Tips for working remotely during COVID-19

April 13, 2020

In this podcast, Steve Pflantz, former ISA president and subject matter expert for automation at CRB, an engineering, architecture, construction and consulting firm, talks with Jim Montague, Control’s executive editor, about CRB's response to COVID-19, including its increasing use of remote working tools.

Transcript

Jim: Hi, this is Jim Montague, executive editor of Control magazine and ControlGlobal.com, and this is the latest in our "Control Amplified" podcast series. In these recordings, we talk with expert sources about process control and automation topics, and try to get beyond our print and online coverage to explore some of the underlying issues impacting users, system integrators, suppliers, and other people and organizations in these industries.

For our latest podcast, we're talking to Steve Pflantz, subject matter expert for automation at CRB, and that's at www.crbusa.com. And he was also president of the International Society for Automation, www.isa.org in 2017. CRB itself is an engineering, architecture, construction and consulting firm with more than 1,300 staff in 19 offices worldwide. And it's been aggressively transitioning to remote working technologies and procedures during the current COVID-19 crisis. Well, Steve, sorry for the usual lengthy preamble and thanks for talking to us today.

Steve: Glad to be here, Jim.

Jim: Okay, first of all, is we're asking during all these kind of interviews that's going on with the Coronavirus, what's happening with COVID-19, where you're at? How is your organization people and local industry community being impacted?

Steve: Well, like I think everyone in the world, it's impacting us, and we're dealing with it as best we can. Through what's happening with COVID-19, where we're at, consider we have 19 locations, variation in what COVID is doing locally. Some are good, some are bad, and hope that those who are suffering from this recover and everything is all right.

In the St. Louis area where I'm at, we're doing better than some other locations for a large metro area. Predictions are that the curve will peak in the next two to three weeks in the St. Louis and Missouri area in general, but we know this is kind of subject to change. State's been under a stay-at-home order for a few weeks now. On the rare occasion of getting out, there are a lot less people out and about compared to normal. My wife and I both, too, had virtual doctor's visits this week, so that was a change.

CRB started asking employees to transition to working from home, though, I believe it was the week of March 15th. And it took about a week for nearly our entire St. Louis office to make the transition. That means an office of over 130 staff now has less than a handful of people in the office at any point in time.

Our offices are still officially open, but I would say that probably 95% or more of our office-based staff are working from home. In addition to mostly everyone working from home with company's non-essential travel is suspended. So, if you don't have to go anywhere for a job or project, or meet, then absolutely do not go. No travel to or from virus-affected regions or countries. That's pretty normal for about anywhere anyway.

We're using virtual meeting methods. And many of our construction sites, while they're still open, there are practices and procedures in place to deal with situations. I'll cover some of those we're doing a little later. So bottom line, our business is doing better than a lot of others. We have had to make some quick changes, but I think we've been pretty successful with that.

Jim: Great. So then, beyond your particular organization, how are your clients and their projects being affected by the Coronavirus? And then maybe, you know, what's happening with the contractors and/or suppliers that contribute to your efforts?

Steve: Given the nature of our business, being heavily focused in the pharmaceutical and biotech industry is not really a surprise that we're remaining relatively busy. CRB is working with our clients to bring essential medicines and vaccines to market with a new twist of not compromising work safety based on COVID.

We've had a small percentage of active projects they put on hold or delayed. Projects not underway have had a higher percentage delayed or postponed. And then there's a number of projects that have quickly appeared or active projects modified and accelerated as they are related to efforts to combat COVID-19. So, it's us kind of being on the tip of the spear, so to speak, things are heating up in that arena. We're supporting clients, projects around the globe by leveraging our teams and each of our 19 offices.

For example, our local European teams are supporting U.S.-based clients and project teams impacted by travel restrictions by completing factory and onsite acceptance tests at European sites. A lot of our equipment suppliers, manufacturers, fabricators are European based, so a lot of stuff gets built there and shipped over that type of stuff.

Leveraging our price as expertise in BARDA, which is Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority experience to evaluate facility fit and enable rapid product change over in response to the pandemic. Think back to 911, there was a flurry of activity following those events.

This is not the first time our industry has done some sort of rapid shift or response to critical needs. In regards to contractors and suppliers, we're continuing monitoring supply chains and subcontractors to make sure we can get materials and supplies for projects, because again, we're still building stuff actively.

We've yet to see a substantial impact, equipment or automation system components supply the ability. And some instances I would say I see very little difference or no difference in the response of us reaching out to vendors and getting information and quotes and what's out there.

Biggest differences are we hear a lot more kids yelling or dogs barking in the background when on calls with equipment vendors or technical support staff. They're working from home just like us. They still have people in their shops on warehouse floors building stuff or shipping them out, but a lot of the people that we deal with are also able to work from home.

I get communications and good communications from a lot of suppliers and sales reps, and the like, that they are saying they're open for business, and they're able to support just as they have prior to this with just a major hiccup of working from home and some communication glitches.

Overall, we work with clients, and we've always done this to some extent, but now we've put a little more emphasis on making sure we pay a little more attention to multi-site sourcing and demand allocation, being aware that what we have a plan B if something suddenly becomes unavailable and we have to scramble to get something else to replace it.

So, a lot of contingency planning, managing stock and supply, or just keep in touch with the suppliers and make sure that we're talking with them so that we know what's going on with them. And they likewise keep us informed of any potential delays so that we can have as much time as possible to respond.

Jim: Cool. Now, when we talked earlier, you kind of indicated that CRB has been transitioning quickly to more remote work tools due to COVID-19. What were they already doing that allowed them to accomplish this shift you're talking about and, maybe what are they doing that's new?

Steve: Well, good stuff here. Let me kind of give you a quick rundown. In the morning I thought it was kind of different, and actually it was different because I actually went into the office today for the first time, and I think it's been about two weeks since I was actually there. I had to go in and sign and seal some drawings getting issued for construction permitting. Those still require a physical CO, can't do some electronically. So, I had to go in there.

I printed out a single-page document, the first piece of paper I think I ran through a printer in over two weeks. I was one of only two people in our office of about 30, so it was kind of weird. Came back home, got home about 8:00. Sitting in my office, I've been on two calls this morning, one with my local automation team, five of us get together on a daily basis in the morning for a quick chat—what's going on, what we're doing, what are plans, what's come up, that type of stuff.

And then our pharma corp team has a weekly meeting that we were a part of and everybody's webbing. We have well over 30 people on that. So that was my morning. But our existing work culture really positioned us well for making this transition. I think we had a good head start here.

We have a high percentage of staff that routinely travel and work remote at client sites, from home at times, you're doing work in the airport terminal waiting on a flight. You're at a hotel at night after working all day and still cranking out some stuff.

So, we're there doing it already. Our IT infrastructure provided for high-speed communications, cloud-based tools and that support, that method of working. So, we have a lot of people that are remoting in, and so the stuff was there in place.

We've been using virtual meetings to maintain support collaboration between all our geographically dispersed teams or clients, project state callers. We use Skype, Microsoft Teams, BlueJeans, GoToMeetings and WebEx as our arsenal of web-based meeting the software.

We are already using all those and all of them have a different place, different strength, but in front we need a variety of them sometimes to accommodate people's computer systems, clients' networks, firewalls, what they allow. So, we have several that we use routinely.

And again, we're already using these means to do virtual meetings, and we also use a lot of 3D design software, CAD-based systems, that allow us to basically draw up things and model the building, what we're building in 3D, and then we can virtually over a meeting share that.

I'm working on a current project where it's in construction phase right now, but we had a project team that was in four different time zones, all four different time zones of the U.S., and five different offices. Did a lot of virtual meetings with the client, our intricate level of detail for revealing models where we actually brought up the 3D model. And we're able to virtually walk through the buildings, see what it looked like, see where we had pipes going through beams and vice versa, and that type of stuff.

So, I mean, really, we did a lot of that. And the majority of our staff had experienced it, again, because I would say more than well over half, probably two-thirds of our staff is fairly fluent in this. What we're doing really different, what change, we're creating opportunities for team members to stay connected. That human element is something that we, by nature, crave. And it's really obvious when we all get on a call everybody wants to, "How are you doing?" and that type of stuff.

We're doing the virtual team. Like I said, I did those, I talked about two we did this morning. We did company town halls. I've probably got two or three virtual happy hours on my calendar every week. So just get together with different people, different groups. My ISA background, I have some people that we still do things with and working there. The nice thing is CRB leadership really embraces the cloud technology and virtual meetings as a way to stay connected to all of our people. We're a pretty big company, and we're spread out.

Our company president has been doing with all this a series of weekly town halls where we kinda hear about the state of our business, how it's being impacted on COVID-19, and what else is happening related to COVID-19, and how we're working within our office structures, and what we can or shouldn't do there, guidance for making sure that everyone's safe and how it stays healthy.

And it's kind of neat to sit there and see that on a weekly basis we have probably well over 800 people on that Microsoft Teams call to listen to his little address. So, you know, we got a lot of people that were already savvy and pretty savvy in getting that way as well. We basically went from that many people, 1,300-people company, a lot of people in the office to almost everyone working remotely in about a week.

The biggest issues we had were just people picking up and moving monitors home, so they had big screens to look at at home. Some of the hardware, people... There were some scrambling and there still are. I tried to order a webcam and get it, like, in three days like we used to on Amazon and other places, but that's not happening. Ethernet cables, miscellaneous items, but I guess my recommendation is to think simple but make sure you have decent quality headsets, webcams, and know how to control and use them.

Know your software. Again, most of our staff use these tools, and so it wasn't too big of a learning curve for most of us. Compared to a year ago, if you think about it, too, or fortunately your home Internet bandwidth and performance has much improved probably in the last couple, three years. It's really gone up there because everybody is streaming movies and video, and online gaming, and whatnot.

So that's cool. We're running some pretty heavy software applications via remote servers and like Revit to AutoCAD disk...Revit, I'm sorry, and 3D design CAD, for example. And so, they have some pretty good bandwidth requirements, but we're able to do that. We have a few outliers live out in farther out rural areas that don't have super Internet connectivity. So, we get used to them sounding kind of like Obi-Wan or Luke Skywalker when they're phoning in from the next galaxy over kind of thing, but other than that, that's that in a nutshell.

Jim: Now, then, if other people want to duplicate this kind of process and adopt some of the tools, maybe how can I decide whether it's Microsoft Teams, or BlueJean, or GoToMeeting? How can I figure out which are the best ones for me? Are they easy to try out if you haven't used them before? 

Steve: Yeah. Depends on the software you dig into that, but I think you can look around. A lot of them have free trials. They did before at least. I'm pretty sure they are now, and there are a number of them out there or by referrals. Microsoft, Skype, and Teams has integrated into Microsoft Windows and Office. So that's a tool that is there and pretty mature and stable.

The GoTo, the BlueJeans, and a WebEx, WebEx is kind of the Cadillac, they're the powerhouse that really works in all cases, and it varies. Some are free, some are included, some are at cost and that type of thing, so there's different cost factors, so there's a little bit looking around. But the ones I mentioned probably are the ones that we see day in, day out for the most part in business in use.

There are others out there, the Zoom software that became immensely popular because it was free, and easy, and quick. They got nailed with massive demand and unfortunately, there is some issues that they're working through. But one of the things to remember too is that it wasn't all software to blame. Be careful how you use these tools so that you don't publicly broadcast your meetings so that anybody can join it and then mess with you while you're on your meeting. Those are some of the things that were happening. We had trials there, and I think most of those all offer something.

But yeah, I think you'll find too that one of the key things is that you're not gonna find a one solution answer there necessarily particularly well for a person maybe but for a business, again some of these we have to use, we'll use one over the other based on what the meeting is, whether it's international, certain clients require certain things for cybersecurity. So, keep security and cybersecurity in mind.

As far as other things, that was the actual tools but some things that we did implement early on here even before there was a formally declared pandemic, we created a COVID-19 response team that pulls key parts of our business together. You know like illegal safeties, C-suite communications, whatever to go over and keep everyone informed of the latest government guidance development, you know, what to do, how to deal with it and react a client job sites and to address the safety and health concerns of our workforce. That type of stuff.

Some construction sites specific because we are not only an engineering firm but we do actually take it to the field construct it and build it. And again, we're still building things and, practicing social distancing with groups of people. Segregation between construction corp and client operations. Kind of make sure that, okay, you guys go work over there, you guys go work over there, don't breathe on each other. That type of stuff.

Staggering breaks, limit the number of people in project brakes. Again, virtual meetings here too and wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands, and sanitizing stations at all job site entrances.

Awareness, again, as we do with our weekly town halls internally, we're always, so what's the latest and greatest in COVID. Keep reminding people what to do, how to do it. Be careful. Think about what you're doing. Wash your hands or watch your sneezing and just social distancing. We need the social distancing, physically distancing. Socially, let's keep talking on WebEx or phone or whatever, you know, and sites and clients have cracked down, too. We don't pop in and visit anymore. They want to know if you're coming and prepare. Make sure it's okay and essential, those types of things.

Sign people in and, you know, just kind of, if you've gone to the grocery stores, most businesses that are open they're limited in how many people are in the store. So, they'll check as you go in. If there's too many people in the store, they'll hold you up until somebody leaves and that type of stuff.

So again, there's a lot to this. This is a big deal. So those are just some of the things, tools we've used. And again, some expansion on what we're doing and how we're working around this.

Jim: So, once you get the good headsets and that's a great advice. You get a good headset and you've decided on the software tool or platform you're going to use. Is there any other meeting protocols or rules of engagement, for either the project meetings or things that are new and are there any soft skills that would be good for people to use?

Steve: That's a huge topic as well. The biggest and basic, most painful that most people get on a conference call sometime or prior and you'll find very quickly that you just want to scream out and yell at somebody and say, okay everybody mute unless you're talking so that you don't have noise, things like that. So, there are, you know, just think of that if your microphone's picking up noise, flip your microphone up out of your face so that you're not breathing into someone’s ear while you're breathing and with the mic on and things like that. So, learn to mute. That's probably one of the biggest pet peeves of all meetings and that's been going on for quite a while and those types of things and just people need to take a little more time. Just stop and think and jump in the car how you jump into conversation.

Engage just courtesy and you're okay. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to cut you off. Go ahead. And you have to do a little more direct, you know, speaking because you don't have the visual cues like you do if you're sitting around a table so that, but again, we remotely manage projects a lot already. So, it's there. Share an agenda and have a plan and once you start working with these things, you kind of get into a flow and get comfortable with talking. But again, so many of the basics of that.

Jim: Right. And you also mentioned in addition to the technical project meetings, there was also the social kind of happy hour meetings as well that were also important.

Steve: Yeah, there is and those are widely popular. And again, people naturally, you know, it was kind of weird. Well, not weird but when we had our first project and group team outing, we've got 30 plus people that were used to getting together weekly around the big production room table. And we hadn't talked to everyone for, you know, nobody's hardly talked to each other for a week, there’s some that do a lot, but it was nice to get on there and chat and say Hey, how are you doing? And go around the group and touching base and giving everybody a chance to share what's been going on, how they'd been coping. Turn on your webcam and show me your work space. These kinds of things. And this morning is one where you're razzing each other. The architect giving the engineer a little grief about his posters in the background, not being quite lined up right. Things like that.

So, the social aspect, again, we are social creatures and so we recognize that and we're making sure that we have ways for people to reach out. And again, since you're not any office, can't walk around impromptu things. You have a plan, but make sure you make concerted effort and set up a time to get together, talk and huddle up. That communication is very important and so you've got to make sure that you're making an effort to communicate with everyone, let everybody have a chance to join in and those types of things.

Jim: Terrific. All right, well it's all good advice. I mean these are transitional times and you know, maybe some of these practices continue forward. I know when we used to cover collaborative software and there was these were multi-person meetings in two different places. If one had donuts and the other didn't, that became an issue and they had to have what we call parody of treats on both sides. I don't know how you'd do that now though because everybody's in a separate location but...

Steve: Yeah, that's a big challenge and we had issues with that where we would do company-wide meetings and tried to do a presentation where we, again, we are across four times zones, so somewhere it's lunchtime for somebody and others it's late morning or right after breakfast so you learn to live with that.

Again, the etiquette there when you're on in the group with lunch, don't crinkle on your potato chip bag too much. Okay, everybody right now, unwrap your sandwich. Get that all the way. Now crunch quietly, you know, munch on your sandwich, watch your chips by the mic, that type of stuff. 

Jim: It's even more important to mute your line.

Steve: Yeah. So, learn to mute. And I think one of the main things, it's an attitude, responsibility, value. Our team is making an effort to check in with each other to make sure everyone feels supported and a part of the group that we've spread out now we've got a virtually make sure that everyone's being a part. Be patient and understanding these things or you know, calm down. You got to take things with a grain of salt, things are going to distract you at home when you’ve got things going on, the kids are out of school a lot.

And the other part is, and the big challenge here, and I'm lucky so far, I was prepping for this and doing some other stuff late afternoon yesterday and my computer died. It went blue screen twice in about 30 minutes and I lost some stuff. And I was like, ah, you know, but it's gonna happen. People get bumped off calls and stuff, and again, your remote meetings and all this stuff as we talked earlier, there's always gonna be someone with a bandwidth issue or things like that, or their sounds garbled and you say, can you repeat yourself please? And it's not a big deal. Just take your time. If you drop off, hey, call back in, we'll work around it, things can get done. We're all going through this together and we need to learn to just be patient, solve problems.

We've had some people that have bandwidth when you're on a computer and you're sharing video and audio, that takes up more bandwidth obviously. Some people don't have that. So, what they've done is, okay, they call in on their cell phone and they have the computer so they can see what's going on. So, that way that relieves the computer and they don't have the garble.

So, there's understanding bandwidth. What happens online is a big thing. If you've got kids, if you've got a critical meeting and we need to be online and have everything, make sure the kids aren't playing call of duty was half their buddies and chewing up your bandwidth so that you have the functionality you need. Take time to share. It's like anything but again, key thing be patient and have a sense of humor.

Jim: Yeah. Well patience is probably the most important insight in there. I mean that could be a good silver lining for the whole current situation if folks develop more patience with each other.

Steve: Yeah. Patience, like I said, going out and about, I think you're gonna see a resurgence of patience courtesy, things like that. So, I mean, things change in our world. We live with it and we adapt. We go on and we learn from things so take the good out of this as much as we can.

Jim: All right, well listen Steve, that was some great input. I'm sure it gives our listeners and a lot of encouragement and some news they can use to cope with the present. The COVID-19 crisis. Thanks again for cluing us in today.

Steve: You're quite welcome and hope everyone stays well.

Jim: All right. This has been another Control Amplified Podcast. I'm Jim Montague. Thanks for listening and please remember that the Control Amplified podcasts are always available on most of the podcasting apps, such as the iTunes store and Google Play and on Control magazine’s YouTube channel. Plus, you can always just listen right away at controlglobal.com. Thanks a bunch.

For more, tune into Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast

About the Author

Control Amplified: | Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast

The Control Amplified Podcast offers in-depth interviews and discussions with industry experts about important topics in the process control and automation field, and goes beyond Control's print and online coverage to explore underlying issues affecting users, system integrators, suppliers and others in these industries.

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