As nations go into lockdown in the hope of slowing the spread of Covid-19, we take a look at design engineers in Europe to see how they are working from home.
Across Europe today, Coronavirus mitigation strategies encourage social distancing, whether legally mandated as in France, or just strongly advised, as in the UK. Companies are responding to these measures by sending their workforce to work from home. But how do design engineers work from home when they need access to EDA tools or bench equipment?
Kalray are based in Grenoble, France, where they develop manycore processors for data centres and mission-critical systems. In France, a nationwide confinement order is in place, with only a few exceptions for essential tasks only.
Kalray CEO Eric Baissus told EE Times Europe that Kalray achieved its objective of having 100% of employees working remotely by March 16, 24 hours before mandatory lockdown began. This meant equipping 15-20% of Kalray’s workforce who didn’t already have one with a laptop.
“As a matter of fact, remote working is not new as most of our employees were already used to working from home from time to time, or used to connect to Kalray from home via a secure connection to launch a simulation, check progression of a test suite, et cetera,” Baissus said. “EDA are big tools that are running on servers, so hardware engineers are now accessing the applications on servers via their laptop from home, instead of from their workstation at work. Software development are doing the same, accessing their workstation at work and/or tools via servers.”
Baissus explained that the company is facing bigger challenges in the longer term as certain tasks require a physical presence.
“Physical manipulation is inherent to some work and some teams, for example the board team, so even if the team can focus on remote tasks for a few days or weeks, it cannot be a 100% remote activity,” he said.
Some employees need to come to the office to perform tasks such as changing equipment configuration, running sophisticated tests or connecting a development board, he explained. Kalray’s plan is to have between 2 and 4 employees on site at a time to take care of manual operations (it has to be more than one person for security reasons), with relevant authorisation, where necessary.
Another longer-term issue that Kalray must be prepared for is maintaining communication within the company when almost everyone is working remotely.
“Communication within teams, across teams, and with management remains a critical challenge for engineers used to working very closely so we are putting in place new communication processes and using flexible, professional tools that are already in place for chat and video conference,” Baissus said.
While it’s too early to have an accurate assessment of the impact of remote working on the business, Baissus said it was a case of “so far, so good,” but that he was monitoring efficiency on a daily basis as well as maintaining close contact with customers, partners and suppliers to ensure any issues could be anticipated.
Meanwhile, in Britain, social distancing is strongly advised for everyone at present, with complete isolation for those whose health makes them particularly vulnerable. The situation is changing quickly, though. Since EE Times Europe spoke to GraphCore CEO Nigel Toon a few days ago, UK schools, pubs, restaurants, theatres and most shops are now closed.
Editor's note: The UK has since gone into lockdown, with only those deemed 'essential' still travelling to work
GraphCore, the AI accelerator chip company based in Bristol, has offices in various global locations. Toon said that GraphCore had been able to gain some insight into how the situation would progress by following updates from the company’s team in China, who he said have been under lockdown since the start of January.
“We’ve slowly been moving into a similar mode,” said Toon. “We’re very well set up to have our staff working remotely, we have a big investment in video conferencing, and in general we have a flexible working arrangement with our employees – most people are able to work from home as part of their normal working life anyway. So I think we’re well set up from that point of view.”
Working remotely will extend to the majority of GraphCore’s engineers, but those that need physical access to the lab in order to work will be able to come in under controlled conditions.
“All our engineers are able to access EDA tools through appropriately secure VPNs, we’ve invested a lot in cybersecurity to allow our [engineers to work remotely],” he said. “Our offices remain open but we’re running ‘tag teams’ on the hardware access, so not everybody is in [the office at the same time], so engineers can set up experiments and then control them remotely.”
Outside the engineering department, GraphCore has responded to the cancellation of many industry events by hosting online webinars. Toon said these were well-attended, with many delegates joining from home offices around the world.
The company is also working to ensure it is well-prepared for inevitable impacts on the supply chain and that the impacts on its business in general are minimised. However, the effects of such a major global incident cannot be mitigated entirely.
“Obviously [the global situation] will slow down the progress that can be made with customers,” Toon said. “I think we’ll start to see the same in other markets – decisions will get delayed, things will move a little bit slower, so we have to be ready for that,” he added.