Necessity and Invention

The coronavirus forced companies to operate remotely almost overnight, and many say some trends will last long past the pandemic
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Brady Bunch-style screens instantly became a hallmark of remote working as companies convened online via video.

Brady Bunch-style screens instantly became a hallmark of remote working as companies convened online via video.

Connectivity is one of the buzzwords of the decade, but what that entails usually depends on the context. In the world of boating, it often refers to integration of on-board systems at the helm.

The covid-19 pandemic now has marine companies considering what it means to be connected at a time of social distancing and mandated shutdowns. Suddenly, many Americans are joining virtual meetings, sometimes a dozen times a day. For each attendee on the virtual call, a box pops up on the screen with the person’s face, similar to The Brady Bunch’s theme-song visual. And in some cases, marine-industry leaders say, being forced to work together in new ways is actually a good thing.

“There are benefits from this,” says Martin Peters, senior manager of marine communications and government relations for Yamaha Marine. “We’re learning things we’ve never tried.”

While challenges come with having fewer opportunities for in-person interaction, the scheduled virtual meetings have revealed people to be more focused than they might be at the office. “One tends to be more engaged and involved in those virtual meetings,” Peters says, “because you know that’s the important moment when you need to be prepared to convey things. You have to create this point in time when everyone’s on a call together, and that creates some efficiency. I feel better informed about my own team.”

Long Island-based Sea Tow went remote earlier than many, so the company was able to procure 
external monitors. 

Long Island-based Sea Tow went remote earlier than many, so the company was able to procure external monitors. 

Virtual Boardrooms

The use of virtual-meeting tools skyrocketed in mid-March as more local and state governments issued stay-at-home orders. Between March 2 and March 31, Microsoft Teams usage doubled, according to Microsoft, which in April recorded a new daily record of 2.7 billion meeting minutes on a single day — a 200 percent increase from 900 million March 16.

Daily downloads of the Zoom app have increased 30 times year over year, and the app has been the top free app for iPhones in the United States since March 18, according to Bernstein Research and Apptopia. Zoom says daily users spiked to 200 million in March, up from 10 million in December, making it a target for “Zoombombers,” or hackers who infiltrate meetings, often with hate speech or pornography. The company has been implementing security initiatives to combat the problem.

Microsoft is also investing in security, as well as in several ideas to try and mimic a more physical interaction, such as a raise-your-hand feature. Meeting organizers can now end a meeting for everyone with a single click, as well as download a participant report that includes join and leave times.

And it’s not just an American shift; Microsoft Teams saw major usage increases in European countries affected by the outbreak, including the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France. The global shift to virtual meetings could mean a worldwide cultural shift ahead for working remotely. “This moment will change the way we work and connect with each other forever,” Microsoft 365 corporate vice president Jared Spataro wrote on the Microsoft website.

Sea Tow president Kristen Frohnhoefer in her hastily created home office.

Sea Tow president Kristen Frohnhoefer in her hastily created home office.

Supply Shortages

For some businesses, working remotely doesn’t change a lot. Such is the case for Jack Ellis, founder of Info-Link, a Florida firm that tracks new and used boat registration data. “For us, this is a walk in the park, relatively speaking, because everything we do is on computers and telephones, other than going out to visit clients,” Ellis says. “All of our data and our computers we work on sit in a data center in Austin, Texas, so we remote in. I could be anywhere.”

The challenge for his firm will be down the road, when it comes to interpreting the data from this time period. “Are we going to see a decline in boat registrations because there are fewer sales or because there are fewer people available at agencies to process registrations? Maybe both,” Ellis says.

It has been tough for some companies to find the equipment needed to get employees set up to work from home — after toilet paper and hand sanitizer became all but impossible to buy, laptops, keyboards and monitors followed. “We’ve been lucky we’ve been able to stay 100 percent operational remotely,” says Sea Tow president Kristen Frohnhoefer. “Thank God for cloud software and iPhones.”

Sea Tow helps boaters stuck on the water who aren’t in crisis situations, so it needed equipment to help employees work 24/7, Frohnhoefer says. Sea Tow operates in blizzards and hurricanes, so there were always backup systems for employees to work from home, but not nearly on this scale.

The company went remote early, March 12, because Sea Tow’s Southold, N.Y., location was a “ground zero” town on Long Island. The silver lining was that Frohnhoefer could shop for additional equipment before most other companies. “I could only get my hands on eight laptops,” she says. “We operate off virtual machines and are connecting them at home using every kind of adapter and connector we had. We even had people take office chairs so they could be comfortable. Whatever needed to happen, we’re doing. We also invested in 14 external monitors. Our call center really needs two screens. That was a great way to get them up to speed. The only thing we’re still trying to get is more headsets for people.”

Sea Tow had been poised to roll out Microsoft Teams to its national franchise for communication, and that timeline shortened to start right away, Frohnhoefer says. “We are encouraging people to meet more casually also,” she says. “At noon today, I’m doing a lunch with my brother, and we have an office virtual coffee hour scheduled for tomorrow morning.”

3-microsoft-teams-global-map

Online Commerce

MarineMax’s virtual push has paid dividends during the covid-19 pandemic, says MarineMax chief revenue officer Chuck Cashman. “We’ve been working on our online presence hard for a year, trying to make it easier for people to shop from their house,” Cashman says. “I’ve got the framework and the mechanism, and have people literally standing by to do a live video walkthrough on a boat.”

The company pushed out a new online experience with the tagline “endless staycation.” It allows virtual attendees to explore and take tours from a computer, phone or tablet. They can also watch video walkthroughs, attend webinars, chat with industry experts, and place a hold on a boat. Previously, MarineMax had launched virtual boat shows, as well as an app for buying and servicing boats.

Bob Denison

Bob Denison

Denison Yachting CEO Bob Denison also says that being a technically inclined company has been a particular advantage. His sales and marketing team went remote in mid-March. They immediately started working on a virtual boat show, which Denison called “The Boat Show From Your Couch,” and began using hundreds of hours of videos the company had already shot.

“That’s one of the reasons we’re able to adapt and pivot so quickly,” Denison says. “We have a library of about 300 video walkthroughs and virtual tours that we have done and completed that we can slide into the format. I’ve been training brokers for years on how to do Facebook Live. This week we’re going to have 25 or 30 on walkthroughs.”

The idea, he adds, is to keep communications open with customers. “We want to show them that while they’re responsibly doing social distancing, they can also have fun and interact with people who like boats,” he says.

Virtual Marketing, no Boat Shows

Intrepid Boats had planned to introduce its 409 Valor at the Palm Beach International Boat Show, which was postponed, then canceled. “Now I’m stuck with this boat nobody can see,” says president Ken Clinton, who decided to create online buzz around the boat’s virtual debut instead. He dove into ideas for expanding the company’s social media and virtual presence.

“If all these people, in many cases, are quarantined, a lot of people that can afford one of our boats have suddenly got a lot of time on their hands,” Clinton says. “This gives me an opportunity to reach out to all those people who are stuck staring at their phones and laptops, and get in front of their face.

“It’s going to force us down a different path,” he adds. “We’re going to have to figure out a different way to do business. It’s an evolution, and as we evolve, we’ll get used to a new normal. If this coronavirus can happen now, what’s to make us think it can’t happen again?”

Imtra has been using its lockdown time to better leverage technology and build a content library so customers could more easily research products themselves, says company president and CEO Eric Braitmayer. “We want to reinvent the way we work with our customers,” he says. “If we do more video conferences — so many of our customers are so spread out, our guys spend an incredible amount of time driving. There are old-school guys who probably think that in-person thing is the way to go, and you can still provide old-school support using new-school tools, and be more places more quickly, and fit into our customers schedules more easily.”

Denison Yachting founder Bob Denison says making digital marketing a priority is helping his company transition to doing business during the pandemic.

Denison Yachting founder Bob Denison says making digital marketing a priority is helping his company transition to doing business during the pandemic.

When the pace of change tapers a bit, Braitmayer says, he hopes the industry will use the crisis as a learning experience. For example, virtual reality tools might help dealers carry less inventory and avoid the high-fixed-expense situation they were in when the pandemic hit. Community boating centers and boat clubs could focus on how to implement social distancing and sanitize boats. All of that, and more, could encourage people to get back out on the water.

“Hopefully we can present boating as a lifestyle activity for active people who want to get out and spend time with family in a socially distant way,” he says. “If we can leverage that, what the benefits are of being on the water, it’ll be the bright side of coming out of this. It’s up to all of us to be creative and use this unwanted disruption and take advantage of the opportunities.” 

Shhhhhh, Mommy’s on a Work Call

The new work-from-home reality delivers some levity in uneasy times

Jennifer Waters, marketing director for Sea Tow International, doesn’t miss a beat as she scoops up her 2-year-old daughter, who wants some type of beverage, food or other form of attention right in the midst of Waters’ virtual interview. “I like the flexibility of working from home,” she says, almost comically, over her daughter’s babble.

Jennifer and John Waters are learning the challenges of working from home with their young daughters — but are finding fun too.

Jennifer and John Waters are learning the challenges of working from home with their young daughters — but are finding fun too.

Her husband, John Waters, who runs marina operations for Gurney’s Resorts in Montauk, N.Y., and Newport, R.I., quickly plucks the toddler from Jennifer’s arms. “We’ve got to get the kids out of the house in the middle of the day,” Jennifer Waters says. “So I find myself answering emails at 8 and 9 at night. That’s, I guess, my new reality.”

Working from home has been a big transition for many people. With schools closed and daycare facilities shuttered, parents were left juggling toddlers and attempting to navigate online education for older kids. Many families turned to a little comic relief. Video conference bingo game boards began circulating with phrases like, “I think you’re on mute,” and, “Can everyone who’s not speaking please mute your mics?” Predictable jokes were made about whether meeting-goers were wearing pants, or about how their commute was from the bedroom to the kitchen.

The American Boat & Yacht Council went remote March 16, a Monday. “Tuesday morning, all of us are on GoTo­Webinar with video,” says ABYC president John Adey. “I’m making fun of them; they’re making fun of me trying to figure it out. But now we have that day and Hawaiian shirt day. You have to be able to laugh.”

The days of simply putting oneself on mute when the dog starts barking or a hungry child whines are apparently over, at least temporarily. To help address the problem, Microsoft Teams is working on real-time noise suppression, which uses artificial intelligence to reduce distracting background noise during video meetings. Microsoft is also working on making customized backgrounds that can conceal messes — almost a given for families stuck inside for days.

Those fixes will help minimize some of the distractions for other attendees but won’t do a lot to offset the challenges for families cooped up in the same house. Fortunately for the Waters family, John’s busy season doesn’t start until after Memorial Day, and plans to exhibit at the Palm Beach International Boat Show were derailed when the event was canceled. As a result, he’s getting skilled at intervening when a child interrupts Jennifer’s meetings.

“Being home with Jenny working, I’m doing a lot of the Mr. Mom stuff,” he says. “I’ve never seen somebody in so many meetings. It’s just nonstop. I do what I can with the girls.”

The perception of having more meetings is not unique to him. Remotely shared work calendars often book each hour or half hour and don’t leave windows for breaks. Nobody is traveling, so nobody is technically “out of pocket.” (The increased frequency inspired creative technologist Matt Reed, who complained about a lack of “bio breaks,” to create a “Zoombot” of himself to stand in.)

Jennifer says she appreciates how family-oriented boating is and is glad she gets to see more of her kids. “As much as we’re pulling out our hair trying to manage the workflow with the kids, John taught our 4-year-old to ride a bike without training wheels, and this one’s going to be potty-trained on her own schedule,” she says, nodding to the 2-year-old, who has found her way back to her mom’s lap. “I’ve always been full-time working, so I miss out on these milestones. That time with your children, aside from maternity leave, you don’t get as a full-time working mom.”

The light moments help everyone deal with the daily challenges, as well as the pandemic-related anxiety. “I had some serious panic attacks when this started,” Jennifer says. “I’m working from home, but it’s business as usual. On the other hand, with John home, I was like, ‘You’re still going to get paid, right?’ I feel like we’re very lucky because we’re not in a situation where one of us has lost a paycheck, but it’s terrifying.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue.

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