When mainland Chinese office employees returned to work on Monday February 3 after an extended CNY break, they did so by remote using popular workplace apps like Alibaba’s DingTalk and Tencent’s Wechat Work. Clever – except that the resulting traffic tsunami proved to be too much for those services, which temporarily crashed under the load. Both DingTalk and Wechat Work managed to get things under control before lunchtime, but the experience was a real-world lesson of the importance of business continuity for employees, managers and service providers alike.
Ironically, it’s not a new lesson. Business continuity planning (BCP) has been around for ages, and as the enterprise world goes increasingly digital, it’s become more crucial than ever, whether the event that disrupts your business continuity is a natural disaster, a terrorist attack or a DDoS attack. Even pandemics aren’t a new source of disruption, at least for some of us – in 2003, SARS forced many Hong Kong enterprises to adopt remote working and flexible hours.
And for several years now, we’ve heard about how remote working is becoming more common – and not even as a BCP contingency. Videoconferencing firm Owl Labs puts out regular reports on the state of remote working, and in general employees who work from home are generally more productive and happier with their jobs, achieve a better work-life balance, and have a better relationship with their employer.
So you’d think that enterprises would be geared up and ready to cope with something like COVID-19.
Turns out not. A number of reports have noted that the COVID-19 outbreak has forced enterprises to engage in what Bloomberg termed “the world’s largest work-from-home experiment”, and that many companies are struggling to get their heads around remote working.
This may seem surprising in an age where we have no shortage of technology solutions to facilitate BCP in many forms, to include remote working, many of which have been available for some time now. Indeed, we arguably have more tools than ever to enable working from home, whether it’s the audio/video conferencing functions of WhatsApp and Zoom, collaboration platforms like Slack and Zoho, or more advanced and sophisticated solutions like Webex, G Suite and Teams.
In fact, if you’re in the BCP solutions business – or want to be – COVID-19 is the sales opportunity of a lifetime. In Singapore, StarHub started offering its “SmartUC Mobile” softphone app to SMEs for free until September, enabling their employees to receive office landline calls on their personal mobile phones. In Hong Kong, broadband player HKBN partnered with Microsoft to offer remote office solutions to existing HKBN enterprise customers for free for three months. That service includes free use of Microsoft Surface Go laptops (preloaded with a Microsoft 365 business license and Windows Virtual Desktop running on Azure), as well as installation, system configuration, deployment, and a 6GB mobile data SIM.
And that’s great, as far as it goes. But before we dazzle ourselves with all these cool technological solutions, it’s worth highlighting that the chief challenge of remote working – especially in Asia-Pacific – isn’t the technology.
Remote working barriers
While remote working may be a hot item in the US, it’s less common in Asia. The most recent global Owl Labs report (2018) notes that while 85% of companies in the US allow remote working either some or all of the time, only 56% of companies outside the US do likewise – the remainder don’t allow it at all. Moreover, Asia has 9% more companies that don’t allow remote work than the global average.
A recent Fast Company article notes that while remote working is starting to take off in Southeast Asia, it still faces considerable barriers, from regulations and lack of digital infrastructure (particularly for things like payment systems) to cultural barriers that dictate you’re not gainfully employed unless you’re working a proper 9-5 job in an office.
In other words, there’s a lot more to remote working as a BCP measure than allowing employees to use laptops and Zoom at home.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 itself presents some additional specific challenges to remote working and BCP, starting with the fact that in places like China where many cities are in lockdown or have imposed strict quarantine measures, enterprises don’t have much say in the matter. In those cases, many enterprise managers are scrambling to figure out how to manage and motivate work-at-home employees, and how to verify that the work is getting done.
Another big challenge with COVID-19 is the uncertainty surrounding it – we don’t really know how long BCP measures need to be in force before enterprises can return to business as usual. It might be next month – it might be three months.
In countries where governments are not forcing people to stay home because of COVID-19, enterprises still need a continuity plan tailored to the specific problem. That can include things like supply chain disruptions, but another less obvious one is employee well-being. According to Reuters, that means not just implementing infection control measures – from providing masks and hand sanitizer to encouraging social distancing in the office – to maintaining employee morale and mitigating feelings of fear, anxiety and xenophobia if an employee shows up at the office with so much as a mild sniffle.
Enterprise Singapore has a document [PDF] outlining steps enterprises can take to establish effective BCP procedures specific to COVID-19. Recommendations include appointing someone as a designated “flu manager” to oversee all COVID-19 related BCP measures; reviewing employee management policies such as absenteeism, sick leave, overseas travel and workplace closure; and setting up alternate (and physically separated) teams to handle critical business functions.
In fact, most recommendations here involve people, not tech. That’s good advice for enterprise managers both in and outside Singapore.