Keep your best face forward

May 27, 2020
Even in a pandemic, personal relations remain crucial. We just need new formats

Thanks to coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) and requirements to shelter in place for weeks on end, many of us have been forced to turn our concentration inward. Former outward-facing activities like large social gatherings and travel have given way to staying, working and schooling at home to help blunt the pandemic's already tragic toll on human life and well-being, its overburdening of healthcare workers, and the unemployment and economic disaster that's following it.

Unfortunately, sputtering, fragmented and uncoordinated responses to COVID-19 by many governments and restless, hysterical denials of the need to social distance and sequester by many citizens seem likely to spread the disease more widely. This will prolong its deadly impact and the fight against it for months longer than would have been required if common-sense countermeasures had been followed uniformly.

That's the bad news, and there's very little good news to go with it. Clear skies due to less air pollution, learning remote working tools, volunteering where possible, and the rare chance to reconnect with immediate family—assuming we get along with them—are a few of the pandemic's tiny silver linings. I've seen far more people out taking walks in my neighborhood, and while exercise is much-needed by many of us, it's a might-as-well drop in the bucket that doesn't scratch the surface of the overall catastrophe.

So, is there anything else to be gained from this unavoidable inward focus? Well, I've had the communities and industries that I cover readjusted and sometimes severely constrained or eliminated over the years. Plus, even in the best of times, reporters are always suspicious and jealous of coworkers covering beats where more interesting events appear to be happening.

Consequently, when boundaries shift and I'm cut off from rich sources of stories I'd prefer to cover, I learned that I could always look deeper when I couldn't look wider. As usual, it took a little more effort, but I found that my persistence always led to useful and interesting material, even when my scope was narrowed. Since then, I'm often reminded that people and places that I thought were familiar and maybe boring have surprising depths that are well-worth exploring. And if I can do it, that means anyone else can do it, too.

For example, as I was researching this issue's "Solving data analytics" cover story, I was informed that all kinds of software is available for processing and examining information to achieve better operational decisions, which is what I logically expected. However, most of my expert sources independently reported that the most crucial piece of a successful data analytics project is getting a process application's people involved because they're they only ones who know what data is the most important to collect, and what is most important to learn from analyzing it.

Likewise, this issue's "BASF doubles power, expands intelligence" feature story was ostensibly about its herbicide plant in Beaumont, Texas, upgrading to four 2,000-kVA transformers, and adding networked components that could deliver near real-time data. However, again I was surprised to find that readily accessible data was sparking better dialog and relationships between the plant's operations and maintenance staffs. It appears useful information can do more than allow better decisions.

Even this issue's Resources column, "Remote work drives home" demonstrated there are lots of new, cool tools for working at home and collaborating with coworkers and clients at a distance. However, it also revealed that at-a-distance formats have their own requirements for successful interactions, just as dressing professionally is important in an in-person office. Some of these online attributes include maintaining clear audio and video devices and software, good lighting and camera placement, some pre-meeting banter to humanize participants, and even looking in our own mirror to make sure we're engaged and not sneering at others. Even in these socially distanced times, it appears that face-time is more essential than ever.

About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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