How Manufacturing is Adapting to Work from Home
Ethical manufacturing company, Blue Sky Botanics, tell us how they adapted to remote working during COVID and beyond.
Author: IT Manager | Blue Sky Botanics | May 2020
Foreword - About Blue Sky Botanics
In this article, ethical food, beverage and cosmetic manufacturer Blue Sky Botanics, share their initial and ongoing experiences from when the news broke about COVID-19 and the following government directive wanting employers, wherever possible to get their staff working remotely.
Blue Sky Botanics are based deep in the countryside of the West Midlands, with around 45 members of staff. Here's there experience of adapting to the changes and challenges of remote working.
Setting up to Work Remotely
Communication is a huge thing for us and as an ethical company, we have always tried where possible to reduce unnecessary travel to customers and suppliers.
But this was a whole new level, one we knew we had to make work, not just for the crisis but for the future.
Our Senior Management team focused on the task and in the space of a week they had to organise the following:
- Staff safety and wellbeing
- Laptops for remote working
- Monitors including adapters, keyboards and mice to help reduce fatigue whilst using the laptops
- Webcams where applicable to staff using personal desktops and laptops
- Dramatically expand our VPN connection and 2FA
- Improve our external broadband connection to cope with the volume of remote working
- 4G Mobile Broadband devices for staff with poor home broadband
- Microsoft O365 Portal for Emails
- Microsoft O365 SharePoint sites for teams to continue accessing data
- Microsoft Teams for communication internally and with customers and suppliers
We broke this mammoth task down into manageable chunks and worked it into three phases:
- Phase 1 - Safety & wellbeing: Ensure staff safety and wellbeing and to support the staff needing to self-isolate due to being vulnerable or living with vulnerable family members.
- Phase 2 - Tools: Get critical staff up and running remotely with all the tools they needed.
- Phase 3 - Support: Add in the additional staff once the critical staff were settled.
We rushed to order laptops from suppliers who were beginning to buckle under the sudden huge demand, as well as webcams, additional monitors, and 4G Mi-Fi units and contracts for our staff with poor home broadband connections. To allow for this huge increase in remote workers we increased our bonded ADSL by another 2 lines and also spoke to a specialist who, out of hours setup two 4G modems and a load balancing router which would help accommodate our bandwidth requirements.
Whilst all this was going on our IT team was configuring our Microsoft O365 Portal access, this was to give our staff access to the web version of Microsoft products like Word and Excel, emails through the Outlook Web App, SharePoint, and Microsoft Teams for our staff to continue working and talking to each other.
We have faced many issues since switching to remote working and some of these issues are still with us many weeks on. Being in a rural location the broadband is woeful at the best of times, but now with so many people in the area home working we were seeing this exacerbated at points during the day where everything slows down and remote working has, on occasions become nearly impossible. Outages and load problems from EE in the local area is also playing its part with connection issues as well as the VPN providers being overloaded at peak points during the day.
Organising the Teams
Apart from the obvious physical changes to working remotely, we have also noticed a shift in people’s perceptions towards cloud technology and its benefits, whereas before we much preferred a face to face discussion over an email or call, now we were looking to the cloud market for solutions to keep us connected and working.
We were lucky as we already had a small number of staff who would work remotely so the VPN and 2FA was already configured and in place to duplicate out to everyone else. What we had not used before on a large scale was Microsoft SharePoint and, apart from a few tech-savvy Sales Team members, Microsoft Teams. I can safely say these two applications would become the unsung heroes of keeping us connected throughout this isolation period.
SharePoint allowed us to move files and folders on to the cloud to help reduce our load on the ADSL and 4G connections. We setup department SharePoint sites to make navigation easier for our teams and where possible sync’d them to their desktop via OneDrive for Business for file sharing and easy access. This worked extremely well for files and folders that had limited exposure to multiple departments or the teams who as a group could work remotely. Unfortunately for the ones shared across multiple teams or heavy on the manufacturing/ laboratory side this was near impossible and we had to make a decision based on the onsite/ remote split and the priorities of those teams. Those files and folders that we couldn’t move on to the cloud would remain on site and staff would have to VPN in and access them directly from the server. Microsoft SharePoint overall was a very useful tool to setup and manage in such a short space of time, and by allowing multiple users to work on data simultaneously it gave a nice bonus over single user access on the server and the problems that posed with people leaving files open and forgetting about them.
On a regular basis, Microsoft Teams was being used by the Sales and Sourcing departments to achieve this goal with great success. It was perfect for video and audio conferencing, easy to setup, send out calendar invites and for not needing an account for external users to participate. Internally for us, this simplicity was a massive benefit for keeping our staff in contact with each other, and during these long periods of isolation it was immensely positive to still see a friendly face and have a coffee break with a colleague. We continued talking with customers and suppliers as we had before, but now we were having internal video team meetings for daily catchups and project discussions.
Scheduled Software Developments
We had originally planned in April to migrate our legacy CRM platform to the latest Microsoft Dynamics 365 Sales Interface. As you can imagine with everything that was going on this was now towards the back of our minds as we prioritised new systems and infrastructure to support our remote workers. Formus Pro were there to offer additional support to keep the project moving in the right direction and with them taking the lead this allowed us to focus on other matters.
The migration was handled with good communication and after the system switched over their friendly support team were there to answer any questions we had whilst also providing advice on other applications or Microsoft incentives that would be of benefit to us.
A lot of these changes involved a leap of faith and whereas before we were very methodical and diligent in our changes, now we didn’t have the luxury of time to go to the nth degree of planning, we had to adapt and fast. Our teams had to accept that not everything was now at your fingertips and the VPN would not be like being sat in front of your PC in work and patience would play a major part.
Before you could just get up and ask someone a question, now you had to rely on other communications like Microsoft Teams or an email and move on to another task whilst you waited for an answer. If you needed a physical document, you may need to task one of the onsite staff to locate it and scan it for you and if no one was available and it wasn’t critical then re-plan parts of your day.
Our staff took this in their stride and as this new way of working began to settle down the work needed was still achieved but via a slightly different route.
Take Away Thoughts
It is hard to say everything is back to normal for us, but through perseverance, making changes and adapting when needed we are getting close. I would say look out into the IT world and see what is available, use your software and IT providers, yes it may not exactly match your current processes but with some internal tweaks and a new way of thinking it may fill a gap or improve on a current way of working.
Many of these changes we will continue with after this has passed as we see the long-term benefits provided by this new technology and our new partners.