How IT Can Bridge the Distance


How IT Can Bridge the Distance

Here are some IT best practices for helping distributed teams

One afternoon in March 2020, the IT channel on the SBCA Slack Workspace lit up with concern about the potential for COVID-19 to significantly impact the component manufacturing industry. Greg Dahlstrom, IT/IS manager at Villaume Industries, Inc., and chair of SBCA’s IT Committee, realized that even if business could carry on as usual, many other factors might affect the way CMs are doing business. At the time, Greg thought to himself, “One of the biggest impacts to us will be if schools and daycares are shut down for an extended period of time.”

Unfortunately, about as quickly as he could type it, it began happening across the country. The nation found itself faced with a global pandemic and many IT personnel were tasked with finding a way to equip most, if not all, their office staff with computers, software, and network access. Many CMs hoped their office employees could in turn continue to work and support the company from home. Because Greg saw the writing on the wall, he had already started prepping old laptops. “I knew I needed to be sure we had adequate VPN seat licenses, but otherwise I felt prepared for a temporary change.”

One benefit Villaume had, almost by chance, was a stash of older but not totally obsolete equipment. “We didnʼt buy anything,” Greg explained. “We’ve always been slow to dispose of unused hardware, which has good and bad points, but in this case, the previous generation of equipment was generally good enough for us to make use of it.”

Literally overnight, many plants around the country deployed remote employees to limit their human footprint in the office. “We all needed to quickly assess our staff and the roles they hold in our organizations to provide solutions for them to remain productive, while managing the work-from-home dynamic,” said Bryan Sylvester, vice president of IT for California TrusFrame LLC.

Kevin Witt, IT manager for True House Inc., spent a couple of busy days getting his infrastructure set up to work well remotely. “We have a Remote Desktop Server farm for our office, admin, and accounting staff,” Kevin explained. “We also have a virtual private network (VPN) for our CAD users to log in and map their network drives.” Simultaneously, Kevin and his IT staff moved everyone to Windows Virtual Desktop, something that will pay dividends in the long run because it prepared the company for future needs. “The good thing is that now, if we ever need to send everyone remote again, it will already be part of the culture.”

Since the initial coronavirus conversations began, many IT staff have had to answer the call to provide remote tech solutions. “I’ve been able to deploy what I call our ‘Distributed Virtually Virtualized Desktops’ plan,” Greg says. All of Villaume staff capable of remote work are doing so, including all of their sales staff and designers. A fast 100mb fiber line (upgradable to 1gb with a single phone call) make VPN connections fast and easy to use. “Once connected to the VPN, they use Microsoft RDP to connect into their own desktop,” Greg explained. “Then they are live on the database/network, and there is no delay/lag from being remote.”

Whatever your motivation for moving traditional office-based jobs to remote/work-from- home positions, here are a number of best practices and sound advice from SBCA’s IT Committee, crowd-sourced from an on-going conversation in the SBCA Slack Workspace. For current, relevant IT information, get started on the SBCA Slack Workspace and join the #committee-it channel today. 

Time to Split

Sometimes working remotely isn’t practical, so another way some CMs have limited exposure and socially-distanced their teams is to split shifts. CMs likely have a few folks that need to be in the office based on their responsibilities. Making their move from home to office and back to home needs to be seamless since they may only be in the office for part of a day, or part of a week. One tip Greg suggests is batching documents to the printer for sorting when they arrive. He also deployed a webcam for a remote worker to easily keep an eye on the output of an in-office printer (photo on page 20). Webcams also provide a way for in-office employees to continue to meet face-to-face but from the safety of their own offices. 

And for some additional protection, Villaume turned to a low-tech solution: traditional “salad bar sneeze guards.” These new barriers hang from the ceiling and physically separate employees in high traffic areas while allowing employees to see who is coming and going.

Other manufacturers are taking a similar approach and rearranging their physical spaces. “While weʼre focused on continuing to support our customers, weʼre encouraging everyone who can to work from home,” said Jason Hikel, IT director at Shelter Systems Limited. “Weʼve rearranged our break room and broken apart our shift and lunch breaks into smaller groups to encourage social distancing.”

Villaume installed a “salad bar sneeze guard” to help physically separate employees in a high traffic area. It’s virtually invisible, but it’s another measure to keep people in the office and put people at ease.

Good Communication Is Critical

Communicating with your employees about the ever-changing landscape is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. The usual suspects, email and office messenger programs like Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, and Slack, are a great way to handle office staff communication. However, for the people in your production areas that don’t have instant (or any) access to those formats, you’ll need to be more creative. Greg’s team made sure all of their employees were aware of their company’s Facebook page, with the understanding that anyone could go to their page for company-wide updates as needed. “This allows us to continue to communicate any real-time changes due to changes in state shutdowns, etc.,” Greg added. “This ensures anyone that doesn’t have email or Microsoft Teams is still in the communication loop.”

Kevin Witt also deployed alternative methods of communication. “We do have Microsoft Teams but we also have an app for our phone system with 30 licenses to deploy. In addition, we can forward our desktop extensions to users’ mobile phones as needed.”

For Every DO, There’s Probably a Don’t

“I don’t think IT has any sort of Hippocratic Oath,” Greg jokes, “but ‘First Do No Harm’ applies here just as well.” As an example, Villaume didn’t allow anyone to “BYOD,” or Bring Your Own Device. This means that anyone asked to work remotely was assigned a company-issued system and was not allowed to use personal/home computers. “This basic security measure ensures that protecting our company from one virus didn’t expose us to other viruses,” Greg explains. All laptops deployed had all of the proper operating system and software updates installed and a lockdown on administrative rights.

It’s also a best practice to keep track of your equipment, especially when time is of the essence. Something simple like monitoring your inventory may seem like the least important thing on your to-do list when there’s a list of people waiting on you to deploy the technology they need to remain productive, but don’t let anyone escape the building without recording what you’ve handed over. Grab the nearest labeler (or some slips of paper and tape) and a spreadsheet to get the job done.

And whatever it is you’re looking for, hardware and software alike, look for deals online. A world-wide pandemic is the perfect rationale many companies needed to provide deep discounts on their products; just a little Googling may return many great deals on everything from online training to software packages you’d forgotten you needed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented CMs with an opportunity to re-evaluate what makes a team not only productive, but efficient. It has given many companies the opportunity to make positive adjustments to the processes and practices that help them thrive. 

About the Author: Molly Butz searches for the ways information technology shapes and fosters ingenuity in the component manufacturing industry.