I've lost track of how many pitches I've received on working remotely - but one stood out.
I was offered the chance to speak to AvePoint about how they've managed to keep remote workers productive in four Chinese cities. I took that call.
AvePoint is an independent software vendor and manufacturer, headquartered in Jersey City. They are an award-winning Microsoft partner supporting 7 million users worldwide; they offer cloud solutions for Office 365, Salesforce, and Dynamics 365.
About a third of AvePoint's 1,600 employees are based in the APAC region. When the coronavirus outbreak hit, AvePoint had to respond, and quickly. Their employees need answers, support, and remote solutions fast.
Becoming remote workers overnight - coronavirus hits in APAC
Dux Raymond Sy, AvePoint CMO, told me how it went down:
Obviously it started out with our Asia Pacific team. These were the folks in the front lines, so to speak. Especially our team and colleagues in China, they were the first ones that had to work remotely.
AvePoint employees already had a bit of experience with remote work, but mostly, it was individuals here and there. This was categorically different:
In the past, when some team members were working remotely, most of their team members were in the office, so the team dynamic wasn't affected as much. Whereas now, everybody's remote.
Some of us place a higher value on office culture than others. But in most APAC countries, there is a much stronger distinction between work and home. Sy:
Culturally, especially in Asia as a whole, working remotely is not a thing. Despite all these technologies, culturally, people go to work. There's a hard line drawn between work and home, which is great. Suddenly, they had to pivot quickly, and shift to work from home.
Remote work in these Chinese cities was/is a different kind of isolation. Though California is now under a "shelter in place" rule, even that is not as intense as the kind of measures some Chinese cities put into place. Military personnel were everywhere. Sy told me that in some cities, the Chinese government had drones flying - if you were spotted outside, the drone would play a warning for you to go home immediately.
Sy told me that their Chinese offices are gradually opening up. Meanwhile, their U.S. offices are now shut down. Time to apply those lessons.
Remote work lessons - productivity is harder than technology
So you're isolated, scared, and cut off from your teammates. What did AvePoint do? Sy told me honing in on each team's needs was crucial:
First and foremost, technology's definitely important. But what's more important is having fundamental guidelines and boundaries on how work gets done. And certainly, teams differ from each other. For example, I'm part of the marketing organization where I have colleagues around the world. We support every part of the business, from creating product marketing materials to setting up webinars and putting up online ads. We support every business unit around the world. So so we're pretty much at it 24/7.
One guideline example? For AvePoint marketing, all the work is done within Microsoft Teams. Not just chats and calls and meetings, but any type of project or initiative also goes in Teams. All their work artifacts go in Teams; all the approvals as well. The big payoff? No email distractions from the project team - and one version of document truth. Sy:
When we have meetings, we look at the same document together; we co-author it. Everything is done in Teams. So there's no internal emails around a work artifact. [Editor's note: this usage of Teams as a collaboration hub is AvePoint's way of addressing the need for an employee destination/portal, not just a messaging solution. See Barb Mosher Zinck's recent piece on this, Intranets, Slack, Teams, and the digital workplace - can these be reconciled into a destination site?]
Cloud software is another key:
People's connectivity levels are different, and so are their computers. People also have different mobile devices, but at the very least, Teams is that one-stop-shop that holds everything together for us. The fact that it's cloud-based, it can scale up. In the past, we had Skype for Business on-premise. And if we had high traffic, we could see it slow down. Whereas with Teams, there's hiccups here and there because of the sudden surge that's happening now, but generally speaking, it's been very stable.
So from a productivity standpoint, how long did it take to ramp back up? Sy acknowledged it was a bit choppy at first, with individuals sorting out their new workflows (example: they used to have a face-to-face meeting every morning, now they must shift that workflow into Teams). Bottom line: it took "a week or to" for AvePoint's teams to really stabilize remotely.
Just two weeks?
After that first week, the business really didn't miss a beat. You can't even really tell that they're remote.
Sy says he is grateful that they haven't let any customers down in their time of need. It's all about that SLA:
Being a software company, we have a cloud platform and our customers rely on us. So far, our is SLA still the same.
Overcoming fear and isolation with virtual connections
But weren't his employees scared and isolated? How did they overcome that?
That's a great question. We did tell everybody, "Family first, health first."
Teams in other regions did the heavy lifting while AvePoint's APAC teams adjusted. Now, the APAC teams are helping other regions do the same. Sy told me all the things his teammates do to foster connections to each day. Some are figuring out how to manage work and family at home. Others have no family, and must overcome that isolation. But they are helping each other:
Everyday on Teams, people are sharing pictures: "This is what I'm having for lunch; this is my home gym." We set up virtual happy hours, just as if you're you're having happy hour in the office. Another team set up home office tours. So they'll turn on their video: "This is my home office. This is how I work." It may sound light-hearted, but I think having that personal touch is critical, especially in times of uncertainty.
Remote is a challenge - now add kids to the mix
I asked Sy if they've faced any issues like the recent Teams outage, and other stressors that Phil Wainewright recently wrote about in As Microsoft Teams stutters, a look at the risk factors for remote work platforms. So far, so good. Sy believes his internal teams' prior moves to cloud software has really helped them. They've avoided some of the challenges companies are facing now, getting employees logged into proprietary or on-premise systems.
One of Sy's team members, Violet Zhang, a senior marketing specialist based in the AvePoint Changchun office in China, shared their team's day-to-day lessons (Agility with Microsoft 365: How I Worked Remotely During the Coronavirus Outbreak). I loved the team remote team collage picture from her blog post.
Sy recently did the same via a LinkedIn live session (replay: How to Ensure The Best Office 365 Remote Work Experience).
I had 100 people jump on, and then people are sharing what they're doing... How do they support their organizations to be able to do this effectively?
Though Sy's team is in a good remote rhythm, he admits to adjustment challenges. For him, it's about managing work and family at home:
I'm a parent myself. My son is 14; my daughter is nine. A lot of my colleagues have children too, so it's tough, right? One day we just woke up, and: no more school.
For some parents, it's about helping kids keep up with demanding remote homework. For others, it's homeschooling. Kids aren't used to sitting in front of a computer all day long:
Suddenly, parents must act as teachers as well, not only teaching them, but also structuring their day, and giving them discipline.
Sy polled his colleagues for tips on that, and he got a good one: structure your kids' day as if they had school. No, you can't make them study for six hours straight. But, you establish a routine for them, and stick with it.
I don't usually ask for tips on raising kids during an interview, but this is the current normal. Lines have blurred, and helping people comes first now. Sy:
It's going to be an interesting ride ahead.