For about a month now, the COVID-19 virus has had the whole world under its control. Hashtags like #stayhome, #flattenthecurve or #togetherstronger should be well known by now and have almost become a motto for this challenging time. Politicians also had to act quickly and introduce measures to protect the population. Public life was restricted as far as possible, people changed their everyday habits, crisis teams were set up and office jobs were mainly moved to home offices. Of course, this exceptional situation also made itself noticeable in industrial companies, so we have summarized the most important aspects for industrial IT managers in this article.
As in all areas, the risk of infection naturally also increases on the shop floor, because several people work on the same equipment and personal contact cannot be avoided in many cases. Hygiene regulations must be implemented, the minimum distance must be maintained and employees who have been in a crisis area or who have had contact with an infected person must be isolated immediately. Shifts are newly planned and in system-relevant companies, such as electricity suppliers and waterworks, insulation layers are sometimes even established. All these measures sooner or later lead to fewer personnel on site.
As economic losses cannot be avoided in this pandemic, expenses are being reduced and potential savings are being identified in all areas in order to compensate for the lack of income as best as possible. In many companies, entire production halls are also being shut down or reduced to a minimum in order to protect employees or because of a lack of orders. Thus, overtime reduction and short-time work are rather the rule than the exception.
In addition to the everyday tasks that must be performed to maintain emergency operation, industrial IT managers are faced with further challenges.
Spear phishing attacks
First reports are already appearing that hackers are also taking advantage of this emergency and are planning their entry into company networks with targeted spear phishing attacks with reference to COVID-19. These attacks can remain undetected for months and thus grow into a major threat. Failures in office networks can be resolved relatively quickly by standardized commissioning processes. But are your processes and employees also prepared for failures in factory environments?
You can counteract this by dealing with digital threat scenarios in the area of OT and, in addition to purely technical and organisational measures, set up and expand training and awareness measures for your staff.
Microsoft security updates
The current situation does not even leave Microsoft unaffected. The company has announced that it will be discontinuing some Windows updates in the coming months. The reason for this is obvious, as Microsoft, too, cannot continue to work at full capacity due to staff absences and is feeling the effects of the pandemic. However, security-relevant patches will continue to be provided in the usual frequency and for all supported Windows versions. This means, especially in view of the increasing and ever more targeted attacks, that IT managers must also distribute and install these updates on target devices.
Less support from external service providers
Budgets are being cut, staff are being sent on short-time working or working from home and, as mentioned above, potential savings are being examined. This in turn means that the use of external service providers is also being put to the test. For this purpose, the following questions, among others, must be clarified:
Of course, it can also happen that the readiness for the use of external personnel is still given, but this can no longer be realized by the service companies due to new regulations.
As you can see, you will have to adapt to new approaches here as well.
Planning measures for the restart
Fortunately, the steps that have been taken are already beginning to have an impact, both in Germany and in other countries. This in turn means that it is already worthwhile to start planning for the restart now. It is best to list all the tasks, processes and personnel capacities required for this and coordinate them in your team. The sooner the systems can be put back into operation, the sooner normality will return – in your company, in the service- and supply chains, in our everyday lives. But don’t forget to prepare the IT systems in your shopfloor for the restart.
True to the motto “In all bad there is also something good”, we would like to conclude by giving you some tips on how to deal with the current situation professionally and effectively. At the same time, we will provide you with assistance as to which activities you can perhaps even use to emerge from this situation even stronger.
How can you cope with this emergency?
1. Try to get an overview of the current hardware and software status, because only what you know can be managed.
2. Use the free time to carry out maintenance work on your systems. This can be mechanical maintenance on the one hand, but also the maintenance of the associated IT equipment and its software. This includes, for example, creating backups, checking that they are up-to-date and, if necessary, distributing updates, as well as adjusting the device settings in line with corporate compliance (firewall, user account control, permitted remote connections, open USB ports, installed software, …).
3. Plan your tasks as centrally as possible and execute them centrally as far as possible. In this way you can continue to work effectively with the low personnel capacities and manage the tasks that arise.
4. Do not forget the regular exchange of information with your colleagues, as not everyone will work in their familiar working environment. Here, online meetings have proven to be a real helper in this crisis.
5. And finally: Document all changes you make to the equipment and systems. Many settings currently only need to be adjusted temporarily and require a new configuration during regular operation. Your colleagues and employees will thank you if you record and document your activities digitally.
How can you make good use of this situation?
If you think back on recent weeks, you have certainly gained many new insights that you were not aware of before. That is good! Whether positive or negative, write down the lessons of this crisis. That way you can gather your strengths and weaknesses and, if necessary, take immediate corrective action. Many companies have prepared emergency manuals and checklists for such cases, in which the procedure and execution of the individual steps are described. The current situation should also be used to verify and, if necessary, update them. However, classic reports are also suitable for gathering the knowledge gained. With these measures you will be better prepared for further situations of this kind in the future.
In addition, normal day-to-day business will be pushed further into the background. Use newly gained time to review and update your concepts. This could be, for example, planning a new backup strategy, or revising the previous update and patch process. You do not necessarily have to be at your usual workstation.
In our last tip we advise you to approach the automation of subtasks. Of course, this will take some time, but after a one-time preparation and setup you will save time and nerves in the future. Now you have the opportunity to tackle tasks that are normally put on the shelf due to meetings, telephone calls and other disturbances. However, on the one hand, you should ensure that your systems comply with the manufacturer’s specifications, and on the other hand we recommend that you take certain standards into account, such as IEC-62443.
The Corona Pandemic is confronting companies around the world with an unprecedented situation to which both management and employees must adjust. It is important to concentrate on the essentials without losing sight of the future. Especially on the shop floor and in the industrial IT sector it is important to use the “calm” time to prepare for tomorrow, because standing still means taking a step backwards. If everyone has a common goal in mind, even this crisis will be manageable.
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