How has the COVID pandemic changed both internal and external communication at MachineWorks?

Daily Standup in the Peak District
Daily standup in the Peak District

2020 will always be the year when everything just stopped. The year when every person and every business was thrust into a new status quo. The optimism at MachineWorks at the end of 2019, with a growing team and interesting new customers pushing the technology in new directions, soon turned to shock, uncertainty and caution.

First international travel was banned. Then any travel. Then, overnight, the entire company moved from everyone working in the same physical office to everyone working from home. We had to adapt, and quickly. 

Internal Communications.

MachineWorks has always been admirably meeting free. For most teams scheduled meetings were as rare as leprechauns and four-leafed clovers. Communication was largely informal and this was no bad thing. To reference Steve Maguire’s* mind set - is this meeting adding to the product or is it just taking up people’s time that could be more productively spent elsewhere? Is that our lead architect actually snoring? 

A strong aura of do not disturb emanates from the core developers' room. This is not a place for outsiders. The Slaughtered Lamb. You’re not from these parts are ye? The only sound, keys tapping. Idle chat, forbidden. Serious discussion, take it elsewhere. I’ve got work to do and I don’t appreciate being disturbed.

Would you trust these people with your polygons?

But with the physical office suddenly shut down, internal communication had to change. Tapping Morse code on your knee like Moriarty in Sherlock’s rooms was no longer sufficient nor acceptable.

A few years ago, the sales and marketing teams started holding a daily stand-up meeting. It wasn’t really an attempt to embrace formal Agile Methodologies, more simply a way for the teams to keep in touch with the many disparate things that were going on. As a regular status meeting it certainly suffered some of the productivity fails outlined by Maguire but it was only Sales and Marketing, so who cares?

Nonetheless the ripples of so radical an event did impact productivity elsewhere, as people on other teams went through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Ok, maybe perhaps confusion, scepticism and then open amusement.

Then, a few months into lockdown, rumours started to drift round. Unsettling rumours. Disturbing rumours. Rumours that the development team were having a weekly meeting. And then, even more disturbing – “I can’t talk now, call me after standup”. Oh wow. This pandemic has gotten seriously bad.

We’ve all had big shifts in our lives this past year, both personally and professionally. Like every company, MachineWorks has had to adapt. One of the biggest takeaways from that is that maybe there are areas we can do things differently. 

True Grit

External Communications

Company-wide travel bans and the transition to working from home also meant external communication had to change.

MachineWorks has always attended trade shows – IMTS, EMO, Formnext, Rapid TCT etc – and these have been a great place to stay in touch with our customers both on formal and informal levels. We also tried to make sure we visited our bigger customers around the world at least once every two to three years. We were very happy when customers came to visit us and there were enough regular guests to the MachineWorks’ “boardroom” to keep our IT team on their toes setting up guest wifi passwords and tricky Bluetooth connections between errant laptops and the fancy big monitor on the wall.

Even before the COVID pandemic the Sales and Consulting teams had been moving to focus more on remote technical engagements. Face to face engagement is usually the ideal but there are also downsides. So rather than fly a consultant to another part of the world to sit side by side with the interested developers they were focusing on trying to pre-emptively create more getting started content – examples, training etc, and solving issues through web-meetings and producing customer-specific example code.

When the pandemic hit we initially didn’t see all that much change with respect to our customer engagements, other than all the trade shows were cancelled and we had no physical face to face meetings. As the pandemic has continued that has changed. We’ve seen more willingness and openness from customer development teams to share plans, problems and requirements in the form of regular or semi-regular web meetings.

So far this seems very positive. It’s not quite as friendly as going for lunch or a beer together but the reduction in the benefits of informal communication are being replaced by the benefits of greater frequency and greater inclusivity as more people are able to be involved.

We’ve also increased our efforts to create and push technical content – technical blogs, video demonstrations and webinars – partly to help keep our customers informed. However these will never match the effectiveness gained by a web-meeting to discuss specific technical issues.

GoToMeeting. Do not pass kitchen. Do not collect $200.

We’re also increasing our virtual networking efforts on LinkedIn and will be pushing more notifications and content via the new MachineWorks and Polygonica product showcase pages – so please sign up to follow them.

Communicating with our customers and partners is something that we can definitely improve. It’s an area where we can open up and be a bit more transparent – and in that spirit we’re very happy to receive suggestions of what you think we can do better.

We know now, more than ever, how important it is to reach out and talk to people whenever we can. So we’d like to make ourselves more approachable and easier to talk to. This is something that we will be trying to put across in all our communications whether it be directly with customers, through press releases and through posts to our website and social media.

Moving forward, as the impact of the pandemic eases, you can fully expect a knock on the door from your favourite support manager, sales person or consulting engineer - and of course the ubiquitous MachineWorks/Polygonica booth will again be popping up at your favourite exhibitions and conferences. But we’ll also be working harder to improve our remote communications, accessibility and responsiveness, so you know where we are, what we’re up to and that you are always welcome to reach out to us whenever you need to.

And with that in mind please look out for our next article detailing “a day in the life of a support call.” 

*Steve Maguire - Debugging the Development Process, Microsoft Press

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