Interview with Fiacre O’Donnell, Sustainability Director, Vidrala

Fiacre O’Donnell is Director of Sustainability at Vidrala. He described to me how the company has learnt and evolved as a result of the pandemic.

‘We are no longer a ‘business as usual’ company’

People had more time to think, research and learn more about sustainability. That switch has been flipped in the last 18 months.

We’ve seen a new momentum as a result of the pandemic. We are no longer a ‘business as usual’ company. It’s like a ladder – you take that first step, try it and see what’s going to happen.

The pandemic has pushed us to think more about our future plans and how quickly we need to get them in place. Because something like Covid will happen again.

As a company, we’ve always looked at sustainability challenges from a holistic perspective. Our company vision is not only targeting our commitment to reducing our carbon impact by 50% by 2030 but also finalising our path to Net Zero.

‘The focus has shifted towards sustainability’

Covid was an immediate threat and required immediate action. The government said, ‘there’s a huge amount to do and here’s the funding to do it’. But the issue of sustainability is much bigger and will continue for much longer into the future.

The difference between the two is that we can see Covid and see where we can act on it. We can’t see the impact of climate change, so we haven’t been ready to act.

Nevertheless, I find it quite remarkable how much many people’s focus has shifted towards sustainability. 18 months ago, it was difficult for me to have a conversation about it. Now it’s not.

‘We needed something like the pandemic to take us a big step forward’

Covid has given us time to reflect. The biggest impacts for our business have been around trust and greater flexibility. And what these could mean for our future growth.

We’ve always planned our policies and processes to attract new people and retain them. That momentum was already there. But we needed something like the pandemic to take us a big step forward.

There’s almost no unemployment in Northern Ireland. That means we have to think differently about how we do things – we need to be better connected with our potential workforce in the future.

We had already started that process, but Covid has changed peoples’ expectations of the business.

‘Our workforce of the future will have to be flexible’

The two key things during the pandemic for us have been safety and trust.

Once the pandemic kicked in, working from home was clearly imposed upon us. And it’s continued for so long now that it’s become a normal way of working.

Trust is a must in such a system, and from the learning we have taken from this we have introduced an option on flexible working patterns, for those who can and want to.

That flexibility has been really good – there was a certain dynamism about it that kept the momentum going. Our workforce of the future will have to be flexible. Without Covid, it would have been some time before we looked at this.

We’ve been working on new shift patterns for our operations team, that will reduce everybody’s working time by 7.5% – with no detriment to their pay.

‘They see that the company is concerned about them’

For those working from home, we made sure that managers have regular video meetings with them. They can see their people and make sure that they’re okay.

And amazingly, things like our town hall meetings were easier to do on video calls. We took that opportunity to do regular updates and invite guest speakers – so that our people could see what’s happening.

And we’ve made it explicit that when they work from home they should take time off during the day. To go for a walk, or go shopping. We don’t want them sitting at home in the same environment all day.

That expectation resonates well. They can see that the company is concerned about them – wants to make sure that they’re all right.

As a result, we haven’t had a mass exodus of people – despite there being huge opportunities out there. People could move elsewhere if they wanted to, but they haven’t. That’s because we set the tone beforehand, continued it throughout Covid and are constantly striving to be better.

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