Pandemic lessons

an illustration of health and safety issues

As the urgency of working out how to trade safely while observing pandemic restrictions passes, many businesses will take the chance to review how well they coped with the shock of Covid-19 in the early months of this year. It is time well spent to record which processes and teams bent in the high winds and which broke, before memories fade.

The aim should be to anatomise the best responses so they can be modelled and entrenched for future crises, not to scapegoat anyone who failed to show grace under pressure. And the best lessons to learn are those that apply to the widest set of unexpected circumstances. If all you do is refine your pandemic planning you are falling into the same trap as the politicians and generals who, as the US commentator John Bolton observed, “have a tendency to fight the last war”.

It’s not that there will never be another pandemic; it’s just odds-on that your continuity plans will be tested by something else first. Covid was an unwelcome and expensive trial of organisational resilience, but in a world where variables from trade barriers to the weather now seem much more … variable, resilience will become a core competence for most businesses.

In his chapter in One Percent Safer, Dr Ralf Franke, Head of Environmental Protection, Health and Safety at the engineering multinational Siemens, talks about trying to model and foster resilience. The Covid pandemic coincided with the end of an eight year OSH programme, Zero Harm Culture @ Siemens, which drove down the group’s fatal accidents from 19 in the 2012 financial year to one in 2019.

The campaign’s successor, Healthy and Safe @ Siemens, “will focus on key aspects of organisational resilience,” says Ralf, “leadership, work climate, learning, processes and resources”. The programme “will support teams at sites to reflect on their experiences, to understand what worked well, why certain actions do not show expected effects,” he explains.

I asked him for more detail on how the detail on those successes and failures will be gathered at Siemens’ centre. “We are interviewing our country colleagues, management and other stakeholders to see how they perceive our crisis management and what we could do better,” he says.

How will the lessons be spread around the organisation? “There are different processes,” says Ralf. “We have a global community and we create space for best practice sharing. We have a virtual global collaboration day, for instance, where we connect more than 1000 of my EHS colleagues in sessions throughout the day, where they can exchange information.”

When the review is finished, any updated crisis plans will be rehearsed. “Once you have the right processes you need to drill them,” he says.

One lesson he has learned already is a personal one: that an informal leadership style prepares you well for a time of rapid change.

“What we saw was that due to the fact I have a good team spirit in my team, that helped us a lot to act fast to changes and challenges as they came up. Usually in a hierarchical organisation, nobody dares to ask a stupid question. People called me, we had an open environment where people could raise questions. That was fundamental to a resilient organisation. Forget about formality, in a crisis you need to just roll your sleeves up and do it.”

Ralf Franke’s is just one of the leadership insights in the not-for-profit One Percent Safer book.