How COVID changed work at Thome

Oct 15 2020

We spoke to Olav Nortun, CEO of Thome Ship Management, about how COVID changed working life – including challenges of seafarer travel, remote working and remote inspections.

The biggest challenge the shipping industry faced during the Covid period was getting crew onboard and released from vessels and back home, says Olav Nortun, CEO of Thome Ship Management. 
Challenges included ensuring they were not infected on the journey to the ship, testing, quarantine, getting visas, finding flights.
As of June 2020, the situation did not seem to be getting any better. Many seafarers were patiently waiting for changes in restrictions, so they could sign off, he says.
Authorities didn’t seem to realise that vessels can be very safe places to be from a virus perspective, so long as nobody onboard has it, he says. 
Governments around the world could have done more to facilitate crew changes. They may face consequences from their voters if they don’t fix it, he says. “If the ships can’t sail, every household would feel it eventually, and sooner rather than later.”
Dry docking has also been complicated. There have been difficulties sending superintendents to supervise. The company has arranged more dry dockings in China which previously would have been done in other parts of the world. “That turned out quite well, it has been a surprise.” 
Planning port stays has more complications, with the need to arrange for people, spares and stores to be delivered at the right time – or find alternatives when normal supplies are not available.
There have also been challenges finding stores and spares, he says.
On the plus side, Mr Nortun has observed improvements in the safety statistics during the Covid period. It seems that all the talk about viruses is making people take more care in other areas.  
Covid precautions can make port activities can take more time, but that has a positive influence on the environment onboard, it can be less stressed, he says.
Digital tools
During Covid, the actual process of work did not change, but it was done with new tools, he says.
The company kept only a skeleton staff in its main office in Singapore, while the India office was closed completely, with everyone at home.
When people in the company first realised they would be doing everything from home, “it was a scary moment”, he says. But “Most companies and corporations have been surprised how well it has gone. We learned to use the tools we have.”
Some staff have warmed to digital ways of working faster than others, but it isn’t necessarily the younger ones who warmed to it faster. “I don’t see any difference on age actually. It is more about the type of work you do.”
For example, there are many technical staff who usually spend most of their lives travelling, and are already used to remote working. “The others were not so prepared for it. But it didn’t take that long time, a couple of weeks, and they were on their way.”
When people use more video conferencing rather than telephone or e-mail, “we can see the faces, expressions, if they have a good day or they’re a bit down. Then we can see how we can get them up. That’s been a great success.”
Some people have been more curious than others to learn how to use digital tools, exploring the systems and see what opportunities they give. They can see the benefits of uploading documents to cloud servers rather than e-mailing them. These are the sorts of people who show curiosity in their normal office work, he says.
“There’s a lot of what I call incremental development, that is possible here, maybe possible there.”
The company developed its own software platform “Plan Smart” to help plan port stays, keeping everyone up to date with the current situation, so there was less need to chase people with e-mails, he says.
All of the information for purchasing and finances, can be made available in the software. “It is easy to see, to share it.”
Working with vessels remotely
The same technology – Microsoft Teams – is used for communicating with the vessel and communicating between office based staff.
Shore staff are in regular contact with the crew to check they are OK, and hold some scheduled meetings.
Mr Nortun has personally had three “meetings” with vessels, while one was sailing across the Indian Ocean, one was waiting for a port berth outside Indonesia, and one was in the Middle East.  It is an opportunity to see the maintenance schedules, the conditions onboard, and see how crew are feeling.
Microsoft Teams is also used to communicate with seafarers who are about to sign onto a vessel, but currently at home, providing updates on what is going on, and opportunities to ask questions. This may be a useful habit for the long term, but “it wouldn’t have happened without Covid,” he says. 
The company does its internal audits remotely. This offers a useful opportunity to keep up with the vessel in a number of ways, such as checking how the maintenance is going, and what activities are going on, including training.
Thome is also expanding its use of remote external audits, including TMSA  ISM and class inspections. 
Most industry processes are set up so that people need to be present physically in some form, so it requires some change, he says.
TMSA ISM remote audits probably would never have happened without Covid. “These are things I believe will stay,” he says .
A benefit of virtual inspections over physical inspections is that they can be done when the vessel is at sea, rather than being done during port calls, which is already the most hectic time for vessels.
“Class is coming onboard, port state is coming onboard, SIRE inspector is there, everybody is coming at the same time, we’re doing bunkering.”
Virtual inspections while the vessel is at sea are not stressed in time. It means the seafarers are under less stress. 
Habits after Covid
Mr Nortun hopes that some of these new practises will continue after Covid.
“None of the things we do today we couldn’t do before Covid. But we were forced. Now, there’s no reason not to continue with it, it is better for everybody,” he says.
The remote working could go further. For example, there could be less face to face meetings with suppliers, and equipment suppliers could provide more remote assistance.
Home working could be more acceptable where getting to the office is a burden.
However, Mr Nortun says he misses the social aspects of the office. “I do miss this interaction, of course I miss the interaction. There are things that are better done eye to eye than on a screen, particularly on the creativity side.”
And our homes are not usually the most comfortable place to work. “I’m sitting in a spare bedroom to work today, that’s where I spent the last month. I get it to work, but it isn’t made for work,” he says.
Management is different when it is done remotely, because it is not so easy to have casual chats with people, as you might have in the office.
About Thome
Thome Group supplies integrated ship management services to the shipping and offshore sectors.
The company manages tankers, gas carriers, bulk carriers and container vessels. It has management of 385 vessels altogether (full managed plus crew managed) and a total crew pool of over 11,000 seafarers.
Mr Nortun was appointed as CEO of Thome in April 2015, formerly executive VP of classification with DNV GL. 

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