From police convoys to negotiated seats on government planes

The outbreak of COVID-19 in the early 2020s brought international passenger traffic to a standstill for a long time. Local corona peaks would also continue to throw a spanner in the works for the rest of the year. So what do you do as a group with just over 200 projects in all corners of the world? "Take immediate action", says Katleen De Geyter, HR Manager at Jan De Nul. Together with colleague and prevention advisor Tiny Aerts, she used creative solutions to ensure that all crew changes could take place safely. A glimpse behind the scenes.

What did you think when it turned out that COVID-19 was not a false alarm?

Katleen De Geyter, HR Manager: "The virus went from a local to a regional and finally a global problem at lightning speed. A bolt from the blue, so to speak. Everyone was taken by surprise. I have been with Jan De Nul for more than 20 years and this pandemic is undoubtedly the biggest challenge we have faced so far. But we did not bow down under the pressure."

Tiny Aerts, QHSSE Advisor: "The two main priorities were immediately clear. Keeping the virus out of our vessels and construction sites, and getting everyone to work or to their families on time. The latter in particular generated many intense and also moving moments."

How did you manage to get those crew changes done?

Katleen: "With a lot of creativity, perseverance and cooperation. For example, we set up an internal task force to look at escape routes for all our projects. Chartering planes, deploying long-distance buses, approaching ministries and sending out corona kits: it was all part of our new job description. This sometimes resulted in spectacular scenes. The first crew change in Uruguay, for instance, took place under an impressive police escort."

What was the biggest challenge?

Tiny: "The continuously changing national guidelines. What worked one time, no longer worked the next. And last-minute changes were the rule rather than the exception. We worked together with our local expatriates and business development managers and often had to run a race against time to get everything done. But we left no stone unturned to get the job done.”

Katleen: “Indeed. For example, at one point we even contacted the Vice President of Ghana to ask for permission to land our charter on its territory or we knocked on the doors of neighbouring countries such as the Netherlands and France to put our people on their government aircraft – even though they were not citizens of those countries."

Which story won’t you forget any time soon?

Tiny: "People you get home just in time for a birth, wedding or funeral, that’s something you do not forget easily. We had, for instance, a Belgian colleague who, only a few days after his return, welcomed his youngest child in the maternity ward.”

Katleen: “What I remember most of all is the team spirit. No complaining about yet another obstacle, but everyone acting decisively and pulling together. Nobody would be at rest until our people were actually on board or on the plane. It gives you a great deal of satisfaction when, in the evening, you receive a message or a photograph from colleagues on the other side of the planet saying ‘We made it!’. It has brought us closer together as a group."