A case study of how one business - ours - has rapidly made the transition from office-based to fully remote working as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown.
Orchid Systems have been looking for ways to innovate for over 25 years, but in late March we did something we’ve never done before.
We shut up shop. Turned off the lights, pulled down the shutters, put a sign on the door, and went our separate ways.
We weren’t giving up on Orchid. Far from it. We were just following our Government’s sudden COVID-19 directive to “stay at home, unless you can’t work remotely”.
We found ourselves in the fortunate position of being able to ‘shut up shop’ largely on our own terms. Countless others, often entire industries, have had no such luxury. Our thoughts are with all those whose lives and livelihoods are currently in turmoil as a result.
A Case Study: Hybrid Cloud in Action
This is a case study of how one business – ours - has made the transition from office-based to fully remote working. Yes, it’s our own story, but with businesses around the world facing similar challenges, and many of our partners and end-users no doubt among them, we’d like to share it.
We’ve achieved this using an internal, tailored on-premises ERP solution coupled with a variety of technologies that facilitate remote access. In summary:
- Sage 300 (on-premises)
- Selected 3rd Party add-on modules
- A Virtual Private Network, combined with remote desktop software
- A range of cloud solutions to support specific business functions
The result is a rich, customizable business platform well suited to running our business remotely. We believe it’s a good example of a hybrid-cloud environment in action!
Read on to find out how we got to this point, and for more about the specific solutions we’ve adopted.
The Starting Gun Fires
Our “lockdown” order wasn’t a complete surprise to anybody who’d been keeping abreast of world events, but the timing, scope and urgency still came as a shock. We’d hoped Australia's isolation might at least buy us a few extra weeks of relative normality, but it wasn't to be.
As our business has evolved we’ve had fewer and fewer external visitors, but we'd always kept our office doors open during traditional work hours.
The new COVID-19 ground rules forced us to ask some questions that had hovered close to the surface for several years:
What would it take to leave the office behind and have us all work remotely?
And how long would it take?
The answers turned out to be “not that much”, and “about 48 hours”.
Working 5 to 9 (what a way to make a living!)
Working remotely became a necessity for us long before it became mandatory.
Running a service business with most of our clients on the other side of the planet simply isn’t compatible with being a 9-to-5 operation.
5-to-9 is much closer to the truth, and for some of us even that could be wishful thinking.
To illustrate, let’s take a peek into the lives of some of the team:
- Anne lives only minutes from the office, but work follows her home. That 4pm support call in Toronto might mean a 5am wake-up in Sydney. All our staff involved in direct client support can identify with that.
- Steve, Anne and Nathalie typically spend several months of the year between them travelling to conferences and partner events across the globe, while simultaneously keeping on top of issues closer to home.
- David, Anne and Stacy also spend weeks each year visiting relatives and friends on other continents. The same applies to Nathalie, who bases herself in our ‘Paris office’ for weeks at a time to be with her mother.
- Steve, Nathalie, Dan and Stacy understand the challenges of raising families while working full time. They know that this would be unthinkable without a functional home office and a flexible employer.
- Stacy, Albert and Dan’s regular work weeks include scheduled days of working from home to avoid the commute and juggle family responsibilities.
- Our regular Webinar Wednesday events generally have 3 different sessions, to accommodate partners in different time zones. For us that can mean all hands on deck at 4pm, 8pm and 6am.
- Susan has often borne the burden of managing the office alone while others are scattered far and wide, so the sudden change of routine may have impacted her more than anyone.
That's not meant to be a sob story. It has worked for us, and many a modern small business would have a similar tale to tell. The point is that the reality of working remotely is hardly new to us, so...
While the starter’s pistol for the lockdown might have caught us by surprise, we were in a better position than most to jump out of the blocks.
Getting to the Starting Line
We didn’t make a conscious decision to re-shape our business into one that could work remotely, it’s been more a case of natural evolution and necessity.
The primary enabler for all this has been the near-ubiquitous availability of fast, reliable, broadband. While Australia’s networks are far from perfect, particularly in regional and remote areas, we’re far better placed than we would have been just a few short years ago.
In recent years we’ve tweaked most parts of our operations, re-tooling to increase our efficiency.
Our need to collaborate effectively while often working apart, together with dramatic changes to the way modern software is deployed, means the new tools we’ve adopted have almost inevitably been cloud-based.
Tools of the Trade
Let’s take a closer look at how our business works from end to end, and some of the many tools we use each day that support our new remote reality.
Basics of the Virtual Office
It’s not that long ago that setting up an office required little more than a phone, a desktop computer, and a set of in/out trays. A lot has changed, but some things remain largely the same.
- VoIP Telephony: Our office phone system went VoIP years ago, largely due to economics, but it also means the network no longer stops at the office door. We now have additional VoIP handsets in all our homes, as well as Nathalie’s 'Paris office'. Recently we’ve tweaked our setup so that external calls to the office number cause selected home phones to ring.
- VPN: Our secure virtual network provides remote access to that data and software that remains on-premises, including Sage 300 and Sage CRM.
- Office 365: Browser-based access to email, calendar and other everyday tools, from just about any device. How did we live without it?
Phone calls and emails have their place, but sometimes you need to come together in a group, or eyeball each other one-on-one. As well as ad hoc conversations we have a regular operating rhythm of development, support, marketing, admin and strategy meetings. To support this we use the following:
- Microsoft Teams is now our go-to tool for internal video meetings, chat and document sharing. (The last couple of months have seen explosive growth in the use of this relatively new addition to Office 365. We've made a small contribution to that.)
- We use GoToWebinar for our large “Webinar Wednesday” events, and GoToMeeting for some smaller meetings.
- We’ve started playing around with Zoom as an alternative option for video chats involving external parties. (While learning new terms like ‘Zoombombing’. Zoom have learned that going from niche to mass market overnight has its challenges!)
A word of warning: A good video meeting needs a good web-cam. If you don't already have one you may have left it too late - in Sydney at least they are suddenly as hard to find as toilet rolls.
We pride ourselves on rapidly resolving client issues. These tools, all designed to bring us and our partners together regardless of location, make managing the process possible:
- ZenDesk Support : For capturing and managing support enquiries from our partners.
- ZenDesk Guide: For our KnowlegeBase and Community forum.
- TeamViewer: Screen sharing for secure remote support.
Let’s not forget that we are, first and foremost, a software house!
We couldn’t develop productivity tools for others without having a productive development environment of our own.
We use these two products from Atlassian, who happen to be a Sydney-based success story:
- Jira: For managing all the tasks associated with our software development projects.
- Sourcetree: A source code management and version control tool that sits on top of our Git repositories.
- MadCap Flare, to generate all our module documentation.
- MadCap Central to publish and host online help. (Initially for our DimoMaint Connector and the Extender Workflow documentation. We plan to extend this to the rest of our products in coming months.)
- LucidChart to document custom Extender scripts & workflows. We've also started using it for internal business processes, linked to Teams and Jira.
Taking Care of (our) Business
Up to now I've been talking about the tools that support our operations, but what about the dollars and cents side of the business?
Only by keeping a close eye on the health of our own business can we ensure we’ll be here to help other businesses through these challenging times.
Orchid products are built around Sage 300, so it makes sense that Orchid itself uses Sage 300 as our ERP platform.
We also make good use of our own Orchid add-ons. Here are just some examples of how these have proven invaluable in making the transition to remote working.
- Notes data is stored in the Sage 300 database, associated with specific fields and/or screens, and automatically displayed to users regardless of their location. (E.g. when viewing a Customer's order for an Orchid module we'll be instantly aware if a promotional price was applied.)
- Document Management Link (DML): Digital copies of Invoices, Purchase Orders, emails etc. can be uploaded to our server and a cloud-based repository (e.g. we use OneDrive), and linked to specific Customers, Vendors etc. Like Notes, they can then be easily accessed by any Sage 300 user.
While we have used DML internally for some time, we've found other uses for it since going remote. E.g. we now also it to file bank statements and bank reconciliation reports, rather than relying on hardcopies.
- Info-Explorer cubes containing the latest sales and renewals data for Orchid modules are automatically refreshed daily by Process Scheduler, which also emails the cubes to our executive team. This gives them up-to-date insight into our business performance, no matter where in the world they happen to be.
- Timesheet data related to billable work is captured in Zendesk, and pushed into Sage CRM. Report Runner is used to extract data for the current period. It's then distributed by email for checking before invoices are generated.
We also use Report Runner to extract the latest sales data for calculating commission payable to our international distributors.
- We use Extender to support key operational processes, such as automating the billing of our recurring subscription and maintenance revenues.
Extender scripts extract and merge data from Sage 300 and Sage CRM . (E.g. Sage 300 holds details of Sales Orders from our Partners, whereas End-User details like licencing data and activation codes are held in Sage CRM.)
We also use Extender Workflow to drive Accounts Payable invoice approval processes. These trigger notifications and enforce approval prior to payment, eliminating the need for our admin and executive staff to be co-located.
- EFT Processing is used to pay Vendors and email remittance advices, removing the need for physical signatures and trips to the post office.
So…How’s it going?
So far, so good. It would be a stretch to say it’s business as usual, but we’ve survived a couple of weeks since ‘going remote’ with barely a hiccup.
We're continually looking for other ways we can streamline operations, both internally and for our partners, e.g.:
- We are putting the finishing touches on our Partner Portal, and will be using Extender scripts and workflows to further automate processes around renewals.
- We're configuring an Extender Workflow to automatically notify everyone, via Microsoft Teams, about new orders for our modules. (We can't rely on that sort of information being informally shared around the water cooler any more.)
- We'll be using DML to store more documents, so we can eventually make those shelves full of ring binders gathering dust in our office redundant.
Keeping in Touch
Over the coming months we look like accumulating as many air miles as Greta Thunberg. That might be great news for the planet, but all that social distancing creates challenges for maintaining our relationships. Deleting "See you at Sage Summit" from our email signatures was just the start.
Challenge means opportunity, so we'll be looking for other ways to keep in touch with our partners.
Expect to see:
- A continuation of our Webinar Wednesday events, but with most of us connecting from home.
- Some of that time we usually spend in airline lounges diverted to creating more videos - be they product demos, quick tips, spotlights or deep-dive training.
- More activity on Social Media, including our Twitter & LinkedIn pages.
To the Finishing Line...and Beyond
As far as the lockdown goes, none of us know quite how or when it will end. We assume the finishing line is just around that curve everyone seems to be talking about...or perhaps the curve beyond that. Just as we had a staggered start, it's likely to be a staggered finish. Maybe even a stuttering start-stop-start finish. But, one way or another...
The day will come when we are free to turn those lights back on and resume normal operations. But will we want to?
We’re still paying the rent, and we’ve still got the key to that roller door, but will our experience of 'going remote', and the knowledge that we can do without the office, tempt us to create a ‘new normal’ that looks different to the ‘old normal’?
The next normal will look unlike any in the years preceding the coronavirus, the pandemic that changed everything.
McKinsey & Company
This experience will expand everyone’s capacity. If there’s a tiny positive aspect to this mess we’re finding ourselves in, it’s that we’re developing certain skills that could be helpful in the future. That’s my deepest hope.
Will we be reluctant to go back to battling Sydney traffic, and giving up the newfound flexibility of balancing our work and personal lives? Or will the professional benefits of side-by-side working, together with the human need for face-to-face interaction, win out? It's still too early to tell, but...
We looking forward to seeing you, and each other, on the other side.