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Adapting to the new normal, A conversation with Phil Jones

Brother UK has re-opened its Manchester head office and welcomed a skeleton staff of around 25 back to work. Managing Director Phil Jones spoke to Michelle Ryder about the impact of lockdown on the business and its people, and how Brother’s label printers played a key role in transforming the workplace into a COVID-secure environment.

Without a shade of doubt, the past few months has delivered an unprecedented amount of new, unique and difficult challenges for businesses everywhere. The print sector is one which has been affected more than most, the closure of offices nationwide has seen hundreds of thousands of devices lying idle, all vendors have had to react quickly to demand for technology to get home offices up and running, and supply chains have been stretched to full capacity.

And yet talking to a number of business leaders, channel vendors and distributors over the past few weeks, it’s clear that once again the sector has demonstrated its resilience, its ability to pivot and respond to change – and is now all guns blazing and raring to get back to business in the new normal.

From Brother’s perspective, Jones said that on top of the challenges associated with running a business remotely, there has also been a significant amount of emotional weight to bear. “A number of our people have lost loved ones and as a leader, you have to have a high degree of emotional sensitivity and be aware of the mental health of your people; many who are dealing with grief and others who are struggling with isolation for example. So, whilst keeping business moving is a priority, you can’t just carry on as if nothing has happened. Keeping in touch with people has been critical over the past few months and considering how these events might also impact your culture when people return is key.”

Providing support to the NHS and other frontline services really came to the fore during the crisis. Brother has approximately 100,000 printers installed in hospitals, GP surgeries and pharmacies and plays a key role in keeping these up and running. “That was something we couldn’t drop the ball on, it gave us all a unifying cause during the height of the crisis,” Jones said.

And like other vendors, the company also saw a huge uptick in demand for home office printers from March. “Warehousing and logistics is outsourced to DHL which was awarded key site status, so we were able to ensure continuity of supply, with the logistics managed by the team from home,” he explained. “If there is a positive to take away from this, it was that the roads were clear, so getting our product from A to B was easier than normal.

We were able to get stock delivered to our distribution partners and help our partners to fulfil customer orders. The demand has continued, but now with manufacturing sites only operating at around 30-40 per cent capacity, I believe we will see a shortage of all types of technology in the coming months,” he added.

Opening the office 

After some 12 weeks running the business remotely, Brother made a concerted effort to re-open head office safely. “We asked our people if they wanted to come back to the office,” Jones explained. “Some people such as engineers who need access to a workshop for example can only really work from the office, but we recognised that some of our people were struggling to work from home for a number of reasons. We had tales of family members living together competing for quiet space in the living room, while others were juggling work with caring for their children, while others really missed being present in the office and engaging with colleagues in real life.”

He continued. “There are many who were quite happy to continue working from home, and that’s what they are doing, we only have a skeleton staff of about 25 people onsite. But we wanted to offer people the opportunity to resume some sense of normality and come back to the office if that was better for them. I think perhaps the situation has had a much greater impact on younger colleagues, who are missing out on the ‘mentoring’ benefits that being present in the office can bring, so it’s good that we can now begin to gradually bring them back in.”

Label up

But before the company could re-open the doors, there was a lot of planning involved in ensuring that the workplace was COVID-secure. The steps Brother UK has taken and the measures it has implemented are extensive and Jones said that the insight gleaned from the entire process has been incredible.

“The first thing we did was to walk through the entire space and look at every single surface that someone could touch. That included doors into and out of the building, the bathrooms, taps, desks, stair rails, printers, scanners etc. The list went on and on and it was clear that we needed to put messaging up in lots and lots of areas,” he explained.

“One thing that has been hugely beneficial has been the ability to create our own labels. Our overriding goal was to make our people feel safe and so, armed with label printers, we let a team of people loose in the building to label up everything professionally.”

Jones pointed out that he didn’t want to make the office intimidating, nor achieve a clinical feel. “The questions we asked ourselves included: How do we do this so it fits within our company culture? How do we do it professionally, in minutes? And how do we cover all of the touch points?

“We made sure that our personality came through, whilst still remaining compliant to the legal requirement to
be COVID-secure. We added a touch of humour to the messaging, using positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to influence behaviour and decision- making. For example, we’ve put labels on the mirrors in the bathrooms, saying fun, feel-good things like ‘You look beautiful today. Now wash your hands’. The overall aim is to keep people engaged when  we’re reminding them that things have changed.”

Brother has also invited staff to compose brief four-line-long COVID- secure poems. “We’re printing these out and placing them strategically around the building, it’s just another way to engage with people and remind them that things have changed, whilst moving around internally,” he added.


Other initiatives include installing Perspex screens on desks, and installing fogging units which emit a fine antiseptic mist that covers around 60m2 around the office. “These units which were relatively inexpensive, create an internal ‘cloud’ and help to keep surfaces disinfected,” Jones explained. “We also ensured antiseptic wipes are in the bathrooms and put signage on the flushers to say ‘wipe me after use’. All of the tiny details are really important, because as an employer we have to consider EVERY touch point and make it safe.”

The 25 staff who have returned to the office are in effect testing the new system. “If they think we’re missing something or identify an area that needs a sign, then we have asked them to tell us and we will get a label printed and up immediately – another advantage of having the label printers on hand!” he added.

Brother is also providing high quality Brother-branded PPE to all employees. This includes high quality washable, reusable facemasks with filters, and a next-generation handi-bac spray which works on hands and technology.

“We want our people to be protected both in the office and on the move,
so remote or field-based workers will be able to sanitise their hands and technology wherever they are. There’s also the danger that wearing masks will make some people feel self-conscious, that will not be such an issue if we are all wearing the same, while also creating a community sense of ‘we’re all in this together’. We’re also providing additional alcohol gels and wipes throughout
our building, helping our employees to easily follow any guidance signposted to them,” Jones added.

Phased return

The building is now COVID-secure and Brother is hoping to re-introduce its people in phases, establishing a rota-based return model. “We will set a building maximum, we need to test the building flow, consider traffic in corridors and the number of people moving around making visits to bathrooms for example.

“There is so much to consider, including how we can feed everyone! The staff restaurant has one door for people coming in and out – we need to figure out a workaround. With a small number of people on site we’re currently doing pre-ordered packed lunches, but that won’t work when we are at higher capacity.

“We’ve even in our daily internal comms, highlighted other changes to expect such as no access to kitchen facilities, which means if you like builders’ tea you’re going to be disappointed with the vending machine equivalent! What’s key here is that the office is not going to be the same. We need to sweat the small stuff and address potential niggles, deflect them with humour, so that they don’t become amplified and create problems,” he concluded.