Upal Roy: Adapting workplaces, reducing carbon footprint and protecting employees

In this pandemic, digital communications can bring a radical change to the way we communicate while simulataneously reducing carbon foot-print, says Upal Roy, managing director for packaging, India, Middle East and Africa at Flint Group

29 Sep 2020 | By PrintWeek Team

Upal Roy, managing director for packaging, India, Middle East and Africa at Flint Group

PrintWeek (PW): How have you been leading your organisation through this once-in-a-lifetime crisis? Describe a typical day? How much has been altered?
Upal Roy (UR):
My main focus in the first two weeks of lockdown was to ensure we had full approval for our three plants to operate, as we supply essential businesses including the pharmaceutical, medical and food sectors. The main effort therefore was focussed on our business continuity by ensuring that we were supporting our people, and their families, to remain safe and well.

PW: Describe a typical day?
The main change to my working day is that I am now leading remotely and working from home. I am using digital channels to communicate with my leadership team (phone, email and Zoom) and most importantly, delivering regular communications to all our employees on the business and societal situation. As we move forward, my main focus continues to be ensuring that we are communicating consistently across our workforce as well as driving health, hygiene and safety messages. It is too easy for standards to slip and for us to fall back into a crisis. I am therefore working across the business, and with our supply chains and key stakeholders on the importance of social distancing, wearing masks and ensuring appropriate sanitisation throughout the working day.

PW: How much has altered?
Healthy employees mean a healthy organisation. If we had an outbreak now, it can take 7-10 days for a site to start again, which would be damaging to productivity. We are therefore being extremely cautious about how we operate moving forward. We have key staff on sites working on a rotating basis and that is making things a little easier. We are also starting to be able to interact face to face with some customers again, as no trials have been able to take place during lockdown. During the first six weeks, we estimate that only 20% of converters were printing and only at 30% capacity, so there is a lot of catching up to do now.

PW: We’re in an extraordinary moment. As a leader what are you telling your team now?
For Flint Group India, the full adoption of digital communications has seen a radical change to the way we communicate and engage, both internally and externally. It has really boosted the team spirit. We have been conducting town hall meetings on site, face-to-face, for many years. However, we are now able to bring 150 people onto a Zoom meeting from our manufacturing, warehousing and office sites, and provide consistent information about the state of the industry, our business and customers. Of course, we also take the opportunity to reiterate our health, hygiene and safety messaging, too.

PW: What about communication with regards to the business logistics?
In terms of key messages to our employees, we have been transparent at all times on our company and industry situation. For Flint Group, we did better than forecasted in April and May as essential industries fought to keep up with demand. However, we cannot take anything for granted.

We have shared our concerns that there are going to be challenges as a result of the pandemic and that nobody has a crystal ball at this stage to predict what may come. The signs are there that the ‘new normal’ is starting to emerge, but we continue to restrict staff on sites and have them on rotation to minimise our risks as the situation continues.

PW: Sustainability has been the key word in Flint Group’s Business module? To what extent has this sustainability been impacted?
In terms of impacts on the business, we have noted a change in product mix (demand for colours associated with health and hygiene applications) and we know that we are all going to be travelling less going forward. Remote working is going to become more normal, too. We have taken the opportunity to affirm our commitment to sustainability at our Zoom meetings. The topic has been paused a little during the crisis, but Flint Group feels committed to driving the circular economy. As a responsible leader in our industry, we have taken the opportunity to build new relationships during the Covid-19 period in order to keep our sustainability strategy on track.

PW: Is it different messaging for different teams? For example, department heads, factory supervisors, admin staff, shopfloor experts, logistics and support staff?
No. We have been absolutely consistent across our organisation and our business ecosystem. The health and safety of our employees are paramount and this objective is shared through our Zoom meetings across all functions and levels in the company.

PW: The post-Covid-19 world will need massive HR repair with your entire team. How are you planning to achieve this?
Of course, employees will always have concerns about job security through a difficult period like this. However, the business to date has performed relatively well and we have no significant HR repair work to do; other than again ensuring everyone is complying with the new health, hygiene and safety standards we have put in place.

PW: Have you been re-negotiating deals with your customers? From a position of strength? Or the same old same old?
The key to everyone in our industry successfully emerging from this situation is driving collaboration and communication. We must work together as an industry to keep the wheels moving and business flowing. We’ve helped some key customers with support, where needed. For us all to grow in the future, we must work collaboratively together now for the success of everyone.

PW: Is your factory ready for what’s next? How have you been empowering your team at the bottom of the pyramid?
Interestingly, Covid-19 has given us an opportunity to further invest in the training and education of our staff across the organisation. While more time has been available, we have been rolling out webinars and training programmes to improve skills for our entire organisation. This has included training in communications, Microsoft tools and company software, for example. At the beginning of the pandemic, we also launched a new initiative to focus on our emerging talent with a view to staff retention. We have been running virtual external assessment centres, analysing their strengths and gaps, and building coaching programmes for them to build their skills and develop placement opportunities in the company.

PW: Any specific steps (sanitisation, plastic partitions, physical distance, air vents, and WFH) to keep your office safe?
Everything. At Flint Group we take our health and safety responsibilities extremely seriously. Covid-19 has brought another layer of hygiene requirements to the existing mix and we have implemented every possible strategy we can to ensure both the health and safety of our employees, as well as the continuity of the business.

PW: A personal question: How has Covid-19 changed the nature of what you are working on, your own resilience and self-renewal and how do you do it?
As a leader of the business with a high workload, managing work-life balance can always be a challenge, but I’ve always taken my personal health and wellness seriously. Fundamentally, my belief is that if you put yourself at risk, you put the whole company at risk. Whether that’s in the way you conduct business or personally managing your health. It’s my responsibility to set the standard and by eating a healthy diet, exercising appropriately and generally looking after myself; this means I can then confidently talk to the need for the health and well-being of our people.

PW: In what way has your team prepared for Webex or Zoom or Skype usage? Any creative ideas?
Actually, the technology has been so intuitive our employees have found that it has been very easy. Accordingly, we’ve had great attendance and engagement at our virtual town hall meetings. In fact, engagement has increased over time with employees asking more questions each time we conduct one. Sometimes we use different backgrounds to raise a smile, or a corporate one for formal meetings perhaps with external parties, but generally the process has embedded its way into our business very easily and we’ve not had to work too hard to make it fit our needs and culture.

PW: Any predictions about how as a leader you can harness digital technology for good?
First, at a personal level, obviously we are all now travelling less and using digital tools such as Zoom to manage our work communications. This is ultimately lowering our carbon footprint by not constantly using planes and trains to conduct business. It’s great for the environment and the benefits are already being witnessed around the world. Second, the digitalisation of our industry’s processes and workflows is going to have significant sustainability benefits as we move forward into Industry 4.0. Connecting the brand to the pre-press to the printer through to the retailer, with all the incumbent suppliers, is going to change the game in minimising time, cost and waste in new product and packaging development. Limiting errors, rework of jobs and minimising materials or journeys to communicate, all benefits the environment ultimately.

PW: And finally, will digital technology carry any worthy implications at an operational level as well?
Indeed. At an operational level, with new emerging IOT technologies, we will be able to monitor and manage processes to optimise productivity and efficiency, again ensuring waste reductions and importantly, energy reductions, too. An exciting opportunity that we’re currently trialling, is the use of Artificial Intelligence to monitor staff hygiene compliance. With this, we can detect staff working too closely together or not wearing masks and the system flags a message to someone to correct the problem. In summary, digitalisation will be a good thing for industry and I don’t believe we need to fear it.

Packaging Trends

Sustainability, unfortunately, seems to have taken a pause during the pandemic and certainly a lot of new product development related roles have been on hold, which has slowed the development of new packaging solutions. However, this time has also enabled many in the industry to educate themselves, learn about sustainability, and what the future could look like.PE-PE laminate for the detergent vertical while for food packaging BOPP-CPP laminate will become prominent.

Can we use this period to pre-empt the changes in our society to come out with new product concepts?
It is obvious that Indian consumers are now very concerned about health, hygiene and safety, wherever they reside. We’ve also noted through the pandemic that international brands, with internationally recognised health and safety standards, have benefitted from this trend, over our local brands. In India, the key trend to move from loose to packed goods, both from a supply chain efficiency and health and safety perspective, is bound to drive new packaging innovation to meet the needs of our society. Flour, for example, is far safer when packed than sold loose, where hands can come in contact with the ingredient.

However, Flint Group is only one part of the new product development process; the entire industry ecosystem must work together to deliver innovation to these consumer groups. From substrates to adhesives, graphic or structural designers, many companies must come together to develop new solutions.

How can our industry re-engineer manufacturing practices so that we can offer packaging solutions for those who operate outside the main grid?
Despite the government’s pressure to reduce single use plastics pre-pandemic, we continue to see tremendous growth in flexible packaging – both plastic and paper – as consumers seek hygienically packed goods rather than buying products loose. Flexible packaging offers significant benefits in terms of barrier functionality to aromas, gases and light, extending the shelf life of products, which can be important in India’s often long supply chains. In addition, it is very durable and robust, as well as lightweight, offering significant carbon footprint advantages, despite its initial fossil fuel use.Secondly, we anticipate further growth in corrugated box applications with many consumers moving online for their shopping.

A recent study by global market data research company YouGov indicated that 44% of urban Indians said they are more likely to shop online once lockdown is over, while 21% said they are less likely than before to shop in physical retail stores. As online grows, the corrugated market benefits in the main.Based on your interactions with the FMCG and food majors, which packaging prototypes do you anticipate a boom – and why?

Going forward, is there a solution that can be worked out with brands to boost online packaging applications with customised and virtual solutions? Basically, minimising the need for multiple test runs…
Absolutely. Digitalisation of the workflow from concept to shelf is a reality today. Brands are slowly getting comfortable with simply creating 3D digital mock-ups rather than physical samples, minimising the need for press runs and multiple tests. The additional benefit of course is that they can then use these already rendered graphics on their online platforms.

What happens to the debate on single-use plastic now?
We are in a period of hiatus as we seek to protect societies from today’s challenges. Manufacturers today are taking their responsibilities towards the environment seriously and any new product development going forward will have this first and foremost in the design thinking. It’s not gone away; it will be back