On March 30, 2020, after nearly two months of COVID-19 lockdown, the Grail office in Beijing is open. It is not exactly business as usual. But it is encouraging to see our Beijing colleagues taking measured steps toward a new normal.
With billions around the world still on lockdown, it is hard to imagine a light at the end of the tunnel. In case that light is out of view from your makeshift home office, here’s a glimpse of life after lockdown.
Grail Insights' newsroom sat down (virtually) with Pei Wang who heads up Grail’s Beijing office. We wanted to learn from the Beijing experience. What were the home-officing challenges? How did you and your colleagues coordinate, collaborate, and deliver? What advice do you have for those of us who find ourselves where you were just two months ago?
Here’s what Pei had to say.
Q: You’ve been cleared to return to the office! But what does that actually mean?
A: Well, it isn’t like suddenly everything is exactly the same. The Chinese government has approved a staggered return to work at 50% capacity, with strict protection measures.
Monday, March 30, was our first day back. It kicked off with some rigorous office cleaning. Everyone in China still has to maintain social distancing and wear masks outside the home at all times. So we are wearing masks while working and we are all seated at least one desk apart.
We are also divided into “working groups.” The government does not want more than 50% of any office occupied at one time. In our building, no more than five people can be in the elevator at once. Restaurants on the ground floor are also limiting hours and the number of customers.
We’re managing the 50% rule by dividing into “Team A” and “Team B.” The teams cannot come into physical contact with each other. So we have divided the teams by who can benefit most from in-person interaction. It will be some time before the entire office is together, as the government has not given a timeline for when the 50% rule will be lifted.
So it is not business as usual, but it's a start.
Q: Describe what it was like in the beginning. How did the office plan for the lockdown? How did the team respond?
A: The Beijing office was closed for almost two months, from February 3rd to March 30th. The Chinese New Year holiday (January 24th to 30th) happened to fall just ahead of the shutdown and this actually bought us a little time to prepare. When it looked like we were heading for an inevitable shut down, we had several emergency calls with Grail leadership to plan next steps for the China team. Our health and safety was a top priority, and we quickly shifted to a work from home policy. We had just enough time to gather essentials from the office and prepare for the home office transition.
We all understood that we had to do our part to contain the spread.
Q: What were some safeguards that were put in place to ensure seamless support for your clients?
A: Well, in many ways we were already well-prepared to take care of our clients remotely. Grail was built on an adaptive client service model that is all about meeting client needs whenever and wherever. When we were started by Monitor Group, our mission was to execute very complicated workstreams across geographically diverse teams. Back then, especially, clients weren’t used to the idea of outsourcing sophisticated work like this to global teams. So, from the very beginning, we built the business around rigorous levels of anywhere/anytime collaboration.
Q: But there must have been some challenges, given how quickly the team had to adjust to everyone working from home? What were they and what was the response?
A: A challenge for some of our team was getting a fast and stable Internet connection. You’ve suddenly got a city of 20 million on lockdown! So Internet speed was going to be an issue. We resolved this on a case-by-case basis, calling providers, getting service package upgrades, buying new routers, etc. It didn’t take long for everyone to be up and running.
Another challenge we faced in China was getting access to web resources outside of China. Normally that is not a problem with our powerful office VPN. But working from home meant we had to purchase additional VPN accounts and software. Thanks to a responsive IT department, our team members who support secondary research for their clients continued delivering up-to-date secondary research and analysis.
Q: So it sounds like despite technical challenges, time-critical insights delivery went uninterrupted?
A: Absolutely. And that’s also due to resourcefulness and coordination. I remember one day, early in the transition. One of our team members wasn’t able to get access to some online data. They were in the middle of a project that was heavy on secondary research. So they reached out to their China team members. But we were all encountering a similar problem getting access to this information. That’s when our team members in India jumped in! They were able to quickly source the missing piece of the secondary research puzzle and we were able to deliver time-sensitive insights to our clients.
Q: I guess in a global crisis, it’s good to know there’s a global team that has your back.
Q: So many of us have only recently transitioned to working from home. Any advice for staying productive?
A: I’m sure situations vary, but I can share a few things we did that seemed to help. The first thing we did was set up Work from Home guidelines. These focused on maintaining ongoing communication, transparency, and engagement. For example, we always had our Skype open so we could communicate instantly with each other, and we followed rules about changing to an “away” status when we were not in front of our computers, and changing it back when we returned. It sounds like a small thing, but it helped us stay connected.
To maintain structure and productivity, I set clear expectations with task delegations and deadlines and these were communicated each morning. Teams would typically share their work progress with each other and with me, either when a specific milestone was reached or at the end of a workday. I found this extremely useful in aligning with the project delivery timeline and maintaining accountability while working remotely.
We also split a large team into smaller groups. The small groups held each other accountable and it was easier to allocate tasks amongst them based on the nature of the work.
Q: Did you have problems sharing resources or collaborating while working remotely?
A: Actually, no. Grail was already set up for easy and secure file-sharing and digital content management software. We’ve been using collaborative platforms for a while and this came in handy during lockdown.
Q: And how did you support each other as people?
A: Well, of course, we had these regular check-ins to ensure workflow was on target, but we also took the time to check in on each other’s well being. In China, people don’t tend to say a lot about themselves when speaking in groups, so I made it a point of checking in on my team individually.
This is a worrying time. We have a professional duty to our clients and our colleagues. But we also need to be compassionate and acknowledge that this is not normal! Sometimes just acknowledgment can help.
Q: Last question, what big lessons did you take from this experience?
I think there were two. First, I learned that I took face-to-face communication for granted! Sometimes a brief and focused in-person conversation can be so much simpler and there’s less room for miscommunication. Plus, it is just nice to see people and say “good morning!”
And the second thing may be too soon to talk about because we only just returned. But I plan to speak with my team about any positive aspects of remote work that they experienced. For example, did they find that sometimes you can accomplish in an email what used to be a meeting?
Grail was built on remote flexibility, so for us, I don’t think the impact will be huge. But I think we will be hearing a lot more about how this global experience will transform the nature of work.
If you’d like to hear more, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org Stay safe, everyone.
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