Tag: pandemic

Emerging successfully from an economic downturn and global pandemic is no easy feat, especially if you are an SME business without large cash reserves to see you through. How do entrepreneurs combat these difficult times and come out the other side relatively unscathed?

Warren Bonheim, MD of Zinia, a leading ICT and telecoms provider, shares his strategies for success that have seen Zinia thrive through tough times.

Embrace customer reviews

Word of mouth has to a certain extent been digitised with many customers often deciding who to contact off of google and social media reviews. This strategy embraces transparency by asking customers to go public with their experience across digital platforms.

Bonheim says feedback directly from the mouths of the customer has a unique way of driving a culture of continuous improvement and dedication to customer excellence.

By focusing on customer experience as a priority in your business, you can determine if you are delivering on your service promise or not. Simply asking what your customers are saying about your business also allows you to benchmark your service and find a starting point to improve. However, exposing your business by actively seeking out customer reviews is not without risk.

“Opening your business up to customer feedback is daunting because there is absolutely no control over what people will say,” says Bonheim. “In addition, it is human nature to criticize and not take the time to give positive feedback.”

Whilst this approach may open a business up to negative reviews, these reviews allow business decision-makers to create targeted intervention programmes to improve their services that are far more resource-efficient in the long run.

Invest in people and service

During tough times leaders may seek to cut costs through their wage bill. However, making a strategic decision to not carry out retrenchments may be better as it allows you to protect the livelihood of employees who make a high level of customer service possible.

This also proves that you are loyal to your employees, preserving employee satisfaction and motivation which leads to a productive and positive company culture.

Zinia made the decision to stand by their employees and demonstrate their commitment to personalized service by limiting retrenchment during the Lockdown. They also improved the customer experience by incorporating easy to understand tools, sales documents, processes, checks, SLAs, and customer satisfaction surveys to make dealing with the company effortless. In the same way, links to provide customer feedback are readily available at a variety of touchpoints, making it easy for customers to share their thoughts.

Give recognition

Getting buy-in from executive-level members is also imperative to implementing these strategies. Reviews both positive and negative should be monitored regularly by executive level company members. This allows positive reviews and the employees responsible for them to be given validation and recognition. Negative reviews can be investigated and the challenge properly identified – be it in processes, people, or systems – to inform future strategies on how to improve the business.

Bonheim says, “When we get a positive review everyone at Zinia celebrates, and when we get a negative one, we see it as an opportunity to learn. It is difficult not to take a negative review personally at Zinia because every staff member is so passionate about customer service. However, we know we are doing something right when 97% of our customers rate us a 4 out of 5 and above for service excellence.”

Creating a positive service culture internally through internal communication initiatives and leading by example is essential. After all, if your company members don’t believe in what you are doing you will struggle to implement any strategy within the company.

Digitise appropriately

Another strategic decision that paid off for Zinia was investing in a digitization strategy in 2018 that carefully considered which key business processes could be automated to support, manage, and sustain the businesses growth.

Automation has an incredible capacity to drive efficiencies and ensure that customer service is not compromised by lightening some of the manual administrative load. Investments in IT systems, customer engagement and ticketing, productivity monitoring and more, allowed Zinia to remain strong during 2020 when other businesses struggled.

The leader’s investment in an IT managed services platform known as ZMS allowed them to virtually manage their customer’s IT and network environments; improve efficiency and productivity of their own internal resources; proactively service their customers and minimise their downtime.

Effective digitisation has the benefit of allowing a company to be flexible and pivot according to challenges, big or small, that they may face. During a crisis situation like the pandemic, a solid digital infrastructure allows for remote working when needed, providing everything that the employee needs – internet, access to business systems, telephony and so on – so they can work productively.

Any good business strategy should focus on implementing the systems and controls necessary for the company to scale and provide the flexibility to react quickly. In Zinia’s case, their combination of systems and entrepreneurial flair allowed their team to quickly investigate the implications and opportunities within the crises when international rumours of a lockdown first began.

This resulted in the company being ready for lockdown with remote working solutions that included hosted VoIP (Voice over IP) PBX and custom productivity tools that could be delivered virtually. These solutions answered a very real business need in the market: How to manage employee’s remote activities and identify operational inefficiencies, productivity trends and prevent any IT security risks of remote working.

Embracing a digital way of interacting includes benefits such as increased sales activity and output of work, reduced travelling costs, reduced time spent travelling, reduced printing costs and so on.

Using these business strategies above can combat downturns in the economy, provide consistent feedback on business health and help clients trust organisations that deliver value in today’s world. Creativity and innovation are key to running any business, but especially in rapidly changing climates, they can make or break your success.

Businesses with strong growth strategies, forward-thinking decision-makers and positive workplace culture are emerging from the pandemic stronger than ever. Whilst many will agree that a fully work from home approach is not sustainable, with the correct strategy and investment in infrastructure we can effectively marry in office and work from home scenarios and create more resilient companies, with leaner operating models and more positive culture that recognise and support the human element of successful businesses.

Kulula flights stopped until September

Source: MyBroadband

Comair has extended the suspension of Kulula.com and British Airways flights until 31 August 2021, following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement that South Africa will remain on lockdown level 4.

Comair said the prohibition of all non-essential travel in and out of Gauteng means there is limited demand for business travel.

Comair suspended all scheduled flights from 5 July 2021 with the intention to start flying again on 30 July 2021.

However, given the uncertainty of the expected length of the recently adjusted level 4 lockdown, Comair decided to suspend flight operations until 31 August 2021.

“This decision has been taken in the interest of the well-being of employees and customers,” Comair said.

“Without Government engagement with or support for the aviation sector and associated services, the ability to plan constructively for a meaningful service beyond 30 July 2021 is exceptionally challenging.”

“Taking the potential variables into consideration, Comair plans to resume scheduled operations on Wednesday 1 September 2021.”

Comair CEO, Glenn Orsmond, apologised to customers affected by the suspension, adding that the decision was not made lightly.

Tickets for travel with Kulula.com from 28 June 2021 to 31 August 2021 will remain valid for 12 months until 31 August 2022. No change of booking fee or fare difference will be charged.

 

As many South African workers continue to work from home, many feel increasingly tired, stressed and uncertain about the future which is leading to rise in mental health concerns.

Linda Trim, director at Giant Leap, says: “Coronavirus and the imposition of lockdowns year has significantly raised mental health challenges.

“These are some of the major factors that have contributed to the stress and anxiety during this time:

  • Disrupted work-life balance: Balancing the work and personal life has become a major issue during this period. Extended hours of work just to finish off the task has led to the severe disruption of work-life balance.
  • Uncertain future: “Uncertainty about one’s career prospects for the future can be frustrating and worrying,” Trim said. “And it’s especially challenging for younger workers trying to learn from more experienced workers and trying to get ahead in their careers.”
  • Financial uncertainty: The economic impact of lockdowns has proved ruinous for many economies. “Many people live in fear of losing their jobs,” said Trim.

But there are ways to push back against the anxiety. This is how you can preserve the mental health while working from home:

Have separate areas for work and play: It is recommended to have a dedicated workspace to help you stay focused when working remotely.
“Having separate areas for work and play also makes it easier to mentally move from work mode to home mode,” says Trim.

Don’t use your work computer in your free time: Just like having different locations for work and private life, it’s important to separate your work tools from your play tools. The most obvious example is your laptop. “If you can afford it, make sure you don’t use the laptop where you are drafting your best selling novel for any other activity,” Trim advises.

Go for a walk after the workday is over: “If it’s safe and you can observe covid rules, go put for a walk or bike ride as soon as the workday is over. This will help you mentally switch to ‘home mode’ by getting you focused on a different activity, thereby relaxing your mind,” says Trim.

Do exercise to keep both your body and mind healthy: If you cannot or are worried about going out, do some exercises or stretches at home. Not only will physical activity help you divert your mind from work, but it will help you stay in shape and help you relax.

Plan your after-work time: When everyone is locked in and there isn’t much life outside your home, it’s difficult to break yourself away from work. Says Trim:” It’s essential to keep a check on what you are doing after work. Make plans beforehand so that it makes you look forward to finishing off the work.”

“It’s also really important to stay in touch, keep connecting and talking to each other, particularly friends and family,” Trim concludes.

By Rudolph Nkgadima for IOL

While Gauteng premier David Makhura considers imposing further restrictions in the province, in an effort to curb the increasing number of Covid-19 infections, some health experts are saying they will not be enough.

In the past few weeks, Gauteng has seen a sustained steady increase in Covid-19 cases and is the epicentre of the third wave, accounting for about 60% of the latest daily increase.

Welcoming the military health personnel deployed to help health-care professionals in the province on Monday, Makhura said a stricter lockdown could be announced soon as the number of new cases and hospitalisations continued to soar.

However, health expert Dr Kgosi Letlape said Gauteng was left with only one option.

“The only thing that we can resort to are the non-pharmaceutical intervention methods which have worked for us during the first and second wave. People should be behaving as if we are on level 5 because the numbers are too high,” he said.

Letlape said restrictions on social gatherings needed to be tightened.

Life Healthcare group chief executive Peter Wharton-Hood said further restrictions would not improve the situation.

“The infections are already in the system; a hard lockdown is not going to prevent the peak. The social consequences of a hard lockdown and the economic consequences are grave for those people who are not able to work,” he said.

“Prevention is better than cure. I think that the learnings of wave 3, for us, is a direct result of social behaviour and people not taking the necessary guidelines and following the obvious advice that has been given to them for months. Social distancing, wearing masks and responsible behaviour are the best ways to prevent this outcome,” he said.

The provincial coronavirus command council is set to meet on Tuesday when further restrictions are expected to be discussed.

 

By Theo Leggett for BBC News

Disruption in the global container shipping industry shows no sign of being resolved quickly and could lead to shortages in the run-up to Christmas, say industry experts.

An outbreak of Covid-19 in Guangdong province in southern China has caused acute congestion at the region’s ports.

As a result, shipments have been delayed, exacerbating tensions within global supply chains.

And the knock-on effects could take many months to resolve.

The problems in Guangdong are just the latest in a series of severe setbacks for the industry. Shipping firms have been struggling to cope with dramatic fluctuations in demand triggered by the pandemic, as well as the consequences from the recent blockage of the Suez Canal.

The global nature of the sector, and the lack of spare capacity within it, means that problems in one region can have ripple effects around the world for several months.

Diversions
Yantian International Container Terminal is one of a number of ports in the Shenzhen region, which collectively form a vital gateway for exports from the Pearl River Delta, a major Chinese centre for manufacturing and technology.

Since late May, the terminal has been operating at a fraction of its normal capacity, with operations restricted due to controlling the spread of Covid. This has led to severe congestion, with dozens of ships waiting outside the port for a berth to become available.

“One of the biggest ports in China has basically closed down for close to three weeks. They have some berths in operation, but nowhere near enough”, says Nils Haupt, communications director at the German shipping line Hapag-Lloyd.

Over the past few days, shipping lines have been diverting vessels away from Yantian to other nearby terminals in the Delta area. But, according to Mr Haupt, that has been creating its own problems.

“You can use ports like Shekhou, you can use Nansha, you can use Hong Kong; but what we’re seeing right now is that delays are piling up there as well,” he says.

Jams
The growing crisis in southern China is just the latest blow to hit the shipping industry, which has been suffering from acute disruption for more than a year.

A dramatic slowdown in the early stages of the pandemic was followed by a frenzy of activity, as customers, unable to travel or socialise in their normal ways, ordered more consumer goods.

This sudden shift in demand, from famine to feast, threw delicately balanced supply chains out of kilter. Ports in Europe and North America became clogged, with too many vessels arriving at the same time, while the supply of empty containers for new consignments dried up, because too many of them were sitting at quaysides around the world.

Then came the blockage of the Suez Canal in March. The closure of one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes delayed hundreds of ships. But when it reopened the sudden arrival of the delayed vessels triggered new congestion at European hubs such as Rotterdam and Antwerp.

UK shoppers warned of summer products shortage
The cost of the Suez Canal blockage
“We were just beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel,” says Mr Haupt. “But then unfortunately we ran into this situation in Yantian.”

Constant crisis
According to Peter Sands, chief shipping analyst at the industry organisation Bimco, the sector is used to responding to crises.

“On a global network scale, these states of emergency are a permanent situation right now,” he explains.

“But the issue with Yantian is, we need more transparency and openness from the local authorities. And we aren’t getting that, which means there is a lot of uncertainty in developing contingency plans.”

The hope within the industry is that the situation in Yantian will be resolved as rapidly as possible, although experts warn that when that happens, it will lead to a surge in shipments from the region, which could cause further bottlenecks elsewhere in the supply chain.

“Because the system is so overloaded, every time one of these things happens now, the system is already at breaking point, or past breaking point, so anything else just adds grist to the mill,” explains James Baker, containers editor at shipping industry publication, Lloyd’s List.

For this reason he expects the disruption to continue for at least another 12 months, with consumers in Europe and North America continuing to face much longer waits than normal for their goods.

Crazy Christmas
For UK retailers, this raises the real prospect of a shortage of goods ahead of the Christmas shopping period. Even under normal circumstances, they begin to acquire seasonal stocks from China months in advance, with the process beginning in the late summer.

“One of the issues at the moment, which is aiding the congestion, is the fact that everyone knows that the lead times are really slow, so retailers are booking their Christmas goods already,” says Mr Baker.

“Traditionally, the peak season for container shipping starts in the third quarter as everyone stocks up for the holiday season in the west, but this year we’re just in a permanent peak season already, and heaven knows what’s going to happen come August or September. It could get crazy. It’s very hard to tell.”

The situation could improve, he says. But, slightly tongue-in-cheek perhaps, he has some advice for consumers: “If you want to get something for your family for Christmas, start shopping now.”

 

Final dates set for the 2021 school year

By Se-Anne Rall for IOL

Thousands of learners are expected to head back to school next week following a delayed start due to a second wave of the deadly Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa.

Based on the approved and final school calendar for 2021 that has been released, learners are expected to hit the ground running from Monday until the end of the first term, April 23.

The second term is expected to start on May 3 and will continue until July 9, while the third term will run between July 26 and October 1. The fourth term starts on October 11 and ends on December 15. Learners are being given 40 weeks of learning in total.

While learners are due back only next week, school management teams returned last month to prepare for the year ahead.

KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala said schools in the province were ready to open for the 2021 academic year.

He said considerable progress was being made to address minor outstanding issues. Oversight committees would visit schools on the first day back.

“The main aim is to have the first lesson during the first hour of the first day of school,” he said.

For the safety of school communities (learners, teachers and non-teaching staff), the Department of Education has made good progress to ensure that all the Covid-19 essentials are delivered to schools before the arrival of learners. This includes the provision of water and sanitation facilities.

The department has also confirmed that a media briefing on the approval of the results of the 2020 national examination is due to be held next week.

The briefing will be livestreamed via the UmalusiSA Facebook and YouTube accounts.

 

By Johan Scheepers, country head at Commvault South Africa

The Covid-19 pandemic forced many businesses to swiftly adapt to a digital world. Working from home is set to become the ‘new normal’ for many workers who previously went into a corporate office environment. But protecting businesses from the effects of the pandemic goes beyond simply keeping employees safe and healthy. In addition to driving a growing Work From Home (WFH) movement, the rapid digital shift also sent cybercrime into overdrive. Businesses that do not prioritise data management in this digital world place themselves at a serious risk of security and compliance issues.

Data governance has not changed

Although the physical boundaries of many organisations have shifted to include a remote workforce, the policies around data governance and data protection have not changed. In fact, it is important to be more vigilant than ever, and actively work to extend these policies and processes to the edge.

WFH makes data more vulnerable, because of the many new toolsets it introduces as well as the potential for data to be stored in unsanctioned locations and on unsecured devices. Collaboration tools by their nature require the sharing of data, which can create a sensitive data risk if these tools are not brought into the data management strategy. Remote workers may also be saving sensitive files on the endpoint devices, which further complicates data governance. Endpoints are one of the biggest data risks, especially when it comes to highly targeted spear phishing attacks.

Access and permissions need to be managed

WFH highlights the risk of data access and permission – for example, a person may download a file, and then email it to their personal account, save it on their laptop and then send it to colleagues for comment. This generates multiple versions of files that may contain sensitive information. In turn, this not only creates additional vulnerabilities, but makes compliance with the Protection of Personal Information Act (PoPIA) and other data protection legislation like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) practically impossible.

Organisations need to be able to identify sensitive data as well as whether or not employees actually need to be able to access it. It is also important to put policies in place around what can be done with the data if it is permissible to access it. Should employees be able to download it? Where should they be able to save it? How should they be permitted to share it? This is crucial for governance as well as compliance purposes.

On the hotlist

Security and compliance are always essential, but even more so in the current climate. South Africa is a hot target at present, and many large organisations have been hit with ransomware in recent times. Security is obviously paramount, but alongside it is the need to educate users about security risks. An organisation’s network is like an egg – the shell is tough, but once it is penetrated the insides are an easy target. The WFH movement has simply increased the attack surface, or the soft part of the egg, and bad actors are using this to their benefit to speed up ransomware attacks.

Compliance regulations enforce the protection of company data by law, but the reality is that data management is necessary and even beneficial, even without the risk of fines and reputational damage. Data protection itself has come a long way over the years and is now offered as a service that runs seamlessly in the background, so it is not an invasive practice. This needs to be combined with a single, cohesive view of data across the organisation, to improve efficiency and mitigate risk.

At the edge

The edge is the most vulnerable point of any network, and with the edge now extended into homes and remote offices, data management is key. This multi-cloud hybrid environment means that data is scattered across locations, so a proper toolset to provide a single view of risk is paramount. If you cannot see your data, you cannot manage it. It is essential to identify data, understand where you are at risk and what your exposure is, and know how to apply regulations to ensure adherence and compliance. Preventing the pandemic from affecting your business is about more than social distance – you need to look after your data as well.

 

3M to cut 3 000 jobs

By Martin Baccardax for The Street

3M has said that it will eliminate around 2 900 jobs next year, while pulling back on investments in slower-growth markets, as part of an overall cost-cutting plant that will cost around $300-million.

3M said the updated restructuring plans, which were first launched in January, will affect all of its business divisions and geographies include a pre-tax charge of between $250 to $300 million, around $150 million of which will be taken in the current quarter. The moves will likely result in annual pre-tax savings of between $200 million to $250 million each year, 3M said, as it re-positions its global operations in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic.

3M will detail the restructuring plans at an industry conference hosted by Credit Suisse later today, with CEO Mike Roman scheduled to speak at 8:10 Eastern time.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has advanced the pace of change and disrupted end markets around the world, increasing the need for companies to adapt faster,” Roman said.

“At the same time, we are seeing significant opportunities from our new operating model which we launched at the start of the year. As a result, we are taking further actions to streamline our operations, positioning us to deliver greater growth and productivity as global markets emerge from the pandemic.”

3M shares were marked 0.23% lower in early trading Thursday to change hands at $171.50 each to clip their six-month gain to around 6.5%, well shy of the 13.6% gain for the Dow Jones Industrial Average benchmark.

Last month, 3M posted modestly slower-than-expected October sale growth figures Friday, suggesting a potentially sluggish start to the fourth quarter for the industrial group.

3M said October sales rose 3% from last year to $2.9 billion as healthcare revenues rose 12%, offsetting a 4% decline in transportation and electronics. Safety and industrial sales rose 4% while consumer sales were 7% higher, 3M said, compared to respective gains of 6% and 3% in August.

3M had forecast “flat to low single digit” October sales growth during its third quarter earnings conference call with investors last month, but declined to provide profit or revenue guidance for the final three months of the year owning to broader economic and demand uncertainty linked to the coronavirus pandemic.

 

UK retail giants collapse

By David Meyer for Fortune

Just as the coronavirus pandemic forced big U.S. retail names such as J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus into bankruptcy, it is now wreaking similar havoc in the U.K.

On Tuesday, the Debenhams department store chain collapsed, possibly spelling the end of a business that has been running for nearly two and a half centuries. The implosion was the indirect result of the collapse, one day previously, of Topshop owner Arcadia Group.

In total, around 25 000 jobs are now at risk.

Cascading collapse
Arcadia Group, whose other properties include high-street staples such as Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge, went into a form of bankruptcy protection on Monday following the reported failure of emergency financing talks.

The fashion empire, run for the last 18 years by the flamboyant and controversial magnate Philip Green, is not laying people off immediately, but 13 000 jobs hang in the balance, particularly if no buyers can be found for its businesses.

“The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the forced closure of our stores for prolonged periods, has severely impacted on trading across all of our brands,” said CEO Ian Grabiner in a statement.

That first domino then pushed over Debenhams, which was also on the brink.

The sportswear retailer JD Sports had been in talks to rescue the venerable chain, which had been looking for a buyer since going into administration in April. But, as Arcadia’s businesses were the biggest concession operators in Debenhams’ department stores, JD Sports took Monday’s news as its exit cue.

“The sale process has not resulted in a deliverable proposal,” Debenhams said in a Tuesday statement.

“Given the current trading environment and the likely prolonged effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the outlook for a restructured operation is highly uncertain. The administrators have therefore regretfully concluded that they should commence a wind-down of Debenhams UK, whilst continuing to seek offers for all or parts of the business.”

The U.K. is due to leave its second national lockdown period Wednesday, moving instead to a tiered system of regional restrictions that will allow non-essential shops to reopen. Debenhams will reportedly use the “Wild Wednesday” opportunity for a fire-sale of its stock.

Arcadia post-mortem
The difficulties of the department-store model in the age of e-commerce are by now well-known, with COVID-19 in many cases being the straw that broke the camel’s back. Arcadia is also seen as a victim of existing weaknesses, such as its positioning in a time of widening income inequality, as well as the pandemic.

“Most of the brands under Arcadia Group, especially Topshop, sit in the mid-range for price points,” said Melissa Minkow, retail industry lead at digital consultancy CI&T, in an emailed statement.

“We’ve seen mid-priced retailers struggle across the board because of the massive rift between low- and high-income groups. As the middle-income demographic shrinks, so does the success of mid-range retail. On a similar note, Arcadia Group’s brands’ failure to identify with either fast fashion or more quality, high-end messaging means a failure to connect with consumers at a values-based level.”

The news of the collapses prompted words of sympathy from leading politicians.

Alok Sharma, the business secretary, tweeted Monday evening that the Arcadia collapse was “incredibly sad news” and the government “stands ready to support those affected during this difficult period.” The next morning, shadow business secretary Ed Miliband—a former leader of the Labour Party—responded to the combined Arcadia and Debenhams news by decrying “a devastating day for the high street.”

Miliband went on to urge the government to “press Philip Green to do the right thing for his employees’ pensions.” Arcadia’s pension scheme is reportedly £350million ($466 million) in the red.

Green and his wife Tina Green (the actual owner of Arcadia, via her Taveta Investments vehicle) are controversial figures for many reasons.

High on the list is their lavish, Monaco-based lifestyle—they have a £100 million ($134 million) super-yacht moored in the tax haven—but Philip Green has also been accused of of sexual and racial harassment, and a parliamentary report in 2016 described him as the “unacceptable face of capitalism” over his role in the collapse of the BHS retail chain, which he sold the year before for just £1.

 

The rise of the cleaning robots

By James Vincent for The Verge

Airflow is a subject dear to Charlie Strange’s heart.  As the office manager for a Texas facility operated by HVAC manufacturer Goodman, he helps oversee the production of heating, ventilation, and AC units in the world’s fifth-largest factory building — 4.2 million square feet of space, all dedicated to the generation of hot and cold currents and gusts.

But when the pandemic forced Goodman to send thousands of workers home, Strange had to consider airflow anew — specifically, how the eddies and flows inside his Texas plant would affect the work of his latest hire: a cleaning robot named Breezy One that trundles around the gargantuan factory, spraying a fine mist of virus-killing disinfectant onto the surfaces. For office managers looking at a pandemic-tinged future, such considerations could well become routine.

“This robot’s going to be able to clean 200 000 square feet of office and conference rooms in two, maybe two and a half hours,” Strange tells The Verge. “It would take my team all night long to do that — wiping down every surface by hand.”

When Strange unpacked the Breezy One, the first tasks he and the machine’s creators, Build With Robots, had to tackle was a contaminant study — finding out exactly where the bot’s disinfectant mist could clean. To carry out this study, technicians dropped test plates around the plant populated with microbes taken from the compost heap of Kimberly Corbitt, Build With Robots’ head of customer engagement.

“It’s the worst smelling thing you’ve ever smelled in your life,” says Corbitt of her compost. “I dilute it in a giant pitcher of water, put it into a spray bottle, then spray it onto these foam plates. The first time I did it, the total viable count was out of the testable range and I had to dilute it by a factor of 100. My compost is really healthy.”

Before Breezy One could start cleaning, it had to be guided around Goodman’s offices to map the area. GIF: Goodman
Each plate is divided into two halves: one side covered and the other side uncovered. Once the plates have been placed, Breezy One does its thing, spreading a mist of disinfectant around the area. The next day, technicians check to see what percentage of microbes have been killed off, comparing the uncovered half of the plates with the covered half as a control sample. In essence, they’re checking that the disinfectant is getting everywhere it should.

This is why airflow is important, says Strange, as his team had to account for the building’s air conditioning units when checking the spread of the disinfectant around its offices and meeting rooms. “We might slow down the robot or change the route based on the dispersal pattern because of the HVAC or how high the ceiling is,” he says.

Thankfully, Goodman found that Breezy One worked as advertised. “The dispersal pattern on it is very nice, it mists very well, which means [the disinfectant] floats and can get into all those areas,” says Strange. “That’s one of the reasons you want the airflow in the room going, because it helps deliver it around the room, rather than having it shoot straight up and fall straight down.”

The robot itself is about the size of a bulky trash can, with a wheeled base and two large mist-producing jet nozzles on top that stick out like a pair of swiveling eyes. It moves at a steady walking pace, using a combination of LIDAR and 3D cameras to navigate like a self-driving car. And it’s not the only robot making its way into these sorts of shared spaces.

Cleaning machines have come into fashion with the pandemic. Hospitals around the world have been deploying them since the spring, using robots that radiate ultraviolet light to kill germs and viruses rather than “foggers” like Breezy One. Airports and arenas are getting in on the action, too, with the latter using drones that spray disinfectant over stadium seating. Now it seems offices are next. The demand certainly seems to be there, with one US manufacturer, Xenex, saying sales of its UV cleaning robots are up 600 percent compared to 2019.

Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, the company that makes the autonomous base of Breezy One, tells The Verge that interest in disinfecting robots has taken off swiftly. She says the two main types of machines — UV emitters and foggers — are suited to different markets, with the former better suited for small rooms and the latter working best in larger spaces.

Robots like these will become staple fixtures “in any area that has a large amount of the general public filtering through,” predicts Wise. “There’s just a large need to provide continuous disinfection.” She says, although the pandemic has prompted many companies to investigate these machines. If the robots prove their effectiveness, they’ll likely become a regular part of cleaning operations even after COVID-19 is under control.

“Whether or not it’s COVID, there’s always going to be some next viral thing coming through that [companies] will want to disinfect,” says Wise. “We’re looking at having one at our headquarters for flu season, for example, as I would guess maybe 30 percent of staff ends up out because of flu.”

“I think people should be demanding that these things are in their offices,” she adds.

Some buyers certainly see the robots as investments for an uncertain future. Pamela Ott, deputy city manager for Pleasanton, an affluent city in Alameda County, California, purchased three UV cleaning robots for operation in various government facilities — the city permit office, the library, and senior centre — and says she thinks they’ll be useful long beyond the duration of the pandemic.

“We purchased the robots because we know they’re helpful now and helpful in the long run,” Ott told The Verge. “We look around and we look ahead, and we don’t think COVID is going away, certainly not in the very near future…. And we know any time we can better clean and disinfect our facilities, that’s a good position for us.”

Ott says each of the three machines she purchased from local distributor SNAP Solutions cost around $99,000 but that the price was worth it. “It’s a significant outlay for a city, but it’s our belief that our purchase of the robot is one of the most important steps we can take to ensure the safety of our employees and community members,” says Ott. The makers of Pleasanton’s new cleaning robots, Blue Ocean Robotics, say they’ve sold to a number of customers for use in offices and that interest has also spiked from hotels in recent months.

Gauging how effective these machines actually are at protecting people from COVID is difficult, though. Build With Robots, maker of the Breezy One, claims that the disinfectant its machines use kills 99.9999 percent of bacteria, as well as the novel coronavirus. (The chemical solution in question is a brand known as Aeris Active.) But killing the virus by cleaning surfaces is not the same as safeguarding real-world environments from COVID-19.

Scientists know that the virus that causes COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets — small droplets of saliva, mucus, and other internal fluids that are created when we cough, sneeze, talk, or simply breathe. But the most common ways for these droplets to spread the virus from person to person is still a matter of ongoing investigation. Current evidence suggests that COVID-19 “spreads easily” when people are in close contact with one another, while transmission via contaminated surfaces is “less common,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And that means wearing masks and stopping people from crowding together is likely to be more important for hygiene purposes than cleaning desks, door handles, and other surfaces.

Despite this, those buying robots for surface cleaning hope the machines will at least help more than they harm. Strange says that his robots are at least saving the company money. Although Goodman won’t share exactly what it’s paying for Breezy One, Build With Robots says the cost for hiring its machines is between $3,250 and $10,750 a month, depending on the number of robots and the length of the contract. Strange also adds that no workers have been or will be let go because of the machines and that they’re simply taking on work that would have been done during overtime by human staff.

What Strange says is most impressive, though, is how easy it is now to integrate this sort of technology into an ordinary office like those used by Goodman. “I’ve dealt with a lot of automation over a lot of years and I’ve yet to find an honest-to-god fire and forget,” he says. “But if we’d been talking five, seven years ago I’d have had a team of four to keep this thing running. And now I’m just going to have one person moving it from zone to zone. It’s amazing how far we’ve come.”

 

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My Office News Ⓒ 2017 - Designed by A Collective


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