Coping with Covid-19

27 February 2020

As I write this, the situation with the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) is getting more serious, with a reasonable chance of a full pandemic. At Thoughtworks, we've already been affected, as we have offices in China, including Wuhan, the city that has been the epicenter of the outbreak.

I don't want to be alarmist about Covid-19. It's probably no more of a problem than the regular seasonal flu, which people forget regularly kills tens of thousands of people a year in the prosperous United States. But that word “probably” makes all the difference. There is still a lot we don't know about this virus, and that uncertainty makes it reasonable for people to react differently. I've had some international travel canceled due to this, and I'm grateful - not because I'm that worried about getting ill, but because I don't want to get trapped behind a quarantine barrier.

In China, the authorities have imposed a full lock-down of cities across the country. People have to stay at home, and all our offices are closed. The impact of this on our work is varied. Our China offices do both offshore work and in-country work. The offshore work is mostly unaffected. Our teams have switched to remote-first operation, with everyone working from home. However most of our in-country work is onsite which has left our clients with the choice of either suspending our work, or taking on an involuntary experiment in remote-first working.

As well as our development work, we also have to carry out the internal operations of the company. This hasn't affected us too much. Our global nature has long forced most ThoughtWorkers to be accustomed to remote working, so the shift to remote-first has not been a huge impact. We switched our calls from audio to video in 2012/13 and I've got so used to doing video calls now that when another organization puts me on an audio-only call, it feels like we're going back to the Stone Age (or worse, the 1990's).

We do appreciate the value of a certain amount of face-to-face meetings, but other than playing havoc with busy diaries as we reschedule them, we can cope with a period without. We canceled travel to and from China a couple of weeks ago and we have a global group monitoring health announcements, so we can keep up-to-date with travel advice.

Our biggest organizational challenge so far has been reorganizing our Thoughtworks University. This is a multi-month program that we use to train new graduate ThoughtWorkers. Initially it was done in India, but in the last few years we've also been doing it in China. Due to Covid-19 we've had to shift it at short notice to Brazil. Reorganizing people and physical space, let alone the complexities of visas, has been no small effort.

Our teams in China were asked how they feel moving to remote-first affected their productivity. 40% said it had improved their productivity, 40% said there was no material difference, and only 20% said they were doing less. We should treat these numbers with caution: after all they are self-reported, qualitative judgments. It's likely the Hawthorne effect is coming into play. Folks have also reported that, since they can't leave the house, they are getting bored and thus spending more time working.

Those that have lost productivity have mostly done so because they aren't set up for remote work. To work from home, it helps if people have such simple things as a decent desk and chair. Obviously high-speed internet is vital. Teams need to have tools that help remote collaboration and be used to working with them. Security infrastructure needs to be set up so people can access the resources they need to do their jobs from home. Video calls may make audio calls obsolete but do take a little time to get used to.

We've set up response teams in each country to deal with the impact of all this. Different countries are facing different contexts, so it makes sense to handle this on a country-by-country basis rather than some global mandates. That said, response teams are getting on calls with peers in other countries to pass on information - the China organization has a lot of practical experience to pass on. Teams focus first on ThoughtWorkers - is everyone ok, do people need special support due to the crisis? Even if staff aren't sick themselves, they may have family that are. Then we look at teams, where do people need help to set up their remote-first environments? Often our clients don't have experience with remote-first work, so they have asked us to help them adjust. Those of us with greater remote-first experience can help mentor those new to the flow and tools to get things done.

We've asked folks who have been to a high risk area to stay at home for a while. Even if a government isn't setting down quarantine rules, it makes sense for us to do so, to better protect more of our staff. Similarly those who have cold or flu symptoms, whether or not they've been away, should stay home. I always believed that coming into work when you're sick is unwise - you slow down your own recovery as well as infect others. This virus reinforces that logic.

The reason I joined Thoughtworks, and the reason I stay, is our culture - a culture that I've long advocated for modern organizations. During a crisis like this, we gain even more than usual from this culture. Software development is an activity that's mired in uncertainty, and our philosophy - to embrace that uncertainty and learn to cope with it (the agile mindset) - helps us when events like this appear in the wider world. We communicate freely, even when we are uncertain of the overall situation. Cultivating trust and pushing decision making to those most in touch with the circumstances allows ThoughtWorkers at all levels to make better decisions.

Even after the virus has played out, its effect won't be over as there will be an economic impact. Clients are seeing drops in revenue, and we'll be affected by that too. I suspect we'll also learn more about how technology plays a role in coping with a crisis. This may encourage many organizations to consider change. Hopefully more firms will take a serious look at remote work, appreciate the importance of digital tools, and begin shifting their culture towards what's needed for today's world.

Further Reading

On March 13 I posted a second article on our response.


Angela Ferguson, Jeremy Gordon, Jie Jessie Xia, Julie Woods-Moss, and Sudhir Tiwari discussed drafts of this article with me at very short notice.

We are all thankful to our Tech-Ops teams who have built and curated the infrastructure that allows us to work remotely so effectively.