaccination for our staff.

While the pandemic presented a new and challenging situation for our HSE department, individual challenges throughout the business could not be ignored. Communication had a big part to play in terms of new ways of working and in supporting our colleagues through difficult and worrying times. This included ensuring clear communication about why vaccination was so important in protecting individuals and their communities. We employed experts in each country to talk about each type of vaccine, educate about the virus, and be a real person with whom to discuss individual concerns and fears. This was a strong tool in encouraging a broad take up of the vaccines and worked to counter the false information that was appearing on the internet.

Going Above and Beyond
As a large, multinational company, we are a big part of the communities in the countries we serve. Through employees, their families, and our customers, we are an integral part of the community and recognize our corporate social responsibility.

MOL donated disinfectants to poorer countries, produced through an all-hands approach from a facility usually used for windscreen washer fluid, and ventilation devices to hospitals. We provided free coffee to healthcare workers at our service stations. In total, the MOL Group has invested $5 million to support the fight against the pandemic and more than $20 million in protecting our employees, customers, and partners.

Has the Pandemic Changed the HSE Function?
The simple answer, I believe, is no. Before the pandemic struck, however, people’s connection with the HSE department typically revolved around regular training and health check-ups. COVID-19 changed that perception, and, as people learned more about us, our function was elevated and became an essential part of day-to-day business.

The pandemic has shown us what we are capable of and how much we can achieve together. It has broken down barriers and helped each of us take more time to understand the needs of our colleagues—whatever area they work in. It has bought out the compassionate side of both business and individuals and made us more appreciative of the effect each one of us has on others and the environment. Included within this is a greater awareness of emotional health. Working from home has many benefits, but people can feel isolated and stressed, and we worked hard to ensure supports were in place.

Within HSE, sustainability has been a watch word for many years. Today, sustainability is much better understood and has gone well beyond an HSE function. COVID-19 has clearly bought with it a great deal of devastation and loss, but, through lockdowns and a change in the pace of life, it has also increased our focus on the environment. It has altered our perception about travel, and we have learned more of the value and effectiveness of online team meetings.

Another area that changed for the good during the pandemic was safety records. Safety has always been a top priority in the oil industry, but, as we battled against COVID-19, we saw a step-change in operational safety performance. I cannot say for certain why this has happened, but I believe it comes down to a greater awareness and focus on daily tasks because of the added protocols to prevent the spread of infection. It has certainly shown us what is possible and is something I hope we will build on going forward.

Moving Forward
Where do we go from here? Now is not the time to take our eye off the ball, and we need to continue to monitor and react to any increases in the rates of infection. We have plans in place to support this and, following the first waves, have a much better understanding of actions to take. We are continuing to educate and communicate to our colleagues about the benefits of vaccination and, although more than 70% are already vaccinated, will continue to guide and help those who are still uncertain.

I do not think that we will return to business as usual. Many of the lessons learned during the pandemic will stay with us. Travel will be less frequent, and, I believe, the renewed respect for and awareness of the needs of others will continue as part of our culture. Although businesses, including MOL, were already evolving into a performance-led culture, the pandemic has accelerated the process. We know we can be effective when working from home, and, while we did not like the isolation (I did not enjoy working from home and missed the office and my team), we might benefit from a greater balance and flexibility in our working lives.

MOL Group is entering into new business areas, diversifying from the oil and gas base we had 10 years ago. This change is accelerating in line with the changing demands of the world. To deliver HSE in this new era will require effective, professional preparation, but we also need to work on cost and efficiency improvements in the long term. The pandemic showed the flexibility and resilience of the business, and I believe this will help us in our diversification and growth in the future.

Final Thoughts
Overall, I am very proud of our response to the pandemic and the way the whole business responded—both through working to keep colleagues safe and by supporting wider communities. The pandemic has been a global tragedy with many losing friends or loved ones. It has also been a wake-up call for us in the importance of cooperation, collaboration, team spirit, and flexibility and a reminder of the importance of our environment, culture and planet.

As with many diseases, we will need to live with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future. Although this event has been unprecedented, it has taught us a great deal, and, should another virus ever attack our business, lives, and culture in the same way, we know we are resilient and we will be ready.