The COVID-19 pandemic continues to upend life as we’ve known it. Over the past several months, companies across the globe have experienced unprecedented disruption.

Efforts to respond to the pandemic have created a “new normal” for different teams and functions - including Environment, Health, Safety and Sustainability (EHS&S) organizations. With millions of workers still under lockdown, COVID-19 is stress-testing organizations, large and small, as they seek to navigate these disruptions in the months to come due to its impact on the global economy and societies.

Emerging Themes

While organizations continue to flex their strategy and operations to respond to the pandemic, these events also present opportunities to lead, learn and reflect - especially within EHS&S. At ERM, we see these opportunities falling into four main themes:

  • Digital Native is the New Normal: Organizations lacking digital maturity in EHS&S operations struggle responding to disruptions
  • Spatially Distant, Socially Connected: As virtual work becomes the norm, employee health and wellness needs become more complex
  • Distributed Supply Chains, Integrated Response: Distributed manufacturing will bring more diversity in EHS regulations, requiring a more integrated response
  • Visualize Better to Respond Quicker: Analytics and visualizations powered by reliable data help make decisions quicker

These themes present different contexts of evolving business realities, implications for EHS&S teams and call to action considerations.

Explore a theme

globe.jpg Digital Native is the New Normal

Evolving Business Realities
The virtual worker just got real. Social distancing measures changed the workplace overnight with many employees swapping their offices for their homes. As more people work virtually than ever before, digital collaboration tools and cloud-based solutions have seen a surge in utilization rates. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly hastened the shift to a digital world.

EHS&S Implications
EHS&S teams are faced with both, changing external business conditions and fluid internal business processes. Unlike other business functions, digital transformation has only recently hit a tipping point in EHS&S. As a result, many of the processes and technologies needed to support rapid and effective change have yet to be implemented.

For organizations with digitalized EHS&S information management systems, adapting to the new normal has been easier. Real-time data and dashboards provide central visibility of metrics that are key to tracking sustainability performance and safeguarding workers at a time when many of them face increased risk.

Digital EHS&S platforms also make it easier for organizations to track and trace their employees and assets on global maps and take action as the spread of COVID-19 and protection measures evolve in different regions.

As a case in point, ERM helped a multinational pharmaceutical company design and deploy a fit-for-purpose platform that helped track their employees and contractors with confirmed or presumptive COVID-19 exposure. This enabled them to navigate operations effectively and safely during this global pandemic. By leveraging an existing platform to deploy the solution swiftly, we not only protected the client’s stakeholders, business, and community, but also stayed compliant with all privacy and security standards necessary for sensitive and confidential data.

Call to Action
For EHS&S functions, this is a good time to reflect on what might have been different if they were digital native and prepared for disruption. EHS&S leaders should run a comprehensive diagnostic of their operations to surface areas that need transformation for achieving true digital nativity.

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people.jpg Spatially Distant, Socially Connected

Evolving Business Realities
In the short-to-medium term until we have a vaccine, most organizations will not prefer returning to work-in-office arrangements as before. Many are recognizing cost and time efficiency of remote work and continue promoting it.

Globally, the number of employees aiming to adopt flexible work locations is already on the rise and the experiences from this pandemic may potentially strengthen this preference. As more and more employees work remotely, especially without sufficient ergonomic care, organizations may notice rising cases of Work-related Musculoskeletal Disorders (WMSDs).

Working remotely for extended periods of time is also associated with mental health issues like social isolation in some cases. Moreover, reduced physical activity can increase the risk of certain lifestyle diseases.

EHS&S Implications
EHS&S teams will need to continue to focus on holistic wellbeing of the employees, progressing beyond just fit-for-work objectives. This means organizations may deploy innovative technologies to care for employees’ health and safety in a holistic manner. This could include helping employees monitor their health through wearables, providing trainings using virtual reality, and automatically activating safety response for emergencies facing remote workers. Organizations will need to consider the privacy and security implications of these novel services.

As an example, for a large Oil and Gas client in Asia, ERM is augmenting safety management expertise and human factors with advanced video analytics and machine learning (ML) to detect and prevent employee fatigue from extended exposure to high-stress job duties. This is enabling the client to monitor and mitigate operational risks through digital interventions.

Call to Action
Develop a roadmap and framework to evaluate innovative technologies like wearables, Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality (AR/VR) and other tech-enabled approaches to address specific EHS&S issues.

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supply chain.jpgDistributed Supply Chains, Integrated Response

Evolving Business Realities
Globalization and cost pressures in the past led to offshoring of supply chains. Natural disasters like the 2011 Tsunami in Japan or the 2017 Hurricane Harvey in Texas shifted supply chains toward geographic diversity for risk mitigation. Similarly, this pandemic is pushing organizations to transition their supply chains beyond just-in-time principles to allow for increased inventory redundancy, nearshoring operations, and distributed manufacturing to respond more effectively to disruptions. Moreover, to ensure they are prepared for extraordinary disruptions at all times, organizations are now highly encouraged to put resilience at the core of their growth and operations strategy.

EHS&S Implications
With facilities in more countries, regulatory requirements and risks will increase as will the need for compliance monitoring, certification and auditing. The added EHS&S workload will come at a time when organizations face even tighter budgetary constraints.

This is where digitalization can play a crucial role, helping drive greater efficiency and better outcomes. From leveraging Artificial Intelligence for regulatory compliance assessments to implementing virtual reality for performing audits, digital technologies can help EHS&S teams achieve more with less.

ERM’s work with a global chemicals major includes developing a highly integrated digital EHS&S roadmap to ensure EHS&S priorities and investments are tightly integrated with Supply Chain and Operations to drive operational excellence and sustainability across operations. This roadmap, developed by applying design thinking fundamentals, includes initiative prioritization, feasibility assessment, business case development, and implementation support.

Call to Action
EHS&S and Sustainability leaders need to align with existing organization-wide digital transformation investments. Integrating digital transformation of EHS&S alongside other enterprise functions like Manufacturing, Operations, and Maintenance will help maximize returns on investment. As supply chains become more complex, crafting an integrated and robust digital roadmap will help EHS&S drive sustainability through operational excellence.

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data viz.jpg Visualize Better to Respond Quicker

Evolving Business Realities
COVID-19 pandemic has been a truly unprecedented event. Most traditional emergencies are limited to geographies and even if they are more widespread, they allow teams to physically gather in locations not impacted by the emergency and create war-rooms to plan and execute responses. All these now need to be virtual and hence the need for good visual spatial data becomes even more critical.

In addition to other important enablers, some of the most critical ones for this pandemic response have been streamlined data management capabilities - clean and reliable data, real-time collection, and dynamic visualization using dashboards. To respond effectively, it is crucial for organizational leadership to have reliable data e.g. site level operational details, emergency response facilities at the site, employee headcounts, employee business travel plans.

EHS&S Implications
EHS&S and Crisis response Teams that have invested in digital processes and tools have been able to adapt in real time as the pandemic evolves. This not only helps to prevent COVID-19 transmission amongst colleagues but also safeguard business continuity, which has become truly mission critical for those organizations working in key sectors, such as energy, telecommunications, and pharmaceuticals.

A digital media and entertainment company with global presence engaged ERM to make their EHS&S function increasingly data-driven and analytics powered. We are deploying an unconventional visualization-first approach, which aligns with the client’s swift-delivery-minimalist-training methodology, to rapidly prototype digital solutions and in the process reveal opportunities to improve data, processes, and platforms.

Call to Action
Organizations need a comprehensive assessment of their data, processes, and technology to deliver effective dashboards and visualizations that help leadership at all levels make informed and timely decisions. It is key that data, processes, and technology be able to deliver reliable and real-time insights that help drive action.

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Pathways Forward

COVID-19 has highlighted both challenges and opportunities - and EHS&S teams around the world have mounted a fantastic response. However, the agility and efficacy of their actions have varied considerably.

This is not the first nor the last Black Swan event, hence organizations and EHS&S teams need to ensure they are more resilient in coping with greater volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

Digitally transformed businesses will not just be ready for the new normal; they will in fact, always be prepared for the next normal through resilience. On a turbulent voyage, digital transformation is not the safe harbor, it is the pivotal compass.