Working remotely during challenging times

COVID-19 has impacted the lives of people around the world. Travel restrictions and new rules on large public gatherings have changed the daily routines of millions. Over the past few weeks, many of my colleagues and customers have approached me to ask: What can we do to help?

Lily Zheng is a good friend and coworker who lives in Shanghai. We have worked together in person in China but mostly we meet on Microsoft Teams. Recently, Lily wrote a letter to regional customers about what she and her team have learned working remotely while weathering the outbreak. Her letter inspired our team to make Microsoft Teams available for free for people moving to remote work during this challenging time. I wanted to share it with people worldwide who may benefit from our Shanghai team’s experience. I hope you find it as helpful as I did.

Let me turn it over to Lily.

Dear Customers,

My name is Lily Zheng, and I am a Microsoft employee who lives and works in Shanghai. As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to affect millions of people here in China, we have experienced a huge spike in remote work. It’s as if every school, hospital, and business in China is now a distributed organization – if only temporarily. From virus outbreaks like COVID-19 to unexpected weather emergencies, there are many reasons that working remotely could become suddenly necessary. So I wanted to share three lessons I have learned over the last few weeks, as well as three lessons we have gathered from our customers as they adapt to remote work.

Like a lot of you, I began hearing about the virus back in January, mostly on social media. But I didn’t realize what a big deal it would be until just before the Chinese New Year. That’s when, due to the Spring Festival travel rush, the number of affected people began to rise rapidly. On January 23, the government sealed off Hubei Province in order to curb the spread of the virus. The next day, New Year’s Eve, my family had planned to go see a movie. When we learned from the press that movie theaters across the city had been shut down, the severity of the outbreak really sunk in. Two days later, the government announced unprecedented cancellations of Spring Festival events, and I cancelled a long-planned family vacation. The kids were crushed, but our health and safety had to come first.

Microsoft employees working remotely
Zheng and her Microsoft teammates in China collaborate closely while working remotely.

So, what do I say when people ask what it’s like to work in China right now? Well, working remotely has cut down on our commute time, and we’re certainly no longer worried about what we are wearing. And with many restaurants closed, we’re all brushing up on our cooking skills. But with kids out of school – and babysitters stuck at home as well – staying productive can be a challenge.

What I’ve learned from remote work

While our team here is accustomed to working remotely, these past few weeks have really clarified what successful and sustainable remote work requires. Here are my top three lessons.

Stay well.

This move to remote work is all about protecting our physical health by minimizing contact with the virus. That, everyone understands. What is less obvious is that working where you live can create its own kind of stress. Taking time to exercise, eat well, and enjoy real downtime away from screens are all essential to maintaining mental well-being while working from home.

Go all in.

It can be tempting to put things off while working remotely. But teams that thrive remotely find ways to do just about everything online. If you’ve scheduled one-on-ones, keep them. If you’ve planned big meetings, hold them. If you’re ready to brainstorm an upcoming presentation, jump on that video call.

Support your teammates.

I’ve also learned from this experience that supporting others is the best way to stay positive and energized. We use our online tools for more than just work, sharing photos of family and pets and checking in with each other throughout the day. Cheering each other up is not just good for maintaining morale, it also helps keep our team together when we work apart.

What I’ve learned from customers

In the space of a few weeks, we’ve seen customers in China truly transform the way they work. Here are three things I’ve learned from customers to set your organization up for success.

Immediately open the lines of communication.

When your employees are working remotely, it’s more important than ever to ensure everyone stays briefed on the business. One of our customers, a large Asia-based insurance company, started broadcasting video messages to their staff to make sure everyone had access to the latest information. With everyone balancing working from home with childcare and other challenges, recorded videos give people an opportunity to catch up when they can’t make a live meeting or briefing.

Keep it moving.

While it can be tempting to postpone plans until everyone can get together, companies here are finding ways to keep things moving forward. With the government’s encouragement, many schools have been able to start their terms on time by moving everything online. They’ve been supporting their students by creating clear schedules, hosting morale events like cooking challenges, and carefully communicating assignments and other information so students aren’t overwhelmed.

Even big meetings can be moved online.

Many of us are accustomed to quick calls or video chats with a few teammates, but large and formal meetings can also be successfully held online. With so many employees opting to work remotely, hospitals here have been gathering their staff remotely. One hospital in Dalian, for instance, has been holding large staff meetings via Teams. Keys to successful online meetings include setting a clear agenda, practicing inclusion by resolving any audio issues at the start of the meeting, and taking clear notes to share as follow-ups later. Remember, too, that if your organization permits it, you can record meetings for those who can’t attend.

For me, and for many people across the world, this isn’t the way we imagined the kick-off to a new year. But we’ve learned a lot. And Teams has been an incredibly powerful tool for helping us manage through the challenges. Many people aren’t aware, but Teams is already available for free. You can go here to learn more. But no matter what tools you choose to use, I hope these tips prove helpful, and I wish you and your families all the best!

Lily Zheng

Director, Microsoft China

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *