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COVID Tech: Finding new best practices

Businesses may have scrambled at the onset of the coronavirus and the shutdown that followed, but the months since have seen many find simple and/or ingenious ways to combat the limitations brought on by the pandemic.

Blueprints spoke to industry experts about how they used both existing and new technologies to maintain channels of communication and the positive relationships vital to their businesses.

Remote Control

It would be a massive understatement to say Covid-19 has changed the way the produce industry operates from field to store to fork.

Crops weren’t harvested, others not planted, receivers struggled to maintain supply, and retailers had to make significant, often costly changes. Foodservice, as everyone knows, was hit even harder.

At the terminal markets, it wasn’t business as usual for some time—though the flow of fruits and vegetables is certainly moving briskly again, social distancing is still in force, eliminating handshake deals and a cadre of buyers strolling the stalls to select their orders.

Leveraging existing tools
The good news is that many of the technology tools put to good use by the pandemic were already at our fingertips, even if they weren’t in widespread use. One prime example can be summarized in four letters: Zoom.

The conferencing service offered by Zoom Video Communications has become such an omnipresent feature for businesses that “Zoom call” has entered the lexicon in the same way that “Google” has become synonymous with “internet search.”

Zoom’s stock prices increased by nearly 600 percent in 2020, with 52 percent of users reporting they started using the service for the first time following the rise of Covid.

“We have always had weekly sales and production meetings via an in-house video conferencing system,” says Robert Verloop, chief operating officer of Coastline Family Farms, Inc. BB #:141488 in Salinas, CA.

“After the shelter-in-place orders were issued, our sales team started to work from their homes, and we switched to Zoom meetings. Overall, this technology has worked well, even with our field staff, who can be in the field during our weekly meetings.”

Virtual private networks (VPNs) are another technology that existed prior to the changes wrought by the pandemic but found new uses for businesses looking to take advantage of its features.

Originally designed to give employees who worked remotely the ability to access private company files and applications, VPNs also proved helpful in increasing cybersecurity and provided additional flexibility to employers. Use of VPNs has more than quadrupled since 2010, rising from 1.57 percent engagement to 6.26 percent by the time the coronavirus hit.

“Our company made the decision, given our national network of employees, to move to a virtual office platform two years ago,” explains Rachel Leach, category manager for RPE, Inc. BB #:105471 “However, no one could have predicted the entire staff would be going virtual.”

Bancroft, WI-based RPE, Inc. uses a VPN infrastructure to connect laptops and desktops directly to their network, and virtual desktop infrastructure, or VDI, to enhance security and connect non-network computers to specific programs and files within the internal system.

Wake up call
Marc Hatfield, national sales manager for Produce Pro Software, Inc., BB #:164269 based near Chicago, IL, notes that while no one would have wished for such a disruptive change to the way their companies worked, the coronavirus crisis woke up many owners and managers to the importance of keeping their technological capabilities current.

“There are many companies where technology wasn’t really a focus before the pandemic,” Hatfield comments. “Our industry is realizing not only how important technology is, but (companies) are making sure they’re adopting the right technology for their types of operation.

“Being flexible and agile is essential to keep business moving forward when unforeseen changes like a pandemic hit,” he adds. Technology can not only help businesses run more efficiently, Hatfield notes, it can provide better visibility into operations and help them stay competitive in the marketplace.

A report from the IBM Institute for Business Value indicates that as many as 59 percent of businesses have undergone an “accelerated digital transformation” since the pandemic began, with 55 percent undergoing permanent organizational strategy changes, 60 percent reporting changes in their approach to management, and 64 percent shifting focus to cloud-based data and storage—which many companies were reluctant to do before Covid.

Further, owners and managers are more willing to invest in not only technological upgrades, but better usage of existing technology; the same report found that 66 percent of those polled were finally able to complete initiatives and adaptations that had previously encountered resistance or delay in implementation.

This is a feature from the Applied Technology department of the January/February 2021 issue of Produce Blueprints Magazine. Click here to read the full article.