Let’s be honest, nobody’s going to look back fondly on 2020. The arrival of Covid 19 and the ongoing pandemic has ruined plans, destroyed businesses – and sadly cost far too many lives. But while it’s been a challenging and sobering year, new vaccines promise better times ahead. And many of the changes forced on businesses will be the basis for better trading as we turn the corner.
The year everything changed
You can’t look back on 2020 without discussing Covid 19. Mushrooming from a small outbreak centered in Wuhan, China, to a global pandemic in just three months, the virus has left few aspects of our lives untouched. From the outset, the lockdowns necessary to control the disease’s spread created social, financial and emotional scars that may take years to heal.
For many businesses, it was quickly clear that the pandemic represented an existential challenge. We in the construction and asbestos-removal sectors have been luckier than some, with much of our work allowed for most of the year, but still these have been difficult times.
So far, so obvious, but for the rest of this post I want to focus as much as possible on the positives from this year – the new tools and solutions that have helped us carry on at the pandemic’s peak, and which will continue to make business better as we emerge.
A lucky break with tradition
In April we marked a year since the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s introduction of the new digital service for asbestos-removal licensing. Fraught with challenges – and, for a short time, horror stories – the long overdue overhaul had a difficult few months, but in retrospect it got here just in time.
By the time the pandemic hit, the HSE had ironed most of the creases out of its new system. The industry, too, had a better understanding of what the HSE expected – helped in part by innovations such as Assure360’s custom licensing module.
As inspectors were grounded under lockdown conditions, the move to digital assessments began to seem uncannily well-timed. Asbestos-removal contractors could renew their licenses and continue working, where otherwise they might have been dependent on inspector visits that couldn’t happen.
A new way to work
If 2020 is remembered for anything other than Covid, it will be as the year that accelerated digital transformation. Global businesses were already on the path, digitising existing processes and inventing new ways to work, but few smaller firms had been caught up in the wave. Covid changed that at a stroke – forcing even the smallest firms to embrace Zoom, cloud-working, and countless other digital tools.
For the asbestos removal industry, it’s a big change. We’ve been around for a while, and our highly regulated industry previously depended on meticulous paperwork. Assure360 has been selling the technology to change that for some years, but 2020 has seen a dramatic growth in interest, as more firms sought out ways to support socially-distanced working.
This is particularly true for Assure360 Paperless. Our digital supervisor support tool removes the site paperwork from asbestos projects. In itself, this cuts the amount of materials being passed around between workers, but during the pandemic another benefit grew in significance.
By automatically synchronising site data with our cloud-based system, Assure360 presents managers with reports and analysis based on the freshest data from the project. Many users have relied on this to reduce their visits to site, confident that Assure360 is providing the insight they need to manage jobs remotely.
As the year drew on, people began to use these new digital tools more extensively. In the asbestos industry, briefings and supervisor meetings started to happen over Zoom. In the wider world, recruitment and induction was increasingly carried out remotely – some people are still working from home in new jobs where they’re yet to meet their colleagues!
And as it became obvious that the usual round of conferences and seminars wouldn’t happen, organisations began to think about how they could deliver essential events virtually. ACAD switched its regional meetings to a virtual platform, for example, while we provided a webinar on Covid-safe working.
While the biggest events like the Hazardous Materials Expo have had to be cancelled altogether, academic conferences like BOHS and FAAM were able to go ahead online – to great effect.
As businesses, event and training providers all get greater experience with digital tools, it’s likely we’ll all continue to do things in new ways as the pandemic begins to recede. For example, several of our Paperless customers are planning to continue remote management, with fewer site visits. As Phil Neville of Asbestech pointed out, aside from helping greatly through the pandemic, our paperless technology has helped him reduce vehicle mileage in line with the firm’s ISO 14001 undertakings.
For events, digital access could help more delegates ‘attend’ even far-flung conferences. Next year’s iMig2021 – originally due to be held in Brisbane this year, then postponed to next March – will now take place virtually in May. While it’s a shame for people who would have made it to Australia, the pivot to a virtual setting means that far more people can now take part.
For many, 2020 has been a miserable year, and it may be a few months yet before things get better. 2021 begins with the end of the Brexit transition period and whatever fallout that brings, and it may be some months before the vaccination programme really bears fruit.
In the meantime, paperless and remote technology continues to help us navigate the pandemic, and promises to improve efficiency and create new possibilities in the future. After a difficult year, that’s a welcome source of hope as we go into 2021.
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