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Crisis Management

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When coronavirus first struck in Europe, Comdata was caught right at the centre of the storm. With 10,500 employees in Italy – 2,000 in so-called “orange zones” - the company that prides itself on putting people at the centre had to act fast.   

“On the first day, we released the first internal communication implementing the recommendations from the authorities,” said the group’s CEO, Alessandro Zunino.

“We issued an internal communication for employees on the way they had to behave and what to do in case of contact with someone positive. Stop transfers, stop trips, try to stay within the company, do not travel unless strictly necessary and increase the cleaning and sanitization of all the offices and workplaces.”

At the same time, a special task force was set up, in Italy and at Group level, to monitor the situation and plan the next steps in the event the outbreak worsened. They didn’t have long to wait. The battle against the virus soon became personal as workmates began to contract Covid-19.

Adriano Mureddu, the group’s Human Resources Director recalled: “When we found out one of our people had contracted the virus, we immediately evacuated the site, closed it temporarily, sanitized the environment using special products and employing specialist companies, then we informed the authorities and waited for the green light to go back and start work again.”

Employees overcame their natural apprehension over the virus and went back to work thanks to the measures introduced at the sites – individual, dedicated work stations were assigned at regulation distances from each other and cleaning and sanitization were stepped up.

Comdata’s Responsibilities to Clients

But Comdata’s responsibilities were not limited to its employees. As a major global operation with a total of 50,000 employees at 118 sites in 22 countries, it deals with clients in 30 languages. And those clients still required Comdata’s services, virus or no virus.

 “We are involved in a lot of critical operations, such as telecommunication, energy, retail and even healthcare,” explained Frédéric Donati, the group’s Chief Commercial Officer. “We have to be able to perform very effectively for them. Clients trust Comdata to find solutions and ensure the quality of services. We are in constant communication with our clients. The main goal is to be proactive, to maintain continuity of service,  despite this crisis.”

Work from Home

At the start of the emergency, a decision was taken to upgrade the IT systems because top executives believed the only solution would be to shift the operation, as much as possible, to employees’ own homes. It was a prescient decision because, in little over a week, the rate of infections in Italy soared off the chart.

“For instance, in Italy, the main measures,” said Mr Zunino, “came with the prime minister’s decrees on March 8 and March 14. The task force was operating almost 24 hours a day, with little time to sleep at night, working over the weekend. We were very stretched but we were very quick to comply with the new measures.”

The plan to step up the transfer of staff to work from home was anything but simple to implement, however.

“In our sector,” Mr Zunino pointed out, “working from home for a call centre operator is very different from home-working for any other employee. When working from home for, say, Eni, our operator has to access Eni’s systems in order to check the status of a bill, correct a statement, arrange a refund, request a payment and so on. Access to such systems is very sensitive.” 

With data security now a priority, the Group’s IT department was set to work to configure the employees’ home PCs so that they would simply mirror the office PC. They could then connect to a single computer at the office and work on the group’s platform through it. 

Mr Zunino explained: “We installed software so that, when the operator is connected to our platform, all the ports of the PC at home are disabled so he cannot copy data, he cannot print. Basically, when he is in that window, the computer becomes “stupid” and he can only work through the window on our platform. 

Working at full speed soon produced results. “In Italy, within two weeks, we had already more than 2200 people working from home and we will quickly reach several tens of thousands across our operating regions,” said Mr Mureddu.

Another problem was connecting customers to the system. As Mr Donati pointed out: “The main operation is done by softphone (computer VoIP application) not hardphone (external device). If one of our clients uses a hardphone, it is possible to operate through home office but we have to change the entire solution architecture. To have a solution with hardphone, it takes between one and two weeks to move to home office, with a softphone, it takes just two days. Today, around 70 percent of our operation is via softphones.”

The company’s emergency plan is being supervised, monitored and adapted by four task forces covering general matters, IT, the organization of the work, with particular focus on home working, and legal.

Mr Mureddu: “The most important thing is communicate, communicate, communicate”

Mr Zunino confirmed: “We are making sure that, in every country, we immediately comply with the local official guidelines for employees' health safety, but we do even more, if we can.

As the rest of Europe studies Italy’s experience and tries to learn lessons from it, a comprehensive plan of transparent communication appears to be vital.

“The most important thing,” said Mr Mureddu. “is communicate, communicate, communicate. Every two days at least we send an update to all our employees, on how we are adapting, how we are following the regulations, which are changing almost daily everywhere, but also we try to give them a picture of what is going on.”

For example, we had to close a site in Ivrea because of three positives. We sent a communication all over the country saying that yes, there were three positives, we had to close the site waiting  for the authorities to allow us to open again, all in a very transparent way. People understand that. But they want to know. If we hide something they will think that we are not taking care of them. We want to keep people informed. They understand the situation. But they want to know the facts. If we hide something they will think that we are not taking care of them.”

“People are bombarded with information from their governments, the talk shows, the news and so on. We need to communicate for ourselves, for the community of Comdata and the employees and that's what we're trying to do, as much as we can.” 

Mr Donati: “The crisis has brought Comdata closer to its clients”

Communication that extends equally to clients, said Mr Donati: “Our sales teams communicate daily with the clients and organise regular on-line meetings with them. They study possible solutions together and work day-to-day with our planners. After the health of our employees, our priority remains our clients, listening to them is crucial in an increasingly difficult time. The crisis has brought us closer to our clients and the solidarity between us shows that we are not only doing business with them, we are their true partners and we help each other, that is very important. We are in crisis, we are at war, the world is in a war against coronavirus and we have to find solutions together, to continue services and also to serve them in critical operations like healthcare.”

Comdata’s vast global operation is continuing to function effectively in the face of an unprecedented international crisis. And that is vital, for the company, the clients, the employees - and the country.

Why It is Important to Keep Working

Mr Mureddu concluded: “I think it's important to keep working for two reasons. The first is psychological. When people keep working, they get distracted from the emergency and all the psychological pressure that we are all under with the risk from the virus for ourselves, our families and our friends.  The other reason is that, at a difficult time like this, the more we are able to work and pay our bills, the less we are going to need State aid and be a burden on the communities we live in. We will need great additional resources and it's important that they are used for those who really cannot work. So there is an individual and psychological benefit but it is also ethical.”

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