Coping with Covid-19, part 2

13 March 2020

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a brief note on how ThoughtWorks has been affected and is coping with the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19). We've seen the crisis early, due to our extensive offices in China. I thought it was now a good time to provide an update. [1]

Our governing priorities in handling this are

  1. Focus on our people’s health and safety
  2. Help our clients, as that is our business
  3. Help slow community spread. Most ThoughtWorkers are young and healthy, thus likely to only have a mild problem if infected with Covid-19. But everyone, healthy or not, who has the virus can pass it on to others. By reducing travel and contact we can do our part to slow the spread of the disease. Even if the total numbers aren't reduced by a slower spread, it will reduce the strain on the health care infrastructure, giving those unlucky enough to suffer serious consequences a better chance of coping.
  4. Let our regional teams drive responses according to local conditions. We will provide global support, and encourage our local response teams to share experiences with each other. We think that tailoring local response to local conditions is more important than a globally consistent policy.

One of the most tricky aspects of this is how much we still don't know. We don't know that much about how transmission works. We don't know how deadly the disease is. It seems likely that it's more serious than most seasonal flus and could be an order of magnitude worse. But thankfully, it's almost certainly not as bad as Spanish Flu. We don't know if its transmission and effects will be reduced as it gets warmer in the Northern Hemisphere. If so, there's a real danger that people will think it was over-blown, not do prudent preparations, and we'll have a worse outbreak next winter.

The rate of new infections has dropped rapidly in China, and we are able to open our offices again. However there are some significant differences to normal life in these offices. At the moment, everyone in China is expected to wear a surgical mask in public. [2] The government requires that any office needs to have an adequate supply of masks before they are allowed to open. People are expected to keep a distance of at least a meter, all seats have to be at least that far apart. Everyone coming into the office has their temperature checked. [3] All surfaces are cleaned three times a day. We are limiting our offices to no more that 50% of its usual occupation.

photo: 胡凯 Hu Kai

Xi'an mall in mid-March. People wear masks not to protect themselves, but to prevent infecting others.

We continue to have each country take their own measures, in line with guidelines from country-specific health authorities. But there are some global measures we are taking.

All internal travel and events have been canceled by default until the end of June. This means that upcoming sessions of ThoughtWorks University that we moved from Xi'an to Brazil will now occur remotely - a new challenge for us in remote work. We also are switching the meeting that develops the ThoughtWorks Radar to a remote meeting. We've always felt that these kinds of events need to be done face-to-face, and we still do, but under the circumstances we need to push our boundaries of what we do remotely. We're also recommending that anyone attending an event with 150 or more people should seriously consider not going.

Many of our clients are taking similar measures, many have stopped any external visitors coming into the company facilities. This is understandable, it's one thing to be infected by a colleague, but more difficult if infected by someone from another company. Especially given the litigious nature of U.S. culture.

On our client projects, we've talked to our clients about how to continue remotely. Not all clients are set up for that, so we are working with them to pass on our experiences with doing this. Involuntary remote working like this may show some people that remote working is more effective than they think. But there's also a risk - in these circumstances remote working is likely to be set up badly, and thus give a poor impression compared to how things can go when run well.

Our techops group has created an internal knowledge hub to collect together as much information as we can to handle remote work, much of which I hope we can share publicly over the next few weeks.

A particular issue here is the inceptions that we do at the beginning of a major chunk of work. These are highly collaborative meetings designed to bring together everyone who is affected by the work. We've found that we can do them remotely, at some lesser level of effectiveness, if everyone is already familiar with each other, such as the next stage of a product's evolution. But in many cases people don't know each other, and that makes a remote inception much harder to do.

When teams still need face-to-face collaboration, one approach we've used is to partition the team into two, so that only half the team comes into the office at once and we avoid physical contact between those in different sub-groups. That way should an infection hit someone on the team, only half the team will be at risk.

Not everyone has things prepared for working from home. In some case people have taken a loan of monitors and other office equipment. However, we can't do much for those that don't have a decent room to work in. If schools close, then child-care will also be a concern for those working from home. We've also found that bandwidth is becoming an issue. Local telecom networks are having to deal not just with more people working from home, but also schoolchildren sent home who have schoolwork to do (and of course plenty of bandwidth-intensive games to play).

We continue to ask anyone who has traveled to a high risk area to work from home, and anyone who is sick to remain home. Also anyone who is high risk (due to age or pre-existing medical conditions), or lives with someone who is high risk, should work from home.

As this is a health-care crisis, one of the risks is having critical people become sick. Covid-19 is likely to be more serious for older people, and senior leaders tend to be older. So one measure we're taking is to ensure that we plan that we have people who are able to quickly step in should a key person fall ill. Even in normal times, teams should ensure they have a plan to deal with any member being unavailable suddenly due to illness or some other crisis - this crisis reinforces that principle.

If the public health prognosis of Covid-19 is hard to forecast, that's doubly so for the economic consequences. Some companies will see short-term revenue lost, but hopefully bounce back quickly once things settle down. Others may see revenue deferred until the economy recovers. Firms living close to the financial line may not survive the likely recession, even if it's short. Most vulnerable are people with insecure jobs, often without sick pay, who can barely afford to take time off.

In our case, we've built a simple model to assess the risk to our business. While it's simplistic, it does help frame out thinking. We've sketched out a few scenarios of how the pandemic will play out. These help us consider what early response we'll need for them and what signals we should be looking for to sense which scenario is playing out. So far these show our biggest concern is demand, as we see our clients cut back on new work as they suffer the impact to their revenues. We'll be monitoring this, and refining the model over the future weeks and months. Our involvement in China had the disadvantage that we were affected earlier than most, but now it works to our favor as we can learn from our direct experiences there.

A crisis like this puts stress upon the policies and systems of an organization. If an organization holds too firmly to its regular controls, it limits the effectiveness of its response to the novel situation. But if it lets them all go it exposes itself to large risks at exactly the time that its capacity to absorb the impacts is weak. We try to balance these forces by pushing decision making out to local teams. We rely on the networks between these teams, rather than a singular hierarchy, to keep people informed and coordinated. The work we do to develop trust and rich communication structures during good times is an investment we profit from in difficult times like this.

As I write this, the world seems rather scary. We're seeing more countries using lockdowns, more travel bans, more appeals for social distancing. Contrarian that I am, I'm actually feeling rather relieved. It seems to me that finally the world is taking this virus seriously. It's important not to overreact too much - this is no Spanish Flu or Black Death. But if we don't overreact a little, we'll see many more deaths and suffering than we should. I'm encouraged by the seriousness that my colleagues are taking all of this. Problems like these aren't our favorites to wrestle with, but I still believe that a core strength of ThoughtWorks is facing dramatic, unpredictable events with calm and compassion. I hope the rest of society takes a similar attitude.


Footnotes

1: This is a situation that's changing rapidly, and the circumstances have little patience for the leisurely way I usually do my information gathering and review. As I learn more information, I'll either add them to this article or post a new one. If I make a substantial change I'll announce it in my twitter and RSS feeds.

2: Wearing of surgical masks in public is something that varies by culture. I hardly ever see anyone wearing such a mask on the street in Europe or the Americas. In Japan it's not uncommon, as it's expected that you wear one if you have a cold so you don't infect others. They are also not unusual in China, although so far that's more for warmth and keeping out bad air.

3: People can be infectious and not run a temperature, so this measure is by no means perfect. However it does encourage those that are ill to stay home.

Acknowledgements

To gather material for this update, I've made liberal use of internal documents, emails, conversations, and the inevitable zoom calls. So my thanks go out to all my colleagues who are faced with an urgent and novel crisis - and battling it in the style to which I've become accustomed.

I will, however, give a special shout-out to Andy Yates for drafting a particularly apposite paragraph. Ni Wang, Shangqui Liu, and Hu Kai filled me in with the current situation in our China offices. Lei Pan has been sending out useful internal updates on the situation in China.