US companies in Slovakia: COVID-19 has created a new normal for us

The health and safety of employees and clients is the number one priority.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the only problem that U.S Steel Košice is facing. The COVID-19 pandemic is not the only problem that U.S Steel Košice is facing. (Source: Courtesy of USSK)

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted US companies in Slovakia differently, depending on the sector in which they operate. While for the steel company U.S. Steel Košice (USSK) it meant the worsening of an already unfavourable situation devastated by cheap steel import from Asia, the business service centres of IBM and Dell have faced the challenge of securing a full-fledged operation from home office.

The Slovak Spectator spoke about the impacts of the coronavirus crisis on their companies and future prospects with Jim Bruno, president of U.S. Steel Košice (USSK); Paul Burt, managing director at IBM International Services Centre; and Silvia Jeleníková, co-site leader at the Dell Bratislava Global Business Centre.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What impact has the coronavirus crisis had on your company?

Jim Bruno (JB): There are basically two areas of impact: social and economic. First, socially it has been a significant challenge for everyone and for a lot of institutions and states. I have to stress that I am very proud of our HR team, medical team, and all employees for helping us remain COVID-19-free at our workplace, and continuing to follow disciplined practices even today. In addition to the good work within our facility, our company enjoys an extremely high spirit of cooperativeness and willingness to help people outside the company. USSK has long-term partnerships with universities, hospitals, foster homes, crisis centres for homeless people. We have distributed thousands of masks, shields, and various medical instruments among those who were in need. It was a good example of excellent cooperation among hospitals, universities, business partners and those who needed help.

Our employees presented ideas on how to get material, technical equipment, academics with innovations, for example with 3D printers. We have been in close contact with the Košice community for many years, so we knew where to address our support to be most effective after the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. We left it up to the hospital professionals to choose what they needed most. That was a very impressive experience.

Turning to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, even before March 2020, the situation on the EU steel market had been severely impacted by steel products imported into the EU and the lack of a level playing field created by Brussels, which caused us to idle one of our three blast furnaces last year. Since then, not only the steel industry, but the entire economy has been devastated by the pandemic. Steel companies in Europe are fighting for survival. We need to see the economic stimulus start to revitalise our customer markets so we can get back to producing higher volumes of steel to ensure the mill’s survival.

Paul Burt (PB): I am proud to say our company locally as well as globally reacted very quickly in early March to the emerging COVID-19 situation and asked the majority of our employees to work from home. Despite the difficult situation many employees went through we managed to continue in our work without any interruption and successfully closed two quarters with peak workload periods without issue. We proved that we can continue working on our daily tasks, using the latest technology and collaborative tools we had used even before the COVID-19 outbreak.

We understood the pressure and tension the new situation might have brought to our people and we prioritised providing support for the physical and mental well-being of our employees. We offer a non-stop Mental Health Helpline. We have provided several webinars with a psychologist, individual counselling sessions, short videos on how to stretch your body, as well as many virtual meetings and support groups.

Since mid-June, we have been gradually increasing the number of employees who work from the office. The return to the workplace is a gradual and controlled process, where we make sure our offices are prepared to meet both Public Health Authority guidelines and IBM global policies and standards. We adopted social distancing measures – for example only every second desk can be used, the meeting rooms are under a special regime, every employee working from the office wears a face mask, etc. To protect our employees and their families, working from the office is now allowed only from those buildings and floors that have undergone this ‘COVID reconstruction’. The health and safety of our employees and our clients is our number one priority.

Silvia Jeleníková (SJ): Without a doubt, the coronavirus crisis has largely affected our company and private lives. Fortunately, 10 years ago at Dell we started a global initiative called the Connected Workplace Programme enabling our people to benefit from remote work solutions. Thanks to it we have been able to secure business continuity and adopt new measures in a very short time. In critical months, almost all employees worked remotely, securing all business processes without serious interruptions. We have also recorded the positive feedback from teams on productivity and our employee engagement score has increased. With the challenges of working from home, we understood it impacted the well-being and overall work-life balance of our people, so we provided them with resources on how to overcome it.

TSS: What further development do you expect? What factors will affect it?

JB: If there is a second severe wave of the pandemic this fall and businesses are forced to shut down again, it could permanently damage our industry. However, with all of the scientists around the world working on vaccines and equipment to better protect us all, we remain hopeful that we will not see a severe second wave outbreak as we are better prepared.

For our industry, though, we do expect an extended slow return to growth even without a second wave. Steel is an industry with massive overcapacity and is dominated by China, which overproduces more than 50 percent of the world’s capacity. If the government in Brussels does not level the playing field here in Europe around the cost of CO2 credits with importers, it will remain extremely difficult to earn a profit and invest in our future for green steel. Without clear and decisive action from Brussels, the world will continue to buy steel from countries like China which do not have the same environmental standards as we do, and there will be more pollution globally, with less industrial jobs within the EU. This has been made very clear by EUROFER, and yet Brussels continues to do studies and not take action to protect jobs. For now, our company and our employees continue to focus every day on what we can control so that our mill in Košice survives these challenging times.

PB: This is a situation where together we have to discover the new normal. In this new normal, we count on providing our employees with a great deal of flexibility to choose between working from home or coming to the office. We proved that we can continue working remotely but also understand all the benefits of coming to the office and meeting face-to-face. Right now, the decision on whether to come back to the workplace is on our employees. The responsibility of our management is to ensure the workplace is safe for everyone who decides to come.

SJ: The new normal we are facing after the coronavirus crisis will present many challenges for leaders, teams, and all employees. Respecting hygienic measures and social distancing, we can use only a part of the capacity in existing premises. We returned a small percentage of our people back to the site. However, a significant percentage continues to work remotely for now. This will present new challenges to secure the productivity, engagement, and overall satisfaction of people. The Dell leadership team is addressing these topics and expects to see solutions in the upcoming months.

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