by Lara Copeland, contributing writer, Plastics Business

When the coronavirus crisis escalated last spring, many states issued shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders. Businesses not considered “essential” were required to close their physical offices and continue operations remotely. This created technology challenges for companies across the world.

According to a survey of 1,000 global IT professionals from software company AppDynamics, the coronavirus pandemic reshaped tech priorities for 95% of companies. What’s more, digital transformation efforts that once were part of long-term projects only took a matter of weeks to be pushed through for 71% of organizations. However, Viking Plastics – with its corporate office in Corry, Pennsylvania, and other facilities in Indiana, Kentucky, China, Brazil and Mexico – had been set up to handle such a significant change for years.

“As long as I’ve been at Viking,” IT Manager Mike Hook explained, “it’s been a culture of continuous improvement, and that has benefited us since day one. We are continuously educating our employees, giving them the best practices and trying to get them to think like business owners and security professionals.”

In the days before COVID-19, Viking Plastics IT professionals routinely kept employees abreast of the latest advancements in cybersecurity. The team held regular meetings during lunch-and-learn events. Employees signed up for these one-hour, voluntary training sessions to learn more about topics ranging from ERP systems to email security issues while enjoying a lunch provided by the company. Additionally, the IT team sent out email updates every few months describing new tactics criminals were using in cyberattacks. “Our goal has always been to keep cybersecurity at the forefront of employees’ minds,” Hook said.

Earlier this year, Viking Plastics set out to help its employees transition to working from home while maintaining safety practices, so the IT team put together and presented an internal webinar. “IT Director Rob Prindle and I were used to doing presentations,” Hook stated, “so when the majority of our workforce went remote last spring, we designed a webinar for cybersecurity.”

The webinar was half an hour long, with 20 minutes of presenting and 10 minutes set aside for a Q&A for the employees in attendance. Hook said he was surprised by how many questions people asked in this format. “Typically, at in-person trainings, we just get two or three questions, but this time we received a slew of questions – which is good and means the audience was attentive and thinking about the webinar.”

The webinar did cover a couple of new topics, including how to report suspicious emails while working remotely. “Normally, when all of us are in the office, we just pick up the phone or walk down to the next cubicle and say, ‘come look at this,’” Hook said. “So, we wanted to be sure employees were aware of how to safely report suspicious emails.”

Hook explained: “What’s the best thing that happens when you click on a link – you might see another cat video? The worst thing that happens is you take down the entire company. If you didn’t expect it, don’t click it. Valid emails have a phone number in the signature; pick up the phone and call to verify.”

Red flags, like being addressed “dear customer” or emails with spelling and punctuation errors, should tip readers off that something is amiss and should be reported.

The webinar was deemed successful, and there were zero technical issues reported. “Everyone who logged in did so with ease, and they could hear us and see us,” noted Hook. Furthermore, he thinks that the response from the audience was better than what usually is received during in-person training.

He explained: “When you’re sitting next to your peers, you are more likely to not ask questions for fear of looking silly. I feel like more people were comfortable during the webinar and that helped generate a better response when we asked for questions.” Additionally, peers can sometimes be distracted by questions shared in person but, during a webinar, the person talking is the only one who can be heard; thus, people feel more free to ask questions no matter how silly they may seem. “We’ve always thought trainings in the past were successful, but this webinar prompted much better questions because everyone was focused in on the speaker and nothing else,” he added.

A follow-up survey confirmed Hook’s findings. “We wanted to know if employees took something away from the webinar, if they were interested in another webinar and if they would recommend it to others. Overwhelmingly, people’s responses were positive,” he said.

The success of the internal webinar doesn’t mean these types of trainings will stop anytime soon, although much of the audience has heard the internet safety messages more than once over the years, since Viking Plastics experiences little turnover. This repetitiveness was an advantage, as employees entered into remote working with an understanding and expectation to report issues and keep the company safe.

“Laying the groundwork prior has made this remote working a seamless process, and it’s made it easier on us,” Hook noted. The system held up well for having everyone on remote access, and there weren’t any major lags or slowdowns, according to Hook. “We’ve been complemented the whole time on how well everything has run from day one, and we are fortunate enough to have good end users from years of continuous training and stability of our users.”

Hook also attributes Viking’s success to Kelly Goodsel, CEO and president of the company, who sees the value of investing in IT. Hook said that while manufacturing companies make their money selling parts, which makes it difficult for some organizations to justify the costs of the IT department, Goodsel’s viewpoint is more holistic. He said it’s helpful that Goodsel views the money spent as an investment as opposed to a burden on the company. “He sees the value of IT and has seen it the entire time I’ve worked for Viking,” Hook exclaimed. “This in turn benefits us because we are able to spend money on new technologies, which led us to the point where everyone had remote access at the flip of a switch last spring. You sure can see the return on investment there.”