Many industries are implementing work-from-home policies.  However, manufacturers face some fundamental challenges that make it difficult for them to follow suit.  

Learn how manufacturers can, in fact, embrace remote work and mitigate some of the risks of COVID-19 to their business and employees’ welfare.

Remote work and manufacturing are strange bedfellows
Remote work and manufacturing are strange bedfellow
The physical constraint

Manufacturing is intrinsically about the physical world:  raw material is purchased and converted by machines and humans into products.  

This physical reality requires the presence of human beings – often in confined spaces and in contact with each other – which obviously increases the risk of COVID-19 spreading.

While many manufacturers may have automated parts of their process, the vast majority will still depend on the physical presence of humans to some extent.  

Given this, most manufacturing companies will believe they cannot adopt the same work-from-home policies implemented by other industries, which enable employees to both self-isolate and continue to be productive.

Furthermore, this is likely to be exacerbated by government policies and other factors that will weaken the infrastructure and transportation that manufacturers need to get their employees to and from their place of work.

Engineering is iterative and human-dependent

Manufacturing often involves complex, technical processes and materials.  

This results in a dependency on collaborative processes, in which different teams rapidly form and disband in real-time around objectives.

These collaborative processes are often managed across numerous different, disconnected systems, including email, paper, pen, excel sheets and enterprise systems like ERP, CRM, PLM, eQMS etc.  

Consequently, this makes it hard to manage these processes without the need for frequent, in-person meetings, status updates and reviews, which obviously increase the risk of COVID-19.

First, a bit about me

My name is Ben Merton, and I’m the CEO of Unifize (more on that later). 

My Co-Founder and I have been implementing cloud-based solutions for manufacturing and supply chain companies of all sizes for the better part of a decade.

These strategies have been used by multiple firms of all sizes over the past 12 months.  Here are the results:

  • TD Power Systems – manufacturer of industrial generators for companies like GE & Siemens – reduced the number of internal emails around sales processes by 77%
  • LaundryTec – distributor of industrial laundry equipment – reduced dependence on emails and disconnected systems while increase visibility for a remote service team
  • TTK Prestige – manufacturer of cookware equipment – saved the sales team 12 hours a week per employee

Step 1: If people can work-from-home, they should!

In most manufacturing companies, non-production staff is anywhere between 25% and 50% of  total headcount, meaning that manufacturers can instantly enable remote work for these employees.

This is not only safer for those employees who are working from home but also safer for those that need to remain at the production facility.

Therefore, if you are in a leadership position, you must first acknowledge this and work through the remaining steps to implement change.  

Alternatively, if you are any other type of employee, it’s important that you raise awareness of this reality with your managers and, where necessary, the leadership directly.

Step 2: Work on changing perceptions

Enabling remote work for office employees is likely to require a change in attitude across the organization.

The following is a list of objections that you may encounter while trying to making this shift, along with some recommendations on how to respond to them:

  • We are naturally more technophobic than people in other industries:  Find and evaluate cloud-based digital tools that are easy to implement and use by all employees.
  • We believe that engineering problems are best solved on the shop floor:  Photo and video technology can be leveraged to resolve the vast majority of these problems.
  • We prefer that our teams sit closely together and that people just ‘walk over’ to each other to get help and collaborate:  The internet has enabled high-speed, real time communication and collaboration that has mitigated this need, along with delivering a host of other benefits including better traceability.
  • We mistrust cloud-based technology for security reasons:  In practice, your data is likely to be far more secure when it is hosted on the cloud.  Today, more than 66% of manufacturers now use cloud technology.
  • We prevent our employees from accessing communication tools on their shop floor:  You need to think hard about the trade-off between enabling better collaboration and policing your employees.

Finally, I’ve never met an employee of a manufacturing company that didn’t feel that most meetings were a waste of time.  

By enabling remote work, you can seize the opportunity not only to reduce your risk of COVID-19 but also to improve the productivity and efficiency of your meetings in general.

Step 3: Use digital tools to enable remote work

There are a large number of tools available for you to use.  It’s important that you evaluate these thoroughly and get buy-in from your team. 

The following is a list to get you started:

Video Conferencing

  • Zoom:  Free to start and has the best video quality
  • Google Hangouts:  Widely adopted and easy to use
  • Webex:  Best tools for simulating real world meeting rooms (eg scratchpads)
  • Skype:  Great if your team has already adopted this

Project management

  • Microsoft Project:  Full-featured and extensive but difficult to use
  • Asana:  Enables hierarchies of tasks but isn’t built for manufacturers
  • Trello:  Great lightweight tool for kanban and basic projects
  • Airtable:  Good for advanced linking of complex databases 

Real-time chat

Cloud-based office tools

  • Google Docs:  Easy to use and free if you also use Gmail
  • Office 365:  Full featured and more suited to the enterprise

When are these tools not enough for remote work?

The tools listed above may not meet your collaboration needs if you:

  • Make customized or engineer-to-order products: Requires more frequent iterations between collaborating teams, which is hard to accomplish using existing tools.
  • Manage processes that depend on cross-functional teams: When skills are spread through the organization, you need to enable asynchronous work.
  • Depend heavily on face-to-face meetings:  When communication and project management tools are disconnected, it’s hard to drive accountability remotely.
  • Use legacy systems that can’t leverage the benefits of cloud technologies: It’s hard to access, let alone collaborate around data when working remotely
  • Rely heavily on email:  It’s hard to get visibility into your processes when everything is scattered in different systems and email inboxes.
  • Depend on custom/specialized parts from limited suppliers:  When extending collaboration to third parties, mandating new tools can be a challenge.

Is there an alternative?

Unifize has been built specifically for manufacturing teams to:

  • Enable remote work and eliminate unnecessary meetings & emails
  • Increase visibility and accountability in collaborative processes
  • Measure and reduce collaborative process cycle times

Specifically, Unifize enables users to do the following:

  • Collaborate from anywhere on simple-to-use, cloud-based mobile and desktop platform
  • Increase accountability with objective-driven conversations that have a defined status, owner and participants
  • Get visibility into all activities with a real-time list of conversations mapped to every instance of every process
  • Reduce email ping pong and unnecessary follow-ups by bringing everyone into the right place to discuss specific objectives
  • Create an auditable, measurable trail of time-stamped activities relating to each objective
  • Make data collection easy & collaborative with customizable forms for each process
  • Get fast-track adoption by allowing users to collaborate on processes right from their inboxes.
  • Give managers a bird’s eye view of what’s going on in their organization without having to be involved in a single conversation
  • Get actionable insights and data from customizable forms and dashboards

Is it easy to setup?

It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen or implemented before.  We can get you and your team up and running in less than an hour.  You can start seeing results by the end of the day!

Will this integrate into your other software? 

Yes, of course. You don’t have to worry. It easily integrates into the most common tools you are already using.

Free consultation on remote work

Unifize is currently offering free consultations to manufacturing & supply chain companies on how to enable remote collaboration in their organization.

What you’ll get:

  • General advice on remote working
  • Gap analysis of your existing tool set
  • Recommendations on appropriate software solutions
  • Customized implementation of Unifize, if required

To take advantage of this, feel free to book a slot by clicking here.

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