This month Factory Settings turns 15. The company that Lu and I founded from our basement workshop in 2005 has grown to a 30-strong organisation of creative, ingenious people.
Some are home-grown talent, others have arrived with new interesting skills. But all create fantastic things for our incredible clients using inventive thinking, designing and making processes.
So things were going well as we moved into our 15th year.
Over the last few years we have refined how we work together, and after a wonderful year last year, the order book was brimming with exciting projects, so we dared to believe we were about to reach the next level in our ambitious plans. This is the step where we balance our creative output with the highest levels of professionalism in how we work together as a group of motivated, inventive individuals – a stage that every arts based organisation must reach to allow sustainable commercial success and growth.
Then Covid hit.
I’m not going to write about how hard it’s been to cope with the challenges of the pandemic; how our industry has been hit so hard that it’s a feat that even 50% of our customer base has survived. I’d prefer to share what we’ve learned and gained through this unexpected, unprecedented time. As an organisation and as individuals.
Until March, we had a pretty standard set-up. Most of our full time staff worked from our main site in Leyton. We’d just taken on and fitted out two new units in the estate next door to house our growing CNC and metalwork departments, leaving carpentry and finishing at the main site.
This also housed our main offices including accounts to operations, projects to production, employing 20 people working in close proximity. As part of our expansion plans, Lu and I were spearheading a move to a new second office in the Olympic Park down the road.
Two weeks before we were locked down by the government, the senior managers made a recommendation based on the emerging virus picture that anyone who could work from home should – now. This was on the Friday. By Monday morning we were up and running across London and the home counties and the offices were empty.
It’s easy to write about it now, but it took some doing. The CAD department in particular needs their big PCs. And how do you deliver everyone’s equipment to their home when you have one van and one driver? What if he got the virus? Were we in danger of infecting our entire workforce doing the very thing that was intended to protect them? Should we send it all out in separate cabs? Then there are the desk monitors – trickier than the PCs as they all hang on a desk-based mount. Thankfully the CNC department devised a monitor stand for everyone out of plywood.
So we got there in the end, and in six months of working apart, after all those years working together, what have we discovered?
We’ve now got staff in Ireland, staff in Spain, staff living 2+ hours from London to be closer to their families – because they can.
Relationships between colleagues have been maintained, despite no face-to-face contact. Relationships between some colleagues have improved because of no face-to-face contact.
Projects won. Projects completed.
Roles found for staff who need to keep in touch with the company, but who’s usual duties have temporarily decreased. An opportunity for them to experience a side of what we do they would never have discovered. An opportunity for us to see a new side to them. Find new strengths.
A break for some. More time spent with families.
Of course our workshops and sites are still operating, and I must acknowledge the efforts of those who have not seen the above first hand because their roles do not allow it. I sincerely hope however that they do see, and will benefit from, the changes that this awful, cruel, disruptive epidemic will have for the good.
I hope that key members of staff never again have to spend two hours or more traveling across London every day just to sit in an office in order to connect to the cloud-based system they accessed that morning from their breakfast tables checking their email. What benefits those ten extra hours a week will bring. To each one of them, their family, and indirectly, our company.
So what does the future look like? For us, I expect it will be a mix. Some will eventually come back to the office, because it suits them, and us. I suspect most will not, certainly not full-time anyway.
That’s actually an exciting prospect. The key to this in large part is technology. There are very few, if any, IT systems that we employ which cannot be accessed from anywhere in the world. We can now have a meeting remotely, and many have remarked on how much easier it is to be disciplined in those meetings. To be on time, and prepared.
Space is a concern. That is why we are designing a range of affordable, stow-able desks and office furniture, initially aimed at helping our staff work from home, but ultimately as a commercial product. We are well placed to adapt in this way. Not every company is packed full of design talent and manufacturing know-how.
We are also designing Garden Offices. Our ability to design, build and install in the most challenging and sensitive venues in the world, brings huge benefits and gives us a head start in the domestic market. As the pandemic changes the way we work, the way we live will have to change too. Organisations have a duty to ensure their staff has the same level of facilities at home as they would expect in the office. We can help deliver that. We’re starting with our own team.
One of the many real challenges of the post-Covid world will be how to separate work life from home life when the boundaries between the two become ever more indistinct.
As an organisation we will need to maintain even stronger connections with our people at a distance, than those we had when we all worked in the same building. How is the creativity of human interaction affected as we increasingly do business in this new, remote way? That is a question to address as we go along.
So turning 15 has come with lots of lessons in ways we never anticipated. But it has definitely allowed us to emerge stronger, wiser, full of respect for the resourceful creativity that abounds in this company. And to look forward to the next years with careful optimism.