Is the future mining workforce remote?

Managing Covid-19 travel complexities in the mining industry.

Mining has been the economic bedrock for many resource-rich countries over the past two years. The industry has provided a constant source of economic activity during a time when most companies were forced to shut down.

Governments in countries like Canada, Australia and South Africa declared that mineral exploration, processing, and other mining activities were essential services. However, while mining operations continued, travelling to remote mining locations became more challenging than ever before.

As a result, an increasing number of mining operations started exploring innovative working practices, including remote work locations for employees. According to research conducted by McKinsey & Company, mining companies started to relocate around 15-20% of their on-site workforce by setting up ‘control towers’ to facilitate remote working (especially for non-frontline roles like subject matter experts).

It's hard to believe, but research by Accenture shows that no more than 10% of mining employees will be physically required to be on site in the future. By 2035, close to 100% of mining employees are expected to be able to work remotely – from anywhere.

Although this is an exciting prospect for the mining industry, there are some significant drawbacks. The adoption of off-site mining operations has seen traditional physical health and safety concerns replaced by mental health concerns. Studies that have shown that remote work in the mining industry takes a mental toll on employees. Feelings of isolation and loneliness arose after the novelty of remote working wore off, leaving employees with a sense of purposelessness.

While mining companies are trying to determine the best course of action for the future, travel management companies are preparing for a new form of business travel.

“Remote work doesn’t spell the end of business travel, it simply changes it,” says Bonnie Smith, GM FCM. “When a large part of the workforce becomes remote, there will be value in ‘onsite retreats’ for the entire organisation where employees gather to collaborate on high-value activities several times during the year. Complex projects, mergers and acquisitions, and development opportunities will still require people to be on-the-ground.”

To manage this new kind of business travel in the mining industry, a travel expert becomes an invaluable partner.

“Travel to remote locations has always been an obstacle in the mining sector and will continue to be so. Mining sites can be hazardous and difficult to access, rostering crew changes challenging, accommodation options limited, and car hire problematic due to site regulations,” says Smith. “The Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated these challenges. Airlines have cut down routes to popular destinations, let remote mining destinations. Accommodation needs to be scrutinised more than ever before to ensure the right Covid-19 protocols are in place. It is no longer a question of finding a hotel in a remote mining location, it’s finding a hotel or B&B that is completely Covid-19 safe.”

New approval processes will need to be set up and travel policies need to be revamped to cater for a new reality, explains Smith. “Companies need to go back to the drawing board when it comes to business travel. Which trips are essential? What can be handled remotely? Who gives their final approval for travel? And how do we need to book to ensure we can safeguard and track employees if anything happens? All these questions are not new, but they will have new answers that better fit in with a new reality.”

Working with a reliable travel management company can help mining companies the complex new landscape of business travel. Smith explains: “More than ever, mining companies need a travel expert partner who can look beyond the transaction at the bigger picture. At FCM, we use sophisticated technology systems combined with human expertise to crunch massive amounts of information to come up with solutions and travel strategies that fit your business.”

The future of mining will likely see a completely transformed workforce, different operating models and a rehauled travel structure. Exciting times lie ahead.