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In-house at Home: How a Chemical Manufacturer Responded to the COVID-19 Pandemic

“In-house at Home” is a new column about working from home, inspired by the coronavirus lockdowns and work from home orders. Greg Stern, author of ACC Docket’s Tech Toolbox has been working from home for three years steadily, and five years intermittently before that. In this column, he offers insights on how to make teleworking work for you and your company.

The COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented emergency for most companies in the world. We do, of course, have some idea about how our own companies responded to the crisis, but in this series of articles, I will be interviewing senior executives of various companies to see how and why they responded to COVID-19 in the ways they did.

I will begin with my interview of Andrew Ott, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Polysciences, Inc., a Pennsylvania chemical manufacturing company that specializes in developing advanced materials for medical and other scientific purposes. Andrew is not a lawyer — in fact, Polysciences does not have any in-house lawyers, relying instead on a strong relationship with their outside counsel.  

However, like many of us lawyers, Andrew has developed well-honed risk assessment and decision-making skills. His response to the COVID-19 crisis was swift and smart, and a great example of how companies should approach crises.  

Proactive planning 

By the second week in March, it had become relatively clear that the pandemic was spreading rapidly throughout the United States. The first case in Pennsylvania was confirmed on March 6, and the number of cases was starting to grow exponentially.  

Andrew could see the writing on the wall and believed that a mandated shutdown was likely coming. He decided that Polysciences needed its own contingency plan regardless. On March 12, Andrew called an emergency meeting of his senior management team to discuss how to respond to the crisis. 

Polysciences has about 150 employees in the primary location that Andrew oversees, and it was not in a position where it could send all of its employees to work from home and continue operations as a chemical manufacturing company and laboratory. 

Furthermore, Andrew believed that Polysciences would be considered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to be an essential business as it manufactures chemicals for the medical device industry and disinfectant cleaning products, as well as providing scientific and research services. Therefore, the company would need to remain in operation even in the face of a stay at home order. The question became, how to best prepare to protect Polysciences employees while continuing its vital operations? F

irst, Andrew and his senior team classified all employees into three groups. “Ones” were employees who needed to be on premise, such as production staff and their managers, engineers working on active projects, and scientists actively doing research; these comprised about 40 percent of the staff or 60 people.  

“Twos” were those who might need to be on premise on at least an occasional basis, and made up another 40 percent. Finally, “Threes” were those who really could easily do their work from home, such as administrative staff and some members of the management team.  

But were the tools needed by any of those who might be sent to work from home up to the challenge? For example, would the company VPN be capable of handling the increased load?  

To test these concerns, management decided to send all of their nonessential staff, including all Threes and most of the Twos, home for the following week, just beating Pennsylvania Governor Wolf’s stay-at-home order, issued on March 16. It turned out that only two systems — the call forwarding system and an aging Microsoft management system — had any issues during this stress test, and they were each relatively simple to work around.  

“When it came to technical issues arising, we knew we didn’t have time to take as strategic a position as we normally do,” Andrew explains. “Luckily our business technology group is experienced and was up to the challenge of taking on the issues directly and nothing arose that was beyond their capabilities.” 

Easy as one, two, three 

Once the crisis was in full bloom and the Governor had mandated a shut-down, from which Polysciences was exempt, the company needed to decide how it should respond to the COVID crisis in the long-term. All Threes would continue to work from home, and some Twos would come into the office on rotating schedules.  

Ones would come into their production environments and labs, but steps were taken to ensure greater social distancing and safety. All of those required to come into the office were given essential duty bonus payments, were temperature tested regularly, and were encouraged to voice their concerns so that any appropriate countermeasures could be taken.  

“We knew we had to do everything we could to protect our employees while we continued to make essential products for our customers and ultimately our end users,” says Andrew. 

This approach was a great success. Not only has Polysciences managed to meet the increased demand for many of its products without missing a beat, but the one employee who contracted COVID-19 from an outside source was promptly identified and quarantined before infecting others.  

Furthermore, many of those working from home have found that there have been fewer distractions, actually reporting increased productivity. As a result, Polysciences is considering continuing some work from home arrangements even after the crisis has passed.

In short, thanks to swift and decisive behavior based on risk analysis and a well thought out response plan, Polysciences has been able to continue to operate profitably and provide its essential products to the medical community. 

Many thanks to Andrew for sharing his company’s experience with us.

For more guidance on the coronavirus pandemic, visit the ACC COVID-19 Resource Center.

About the Author

Gregory SternGreg Stern is formerly global integration counsel at Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, and is presently ACC Docket’s Tech Toolbox columnist.

The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.