Danby Appliances makes specialty appliances – everything from bar fridges to blenders. CEO Jim Estill says that while the company is wholly committed to doing what it does today very well, it’s also heavily invested in a tomorrow of speed and innovation.
“During a pandemic, when focusing on the home front means an increased need for such things as standalone freezers and second fridges, we’ve done very well,” he said. “But it’s not just business as usual. I’m trying to apply tech company speed to a smokestack industry. When I first came here it was ‘Here are the products we’re going to bring out in next year’ Now it’s ‘Here’s what we’re going to bring out next quarter.’”
The People and the Place
Estill said this “speed focus” has by necessity been extended to the office – both the physical space and the employees. Danby successfully made that critical shift to work-from-home in early 2020, and is currently building toward a hybrid office future.
The process has certainly been a learning experience.
“At one point during the pandemic we thought we might be able to cut back to half the office space,” said Estill. “The reality is that we still need that ability to sometimes have everyone together in the office at the same time.”
The overnight shift to having most staff working remotely has been a challenge, but has also yielded some positives. While Estill was not originally a work-from-home advocate, he noted that the productivity of Danby employees who work from home has been excellent. “This is a game-changer as it gives us the ability to expand our hiring funnel.”
“Prior to the pandemic, most of your people lived fairly close to the office. But we’re past location now. If you can get productivity from anyone no matter if they’re in the office or at home, then that person can live close by or in the Philippines. It really doesn’t matter.”
Counting the Cost
This is not to say having employees work remotely is ideal in every way.
“The biggest challenge,” said Estill, “is interpersonal, and it’s subtle. We had barbecues and pizza lunches, which were great ways to get team members socializing. Even a walk through a warehouse will give you that human touch and the kind of intel you can’t get when you’re working remotely. So there’s definitely a cost attached to work-from-home.”
Size is a factor, said Estill – the bigger the company, the more potential points of communication breakdown. “But all businesses, from the smallest to the largest, have had to reckon with some loss of rapport and “flow” in project teams and departments.
“There’s simply no way to replace being around,” said Estill. “In a sense, the reason people have been able to work so well together remotely is that they worked together so well together in the office. I must admit I do worry about that loss of rapport, especially as time goes on and there’s inevitable employee churn.”
Hybrid Office Considerations
Estill is optimistic but realistic when it comes to the post-pandemic workplace. A hybrid office, he said, boils down to two potential workplaces – something that requires careful thought and investment. “It’s quite the trick to properly support people when they’re working from home and in the office,” he said. “Plainly speaking, hybrid means more.”
At Danby Appliances this hybrid office “more” includes all the pandemic “usual suspects,” from air purifiers and N95 masks to hand sanitizer and extra cleaning; but on the tech side it involves more use of videoconferencing tools – to “get as close as possible to that experience of stopping by someone’s desk.”
“On the product side, facial recognition is on my radar,” said Estill. “AI’s getting bigger, and we’re implementing it in our customer service. You have this whole mythology around AI, but it’s just a tool to enable you to do things smarter and faster.”
Estill said when it comes to new technology, there can be too much of a good thing.
“AI might make it possible for your fridge to auto-order yogurt when it runs out, but what if you want another brand? What if you’re sick of yogurt? At Danby we’re interested in new technology, but we always like to stay grounded as to its limitations.”
The Bots are Coming
Of course, for a company like Danby Appliances – tuned in as it is to the future – robots must also figure into the equation.
“Companies like ours will invest in almost anything to save on labour, so yes, we do have an active interest in robotics. Now, again, we must be careful not to overapply any one technology to the point where it becomes a liability. But can I see an increase in our use of robotics in the future? Absolutely and without question.”