At 8:30pm on 23 March 2020, Prime Minister Johnson announced the UK would enter its first national lockdown. Everything closed and everything stopped in a bid to slow the Covid-19 virus. At 12 noon today, the cancer charity, Marie Curie, would like us all to stop and reflect on the last 12 months, taking stock of the day our world changed forever.
If I think back to that day, I was probably most overcome with a sense of anticipatory grief; the feeling that the future that I thought I knew, was no longer certain. We knew bad things were to come and I personally felt a huge loss of both psychological and physical safety. It was an unnerving time – to a degree it still is.
Like most others, I imagine I passed through the various stages of grief, starting with denial (this can’t be happening?), to anger (bloody government), to sadness and finally a form of acceptance. It was this form of acceptance that gave me a sense of control and allowed me to keep my family and the employees I have a responsibility for, safe.
It’s this acceptance that will help us build a ‘next normal’, using the pandemic as the catalyst to rethink the future of transport, work, energy and, above all, the health and wellbeing of everyone on this planet.
The following list is run-down of some of the areas I’ll be thinking about today; some of the learnings I took and areas where we now need action as well as words.
We bought some time on carbon, but not enough
Who can forget the eerily quiet streets during the first lockdown. There was little to no traffic on the roads and hundreds of colleagues at Siemens shared images of nature returning to their towns. At its peak, carbon emissions dropped by 17%, the bulk of which was driven by a massive decline in cars on our roads. However, even at its most impactful (no air or road travel and with industry essentially shut down) the levels only met those seen in 2006, showing the enormous growth of emissions over the last 15 years to 2021.
Carbon output bounced back in December 2020 as the dirty restart took effect, leaving us with only one conclusion – while everything had changed, nothing had changed. The contingency measures used by governments simply flicked the off switch (at a huge cost to the economy) but didn’t put in place the longer, systematic change needed. But that was never assumed. Countries were battling a deadly pandemic, not focussing on large-scale infrastructure upheaval. But if we needed an idea of the scale of the task at hand, then 2020 showed us the size of the challenge. As one article reported, governments emerging from the pandemic will set a course of action that will make or break the 2050 net zero target. Their actions in the coming years will influence the pathway of CO2 emissions for decades to come.
That’s why just a few weeks ago, Siemens signed-up to the Science Based Targets Initiative. We will place the strictest measures on ourselves, auditing, measuring, and striving to meet stringent targets. What I have realised is that this will not be easy, nor will it be cheap. But this is an area in which we must lead the way. If we can’t do it to ourselves, then how can we credibly sell the solutions to our customers?
Hybrid offices and flexible working
In July 2020, we told our employees that they could work remotely for two to three days per week as a global standard. This new model applies to more than 140,000 of our global employees at over 125 locations in 43 countries, with an average 800,000 meetings per day across the entire company.
But this was not about ignoring our critical workers and factory workers. We built Covid-secure environments and introduced our own digital twin technology and workspace booking app to the challenge. The app is now available to 100,000 employees in 30 countries across 600 locations.
The key in the ‘next normal’ is applying a hybrid model and one that sits at the core of our inclusion policy. Whether you’re at home, in the office or in another remote location, we have to provide the right technology to enable your participation and ensure no one is left out.
Digitalisation will not lose momentum
In the height of the pandemic, it was quickly realised that the UK would need a much bigger supply of ventilators. Siemens UK and Siemens Healthineers were part of the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium, alongside businesses from the automotive, aerospace and technology sectors to respond to this urgent challenge. We unleased our full engineering clout to meet the call of the challenge, working with our partners to set-up the production line. We took production of the Penlon product from 6 per week to one every 20 minutes, meeting the government’s call for over 15,000 units. For me it showed the power of industry working together, egos left at the door and a clear objective set by government essentially clearing the path for engineers to do what they do best…solve problems.
But it wasn’t just during the Ventilator Challenge that our digital skills were called upon. Our customers relied on OT remote services in their factories, as well as the necessary cyber resilience that would ensure their operations could continue safely in the cloud. As we look ahead, reports suggest that the pandemic accelerated firm’s digital strategies by between four and seven years, with companies quickly adopting digitalised strategies in their manufacturing, office and warehousing operations. The need for these industries to build digital fortresses around their newly founded online operations is greater than ever before and one of our key priorities for the years ahead.
Electrification holds the key to decarbonisation
During the various lockdowns throughout 2020, power usage was a big topic. We saw multiple instances where demand was low but renewable generation on the grid was high (particularly windy and sunny days). Electrification is one of the strongest weapons we have in our arsenal to address climate change and carbon reduction. A move away from limited resources like gas and coal towards an unlimited supply of renewable energy is not even up for debate.
One of our biggest priorities in the next few years will be building-in the agility and localised resilience onto the grid to allow more distributed resources and sources of renewable generation. These invariably sit at the ‘grid edge’ and can store energy, economise its use and provide greater intelligence to the distributor.
The UN’s COP26 will be held in Glasgow this year, with global leaders and governments meeting to set ever-more stringent targets to meet our 2050 commitment. This is about generating green energy from renewables, making better use of what we’re using and switching to a system that can use green electricity on a massive scale, namely electrifying heating, transport and energy. What the pandemic taught us is that a centrally fed system is not ready for an influx of renewable generation but as part of the next normal, it will be.
At the end of the day, it’s all about people
If you’d asked me 12 months ago how much the world could have changed, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. Aside from the pandemic, we watched a fractured USA come apart during the election campaign, we felt the first aftershocks of Brexit, celebrated the Black Lives Matter movement and most recently were shocked at the horrific murder of Sarah Everard. Throughout all of these moments we’ve opened-up conversations with our colleagues, questioning, discussing and sometimes disagreeing. As Leo Varadkar said when addressing the Irish people, ‘by staying apart we’ve come closer together’. It was hard to fully grasp this sentiment when he said it in March 2020 but as the months played out, I started to appreciate what he meant.
Even just at Siemens, we brought more conversations to the surface through Yammer and Teams, with single posts setting off flurries of comments and discussions. Through one post, an idea could reach the entire company, drawing on a huge diversity of thought and opinion. If we make the wrong decision in the coming months, I expect our employees to hold us to account, challenge the size of our climate ambition and bring the difficult conversations into the open. Where are we not doing enough? Where can we work harder?
As leaders, we’ve been more open, sharing more news than perhaps we would have when waiting for ‘in-person’ events. I’ve filmed videos showing employees my house, my family, and my coping strategies during lockdown – would I have done that 12 months ago? Probably not, but in that sense, things have changed for the better. Many thousands of employees are now active contributors to our Yammer diversity and inclusion group, our mental health awareness group, our menopause awareness group and countless others. I’m not saying these are replacements for in-person interactions, but they serve a valuable purpose in empowering people to have a larger voice in what can feel like a very big company at times.
This openness is something I want to preserve, even when the migration back to offices begins. We speak when we’re angry, ask for help when we’re stuck, and find strength in shared experiences when we’re low on resilience. In isolation, lockdown and forced segregation, it can often be about finding what unites us and gives us hope, and in 2021, this is what we’ll need more than ever before.