As much of the world begins to start slowly reopening after shutting down non-essential businesses and encouraging social distancing due to COVID-19, companies like Webtec are in good shape because of their already global staff and preparedness.
Martin Cuthbert, Managing Director, said the manufacturer of hydraulic measurement and controls, was more prepared for the global pandemic response because it is a global company and was alerted to the concerns early by its Hong Kong office. Those staff members completed all the risk assessments and adapted early in January — working from home, adopting face masks, practicing social distancing, and changing patterns. This made it easier for its global teams in Germany, the UK and Wisconsin to follow suit.
Social distancing all teams
As a result, it was easier for the rest of Webtec’s locations to embrace social distancing — it established mandatory hand washing on arrival of business, new arrangements for goods in and out, and home working. The work-at-home transition was easier for them, said Cuthbert, as they used to have probably 15-20% of the company who would periodically work at home. “Some would have home offices, some would work only when traveling remotely, but now we’ve got nearly 50% of the company is homeworking and the rest can’t because of the nature of their job, because they’re in manufacturing.”
Like many manufacturers, Webtec quickly adapted its manufacturing to practice social distancing. In addition to there being a company-wide travel ban, no visitors are allowed on site unless it is essential maintenance staff. The company is also encouraging its staff to self-isolate with no repercussions if anyone is having signs of illness.
“We have separate entrances for staff and contractors,” Cuthbert said. “For social distancing, we use virtual meetings and have an increased cleaning schedule. We operate a two shift system. The two shifts used to overlap for communication reasons for 30-40 minutes every day. We’ve now separated it so they don’t overlap. So, that if somebody on one shift was ill then we know the other shift couldn’t have been impacted.”
As for manufacturing, the facilities were already designed with space between staff. “On the actual machining side there’s a dozen machining centers, of which quite often one person would operate two or three machining centers simultaneously. One would be running, one would be setting and one would be just keeping an eye on. So, there’s quite a lot of space around them,” Cuthbert said. He added that the company has staggered breaks as well to reduce crowding in break rooms.
“It’s not been too bad to be honest. There’s been a lot of detail to get there, but actually the density of people on site is low enough now there’s not a massive challenge,” he said. We haven’t been too badly affected and we’ve noticed before, so back in 2009 we noticed we were lagging the industry a bit and I think it’s because we sell both hydraulic control valves that goes into distribution in OEM, which perhaps, if an OEM is going to stop manufacturing then that’s kind of affected earliest, but we’ve also got a large chunk of our businesses in hydraulic measurement, which is used for MRO and R&D and those industries are on a slightly different cycle.”
He added that Hong Kong seems to be back on track and things will start to step up for Europe and the States soon. “So, I think, from that point of view, we’ve been fortunate that we’re more evenly distributed and it hasn’t had too much of an impact. There’s not any part of the company which isn’t working. We’ve still got R&D doing projects, we’ve still got IT lean process improvement projects going on. They’re just happening in a slightly different fashion and undoubtedly, slightly less efficiently than if everybody was working together around the table inside the company. They’re slightly less efficient because they’re all working from home and it’s a distributed team.
As for engineering and R&D, the distance has not impacted their creativity, Cuthbert said. These teams are used to working on electronic software or mechanical design where they can share their ideas and designs easily.
“But we’ve had the technology and the culture of using digital tools, paperless processes, and Skype for business for six or seven years. So, a lot of it is normal. The bit that’s changed is we’ve now got more people accessing it all remotely.”
Ensuring service and relationships
Cuthbert said the company’s service centers are still operational and ironically because some of the more regular customer businesses dropped off, the company’s service level has improved on hydraulic test equipment calibration because they can turn things around in three or four days where in the past, it would be more like a week and a half.
For the most part, too, Webtec has not seen a big interruption in its supply chain. “We’ve seen about maybe 4% of our suppliers have had a shutdown period that they’ve built in around Easter, which may be slightly abnormal, but we’ve got enough buffers that it hasn’t been an issue and it certainly wouldn’t affect any product going out the door,” he said. “We design and manufacture everything in our factory in the UK.
“The only issue that’s really come slightly out of the blue for us was a shortage of air freight capacity. So, we would have regular shipments between our offices and from the UK to the U.S. Our office in St. Francis — just outside Milwaukee — is right next to the airport,” he said. We would normally get goods there within four days from the UK and suddenly they were taking two weeks.”
This slowdown was mostly because of the reduction in domestic flights throughout the U.S. but Cuthbert said he thinks it will be a short-term issue because it is already improving, from taking two weeks to now about six to eight days.
Find ways to adjust to this new normal
Finally, Cuthbert offered three pieces of advice to remote workers who are struggling with the lack of routine and are eager to get back to the office.
First up, he said, set up boundaries between home and work life. Don’t stay in your pajamas all day and work at all different times of day. He has a colleague that gets up at the same time every day, dresses as if he’s going into work, and has a dedicated place to conduct work.
Secondly, others at Webtec still “walk” to work. “The walk isn’t just from the bedroom to the lounge or whatever. They would go out of the house and walk around the house and then walk back in the house again, all around the garden just so that there’s a sense of routine and a sense of right, I’m switching off from one part of my day into the next part of the day and then you’d reverse the thing in the evening when you finished.”
Finally, the social aspect of work can’t be forgotten Cuthbert added. “I think the idea of social time is you have to build that into the day or the week. So, our sales managers are putting in Friday afternoon drinks or Friday afternoon just gossip, chat. So, there’s half an hour on a Friday when everybody can Skype in together and just switch on the cameras and just have a chat about how the week’s been and what they’re planning for the weekend. And so, it’s deliberate social time in the working day. Those, I think are important.”
The company has also started recording its Skype meetings, because there are roughly 14 hours difference between its many global offices. This allows people to attend a meeting in their own business hours.
Finally, he said you must be more deliberate in checking in on others’ mental well-being. In an office, a casual encounter might turn into a deeper conversation where concerns are raised, but that’s not possible with remote work. “You’ve got to be more deliberate about it and just ring people up for a chat even if there’s no real purpose to the chat other than just to see how people are,” he said.
While most of its customers are also considered essential businesses, they have realized it is important to also touch base with customers to ensure they are open and available for shipments as well. “You can’t assume that because the customer placed the order last month and said it was all right that we ship it on the 15th of April or whatever that they’re necessarily going to be open,” he said. “Because some of them suddenly shut down for a couple of weeks. So, we’ve had to be more careful at just ringing all the customers before we ship anything just to make sure that they’re there. Or being careful that we tried a few different ways of getting a hold of them because if we only ring them on the phone and they’re not in the office and they don’t have the technology to answer the phone at home, that we email them as well. So, I think it’s just having empathy with the fact that customers are going through all sorts of different situations in different countries at different times and we just got to be really close to them and keep that communication up and using different tools to communicate.”
Cuthbert added that this is a great time for remote workers to engage in remote learning, whether its online videos or webinars or just reading. “In the same way we’ve been trying to circulate more of the white papers that we’ve done and in fact, we’re putting together a series at the moment on the Introduction to Practical Hydraulic System Maintenance book as a series of short videos, parts of a chapter at a time. This allows people to take 20 minutes out for a bit of education, which maybe in a normal work environment wouldn’t fit quite so well. But somehow when you’re working from home it seems right to be spending some time on education.”
As he concluded, Cuthbert wished everyone would stay safe. “I think my motto would be let’s hope for a quick recovery, but plan for a slow one and be ready to grow again as soon as the pandemic recedes,” he said.
Filed Under: Hack the crisis: Engineering through COVID-19