Working at Home – Better

The entire world is now aware of COVID-19, acknowledging the severity, and taking some kind of action. More people are working at home. Businesses are struggling to figure out new ways to communicate internally, with partners, and their client/consumer audience. When a company sends people home to work, I think there is more to the effort than just giving them network access. I think we need to reconsider how we communicate and what needs to be communicated.

I’ve been working alone at home for 20 years, but my virtual office is frequently crowded with many clients, code-level discussions with individuals and teams around the world, meetings, and sales presentations. To me, almost nothing has changed in the way I conduct business. As well as linking you to MV-specific resources, I’m going to suggest ways that you can communicate more effectively with your own teams, colleagues, and customers.

For my own business purposes I will add that Nebula R&D can help with implementation of everything discussed here. Please ping me if you see something you like and want to go further. This includes automation of messaging and notifications to people; inter-system communications; and policies, procedures, and software/services for effective communications.

For immediate access to anyone, hey, use the phone. Nothing changes there. But how many times do you follow the pattern where some normal event occurs and you pick up the phone to let someone know? It’s possible for software to detect that some events have occurred and then to make that phone call with voice. We all know about annoying robocalls, and ‘press 1 to exit automated-system hell’. You can make effective and better use of this technology – just consider how it might help with your daily inbound and outbound calls. Think about “press 1 for order inquiry” or “Hello, this is YourServices, we will attempt to deliver your order 12345 today at 4pm, please press 9 if a change is required.”

For less immediate exchanges, use email. Nothing changes there either. We all know that some people simply don’t get to email for a while, but when we send an email we understand and accept that latency. As above, think about getting a better handle on email. This can be done with auto-BCC, by having a system send or receive emails, redirecting email that has specific kinds of content, better spam filtering, or integration with a live knowledge-base for quick lookup and responses (like “where is my delivery?” “it’s being packed now”…). Use e-mail, manual or automated, to notify people pro-actively of what’s happening, rather than always being in reactive mode. In the above example, consider an email broadcast to specific people when orders of interest are changing status (or not), or create a new email address that auto-responds to status inquiries and simple change requests. Yes, some or all of this can be coordinated by your MVDBMS.

What may be new for many is the tier of communications between immediate and “whenever they happen to check email”. For this, try Instant Messaging tools.

Simple, one-to-one IM is what we get with mobile phone SMS/texting, Whatsapp, or the messaging in Facebook or LinkedIn. Texting is much more immediate than any other medium, and should be reserved for important exchanges. As above, think about automated outbound SMS notifications for status changes, when email might not be as effective. Automated SMS can be bi-directional. We can get our MV systems to provide information to specific people or groups by text messaging. We can send a text that requests a response, and process that response when it comes back – for example, to get management approval for some activity. Clients and staff can request information with texting and get automated responses. Again, like email, this technology has its place, not to be over-used … but it shouldn’t be under-used either, and we can do it with our MVDBMS applications.

For internal communications and with trusted partners (consultants, etc), try Microsoft Teams. Here are free webinars for those who have never used it (I hope they re-do these). Teams includes group messaging, one-to-one messaging, file exchanges, lots of integration with Office365, and integrations with other software and services … everything noted above about email and SMS applies to teams. See the trend?

The desktop app for Teams doesn’t yet support a single UI for multiple groups, even though the mobile app does. Because of this, and other reasons, many of us use Slack, which supports many of the same features as Teams, plus others, minus the Office integration. We have a Slack team, mvTalk, dedicated to exchanges amongst MV colleagues: I strongly encourage you to use this free resource to connect with colleagues and professionals around the world. Yes, I know you’re wondering … we can integrate Slack with MV. For example: We can automate a notification to a Slack channel when a shipment comes in or goes out, or when a software build fails, or when a new trouble ticket is posted with high priority, or when the pizza is being delivered, or when some employee does not sign-in by 9am. We can also create /commands that allow people to ask questions of the MV business application, like “/delivery date for order 1234” or “/accounting status for invoice 9876”. Slack can even serve as a sort of alternative UI for many functions, like “/mv resend email confirmation for order 1234”. Slack has a valuable place among communications media, though it’s potential is significantly under-recognized.

There are specific kinds of information that are better in one medium than another. We typically think of a blog (originally “web log”) as one person’s outreach to the world, usually long, often informal – you’re looking at one now. But a blog can also be used as an internal bulletin board. Consider using blogs to convey information to a broader audience than email, whether to a department, a specific product audience, or a specific project team. Email goes to one person or a few and then it gets lost. A blog can help to preserve information for posterity, and its searchable. Email is only received by the people that the sender intended. New people to the team, coming on after an email is sent around, don’t benefit from that direct, limited list. Blogs can be generated, for example to publish pricing changes, delivery schedules, or even charts showing current business metrics. Blogs typically have authentication and authorization, so specific information can be seen by operational staff, sales staff, management, customers, etc. So blogs do have their place.

I’ll note also that Twitter has its place in public communications. Twitter is, by definition, a micro-blog, where there is only one authorization category, “Public”. That’s obviously not suitable for internal communications or data published for trading partners, but it is a way to communicate company activity to the prospect audience. And yes, we can publish to Twitter or any other blog from your MVDBMS.

Another way to communicate on all kinds of projects and tasks is with an issue tracking system, which is not just software bugs. I’ve been using the FOSS Mantis Bug Tracker for years and have installed it for many clients, colleagues, and internal projects. MantisBT is more advanced than GitHub Issues or BitBucket Issues. It’s similar to Bugzilla, but actively maintained and very versatile. It’s direct competition for Atlassian Gira. Mantis has projects and sub-projects, numbered tickets, users in roles, and many features to help prioritization and tracking progress. My goal here is not to sell you on a free issue tracker, but to convey the usefulness of a tracking system where people can define a task, establish priority, track assignment and status from one person to the next, and exchange focused notes about the details. Personally I really dislike projects where all communications is by email, some people don’t bother to put the correct title on a topic discussion, and many emails have a bunch of different topics. With a tracker everything is focused and nothing is lost in email or phone calls. This is also a good way to exchange notes with clients – to get emails into tickets so that they’re not lost, to give their requests a tracking number to ensure they’re not lost, and to improve customer service by ensuring that tickets are properly logged, processed, and closed. Yes, yes … and we can auto-generate notes from MV that the period-end needs to be closed, assign the task and a due date, track progress, notify people when it’s complete, and attach reports for whomever is authorized to view them.

In addition to intra-company communications, I’d also like to ensure that you are aware of MV industry forums, where developers and others post questions, answers, and comments on a wide variety of topics. As your internal IT staff goes virtual, they lose immediate access to internal mentors, and it’s helpful to be able to get free technical knowhow from professionals in the field. There are a number of Pick / MultiValue community groups, as well as product-specific groups. I’ll just provide links to a few here:

You can find a much larger but very outdated list on the PickWiki Community page. That also includes popular Twitter accounts for MV people, blog references, places for employment wanted/available, and more. I invite links in comments here to other such resources, and encourage you to share these with all MV users and developers.

Forums have their place in the ecosystem of communications, and shouldn’t be dismissed. Everyone I know who works at home lives on information in forums. We also get a ton of actionable information from blogs,, and many other resources. Some of us participate, most people just “lurk” to mine the available data. Slack and Teams are essentially forums, just different in the implementation and with a broader scope of use. Texting and Skype is one-to-one communication. Team chats and conference calls are few-to-few. A blog is one-to-many, though with comments (like Twitter) blogging becomes a many-to-many medium like a forum. A task system is more collaborative many-to-many.

New situations require new thinking. All of these media have their place in the ecosystem of communications, some more than others. I encourage you to consider how each can be employed better, some more and some less, in a time when face to face exchanges are less frequent. And do consider how automation can help to publish information, how it can help to accept requests and return responses, and how it can help to monitor communications to help ensure that things don’t get lost.

Finally – We need to consider the nature of data being communicated as the media. In a time where there is so much interruption of normal business practices, I think it’s important for managers to get better and more frequent updates on exactly what’s happening with the business so that they can make better informed decisions. For this, I recommend considering new reports that are run very frequently to provide snapshots of critical Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). For example, use a background process to generate charts and graphs of orders, revenue, shipping and receiving times, staff presence, server stability, email backlog, lost business, and anything else that is important. Break it down by every category possible like location, managers, and even urban versus rural. Make these charts available on an internal website and send links to management using any of the media described above or actually publish the charts in the media of choice. Yes yes, we can do excellent charting and other kinds of reporting too. That’s a specialty here at Nebula if you’re interested.

My goal here has been to separate out the various media that we use so that we can think about using each one better, so that we can consider using others. I want people to be aware of the ways that we can automate our communications, and for industry-specific purposes to emphasize that we absolutely can do all of these things with the MVDBMS. I’m happy if these goals have been accomplished, and welcome related inquiries.

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