'When production restrictions are lifted, we will be operating better than we were before the pandemic.'
Featured today in our exclusive series of Business Leaders' Perspectives, Walter Simpson, Managing Director, CC Energy Development, shares how his establishment continues to invest in the community through tangible means that go beyond basic CSR.
What is your brief assessment of the position of your company in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly during the peak season of Ramadan when business in Oman faced a challenge like never before?
I’ve been extremely pleased with how our organisation has reacted to the challenges of COVID-19. We moved early and began working remotely in mid-March which gave us the opportunity to iron out any teething problems before Ramadan began. Our teams adapted quickly to use technology in an effective manner that allowed for minimal interruption to our internal communication and business continuity. I have to thank the government for facilitating that shift, as well. Their swift decisions to unblock teleconferencing technologies made a huge difference in how efficiently and seamlessly we adjusted to the exceptional circumstances. Overall, it’s been very promising to see how resilient the company has been through this pandemic.
What plans/strategies did you adopt to maintain your operations during the lockdown period over the past 2-3 months? How beneficial did this prove to be?
Before the coronavirus outbreak was labelled a pandemic, we realised the global situation and quickly mobilised our Crisis Management and Emergency Response teams to determine our path forward. We essentially adopted a three-phased approach to the lockdown which was consistent with our business strategy of being a valued and contributing member of the community.
Starting with education, we implemented an internal awareness campaign that utilised our company doctor and shared information about COVID-19, its associated risks, basic hygiene, what to do if you’re feeling ill, etc.
Our next move was to prevent transmission and this is where a lot of planning was put in to action. We shifted to remote working as much as possible, cancelled international business travel, implemented social distancing for our essential workers and put strict controls on travelling to the field. We had to open remote access to our business systems, change our shift structures in the field and make physical changes to shared spaces, like the cafeteria that was rearranged for employee safety, in order to protect employees while maintaining business continuity. We coupled this with regular and consistent communication so that our teams were informed and updated on what changes they could expect to see in the coming weeks.
Finally, we took infection control measures - designating rooms for quarantine, implementing mandatory testing for any individuals entering the field, and identifying processes for contact-tracing, should it be necessary.
There was a significant amount of effort that went into the planning and implementation of this process but it stemmed easily from our business strategy. We already had a community-centric approach and an organisational culture of learning and adaptability, meaning the changes were largely unobtrusive for the company. It’s been particularly beneficial, not just in that we haven’t seen a downturn in business effectiveness, but in that we have seen that we can offer more flexible working conditions without any negative impacts.
Looking ahead, what are your immediate and short-term plans that you believe will help the company recalibrate and move forward with renewed purpose?
At the moment we’re facing two concurrent crises – the COVID-19 pandemic and an oil price crash, so our main challenge is staying profitable during low production levels. As much as we are prepared for crises, this is a totally unprecedented situation and our short-term plan is to remain flexible and adaptable as the circumstances change and until we find a more predictable climate. We know that the challenges of the pandemic are far from over, and we’re going to be required to continue implementing procedures that cater to the pandemic while cutting costs to remain competitive.
At the moment, we’re using the efficiencies that we’re discovering through our lockdown to help us circumvent the economic strain of production restrictions. For example, remote working has been a positive change for many employees. Beyond their health and safety, it has proven to be more compatible for many lifestyles and I think a lot of employees are happier in this situation, or at least in having more flexibility to their hours and office ‘space'. Seeing how well the company has embraced the challenges of lockdown has made it clear to us that we can continue to find valuable solutions for the uncertainty that’s still to come.
Going forward, we’re going to continue looking at these kinds of changes and asking ourselves what it really means to be more efficient. We are already mapping ways to maintain flexibility when oil production levels begin to bounce back. This is an opportunity for learning, and I believe we will come out of this situation as a leaner, more efficient and more effective organisation that has the ability to do more with less.
What immediate changes are required in your workplaces, with regard to physical infrastructure, employee welfare, work culture and business promotion, in view of new guidelines related to COVID-19 (social distancing, hygiene/sanitation, health and fitness)?
All the immediate changes have been made and are functioning is normal now. There were logistical challenges in making the changes quickly, like ensuring sufficient face masks were available and arranging additional transport, so passengers could distance, but the team has come together through it all and responded positively.
The more complicated challenge is in the changes required to reopen the office. We’re already working on a plan that will allow us to maintain social distancing by staggering shift patterns and keeping flexible hours. We’re also looking at who needs to be in the office and who doesn’t, who needs to remain working remotely for various reasons, as well basic movement around the office like the use of elevators and community spaces. We won’t be returning to the office until these procedures are finalised, and we can do so safely, but the outcomes of the changes, so far, have been largely beneficial in regards to employee welfare and working culture.
Our team has managed to maintain close communication and technology has allowed us to continue ‘meeting’ daily, sharing ideas and knowledge, and including employees in company decisions, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t continue utilising these procedures if they’re benefitting employees.
There’s a different expectation from young people joining the workforce nowadays than there was a few decades ago and we want to continue offering attractive and flexible working conditions that suit business demands as well as different lifestyles.
What do you see as the most feasible solutions for mitigating losses experienced due to the lockdown (cost-cutting measures, downsizing staff, enhancing performance, increasing work hours, any other). Do you consider these as short-term or long-term measures?
We haven’t actually experienced any losses as a result of lockdown but we have had to streamline the business on the back of oil prices. At the moment, our business planning is based on long-term low oil prices but our strategy remains consistent. We’re continuing to invest in our community through tangible means that go beyond basic CSR. We’re continuing our training programmes that transfer skills and knowledge to the community, building up local suppliers to be a part of our supply chain, and continuing to strive for lower costs and a lower environmental impact. We’ve also seen positive outcomes from the changes we’ve already made, such as the response to flexible working conditions, and I trust we will continue these employee benefits in the long-term.
We know, hydrocarbons are not going away and that we have a long future in Oman, so our focus will remain on being a good neighbour to our community and being a flexible organisation to carry us through the coming challenges. It has so far proven to be a successful approach.
What are your primary concerns regarding building/maintaining your company image, post-COVID-19, as well as improving performance to regain connections and trust with your consumers/clients?
The biggest challenge is maintaining trust during uncertain and unpredictable times. We have already demonstrated an ability to effectively manage multiple crises but circumstances change quickly in a crisis and we must keep on top of our management with integrity and responsibility. It’s important to ease that uncertainty as much as possible and communication has really been key for us over the last few months. We’ll continue to respond quickly and utilise modern technologies to inform and update our stakeholders, both internally and externally, on what they can be expect from CCED.
Did you have the option of working from home for your staff during the lockdown and to what extent was it helpful? Will you continue to offer that option as part of your new strategy?
We did and we moved early in the pandemic to a 50% remote-working situation that was followed quickly by almost the whole office. It proved extremely beneficial and we had a welcoming response from our teams. We will be continuing to offer more flexible working conditions, both, in regards to working hours and working space, as we move forward.
What lessons were learnt from this crisis that would help redefine your corporate goals as well as helping your company experience sustained growth in the years ahead?
Despite the many challenges and hardship caused by COVID-19, it’s been a promising journey for us in that it’s shown us that our strategy fits our environment and therefore, works. I’ve been really pleased with how the whole organisation has embraced change and how our community mindset has reaped benefits during good times and more challenging times. It has taken an immense team effort to come this far as successfully as we have, but it’s been a reassuring reminder that we can emerge from this stronger than before.
What additional challenges do you anticipate in 2020/2021 and would you now place greater emphasis on risk management so that you are not caught offguard again?
There is always opportunity to learn more, no matter how advanced you are, but I wouldn’t say we were caught off-guard. Our crisis and risk management teams were already established with effective response plans prepared and we put our safety precautions in place early to protect our employees.
Our biggest concern, going into 2021, is when demand for oil will recover and at what price. We’re already planning for prolonged low levels of production and looking at how we can maintain effective and efficient business throughout. We’re even looking at solutions, should production restrictions be tightened even further, so that we are prepared for whatever may come.
While we didn’t plan for COVID-19 specifically, it wasn’t a far leap from the kind of emergency response plans we had in place, and I believe, our planning for low oil prices will follow a similar path. You can never fully predict the world of oil and OPEC and for that reason we’ve always paid attention to risk management.
In your opinion, how important it is for staff to undergo training to realign themselves with the company's policies/new strategies as well as to immerse themselves in a new work culture that the pandemic has dictated?
I think disruptions like this are more about learning than training per se. From the very beginning of the pandemic we embraced technology, so that we could keep communication channels open and that’s really been the basis for a successful transition. We’ve always encouraged a culture of adaptability and transparency which I think has allowed the team to easily align themselves with the new working environment. We’re continuing with daily communication to keep our teams informed about local and global updates, and that level of interest and attention from senior managers, cascaded down through the organisation, has been our biggest win in maintaining work culture.
How long do you envisage it will be, if at all, that your particular sector is performing at pre-COVID-19 levels?
Essentially, we are already performing at pre-COVID-19 levels, if not better, when you consider the positive response to remote working and flexible conditions. What’s changed is the production levels at which we’re operating, and seeing those return to pre-COVID-19 levels is entirely dependent on oil prices. When production restrictions are lifted, I predict that we will be operating better than we were before the pandemic.
Are there examples of new thinking in other sectors that yours could adopt to good effect?
Absolutely, we’re never afraid to learn and we’ve already adopted the thinking of other sectors; technology companies have long been using the technologies that we’ve only recently embraced, and the medical sector has long had knowledge of how public health can be prioritised in the office space. We’re looking now at how we can continue to include this know-how in our operations and look at business from other perspectives, such as health, to continue bettering our people management skills and strengthen our community impact.
What is the No 1 positive aspect you would take from the last three months?
Without a doubt, it is the resilience shown by our employees and the organisation overall. Each team, regardless of the nature of their jobs, has embraced remote working and has prioritised the health and safety of one another and it hasn’t cost us business efficiency. This has shown that, if conditions for oil production improve, CCED can come through this crisis with a happier, more effective workforce, and armed with better skills for adding value in our community.