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How Hillarys responded to the coronavirus outbreak

How Hillarys responded to the coronavirus outbreak

Hillarys’ Head of ICT Julian Bond talks to Computing about how the UK-based manufacturer responded to the coronavirus crisis – culminating this week in the government-ordered lockdown

When coronavirus finally hit the UK with a vengeance at the beginning of March and people started to wake-up to the threat, many organisations were far advanced with their planning.

Not just because they had a business continuity plan that they could swing into action with, or because they had seen it coming since January, but because they already had in place a series of technologies that could, at the least, mitigate some of the risks.

UK shutter and blind manufacturer Hillarys was one of those companies.

“We’ve traditionally used Citrix thin clients for a significant proportion of our estate,” Hillary’s Head of ICT Julian Bond tells Computing. “This has had unintended benefits in the current crisis. Where staff can work from home, many have been able to use their own home equipment and Citrix – allowing us to minimise bandwidth and benefit from enhanced security.”

An unprecedented amount of time is needed to communicate, reassure and re-plan given that events are changing (and re-changing) so quickly

Another technology that has helped Hillarys – and many other companies – has been the shift over the past ten years from on-premise private branch exchanges (PBXs) to cloud communications. Hillarys uses both on-premise and hosted Avaya IP office phone systems, but has augmented this with video conferencing to better manage communications across offices and manufacturing sites.

“We implemented StarLeaf cloud-based video conferencing just over a year ago, principally for inter-site meetings. This has formed the backbone of communicating and interacting with remote teams. It has proved to be extremely reliable and has scaled to far more numerous connections than the limited inter-site originally envisaged.”

On top of that, staff across Hillary’s also use Google Hangouts, Apple FaceTime and WhatsApp.

However, for many staff, adds Bond, home working will come as something of a novelty, given how centralised on one site in Nottingham much of the business is.

“Hillarys has a large head office campus based in Nottingham, where a large proportion of its information workers are based. Having enjoyed many synergies from staff and teams co-located, the company had probably made less progress towards the practice of regular home-working and use of the collaboration tools that are essential for more distributed workforces. A ‘silver lining’ of the current situation is that it will accelerate us on this journey,” said Bond.

It has also forced a re-appraisal of the way the company does business in a number of aspects, including how IT projects are managed and run. Those elements of the IT department that already deliver projects using Agile methodologies, said Bond, appear to have adapted most easily to the suddenly changed environment.

“Despite a well-defined governance process for prioritising the roadmap of business initiatives and their IT involvement, we saw that we needed to quickly reappraise workloads in the light of evolving realities of the current situation. The areas of our business that make most extensive use of agile methodologies have found this easiest.”

And, despite claims by Intel and AMD that they were producing at full tilt in order to maintain CPU supply to customers, elsewhere the supply-chain has certainly been affected, Bond said. “The supply chain for computer hardware (for example, laptops) dried up almost straight away, forcing us to repurpose, redeploy and re-prioritise existing equipment.”

Hillarys Head of ICT Julian Bond on the company's shop floor
Hillarys Head of ICT Julian Bond on the company’s shop floor

Indeed, an impact on the IT hardware industry, much of which is concentrated in China and Taiwan, was noted from the beginning of February.

Internet bandwidth has also been upped – but Bond found that Hillary’s was far from the only business taking such a measure, meaning that “this hasn’t been as quick to achieve as anticipated”, particularly as suppliers are understandably prioritising ‘blue light’ requests.

And management has also had to learn to communicate more clearly – and spend more time on communication, too, adds Bond.

“The proportion of time invested by the IT management team in man management has grown significantly and will probably remain so for some time to come. An unprecedented amount of time is needed to communicate, reassure and re-plan given that events are changing (and re-changing) so quickly.”

Of course, as a manufacturer the bottom line is that the company needs staff on the shop floor to make the blinds and other made-to-measure products, while also keeping an eye on orders. “Production moved quickly to keep workers safe by implementing social distancing, more regular and extensive cleaning (and a rigorous hand sanitizer regime),” said Bond.

And, while millions of people suddenly working from home could deliver a boom in orders as they refit spare rooms and living rooms for home working, Hillarys has quickly complied with government advice throughout the crisis and isn’t taking new orders or booking new appointments.