Managing Remote Staff Through Crisis: Work From Home Lessons from Hong Kong

Most professionals, and their managers, are familiar with the occasional work from home (WFH) day. That’s very different from managing a fully-remote staff – none of whom are used to being home full-time. As schools and offices across the U.S. close in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, that’s exactly the situation that an increasing number of managers find themselves in.

Samuel Şerban, the head of Bloomberg’s team of software engineers in Hong Kong, has been through that transition, and then some. About eight weeks ago, the Bloomberg office in Hong Kong went fully remote due to the spread of the coronavirus. This followed months of uncertainty brought on by anti-government protests.

“All of the protests caused a lot of soul-searching,” he says. “What are we doing in Hong Kong and what is our city going through? It also made us think about how to prepare the business for disruption.”

Samuel Şerban
Samuel Şerban, head of Bloomberg's engineering team in Hong Kong

Samuel will be presenting insights from his experience leading his engineering team through both of these crises in his talk “Engineering Leadership in the Time of Coronavirus” during LeadDev Live, a virtual event which will be held online April 7 and 8.

He urges businesses – especially managers – to prepare in five crucial areas:

Readiness

One of Samuel’s first tasks was to verify the personal phone numbers for his team, which has grown from two to more than two dozen over the past two years. Then, he needed a backup means of communication in case there was no internet access. He made sure everyone could be reached on WhatsApp, and double-checked that the broadcast emergency messaging worked.

When preparing to work from home, the impact of good audio is easily overlooked. “Get good headsets with quality mics for everyone. You don’t want to spend your meetings constantly saying ‘Sorry, I missed that.’ It gets tired really quickly.”

Safety

Bloomberg decided to implement remote working for its Hong Kong staff over the Lunar New Year, when many employees were traveling. Some expatriates were visiting family in other countries. A number of them asked to stay out of Hong Kong, saying they’d feel safer working from their home countries. “Allowing that flexibility was the right thing to do. We did not want people to feel they had to choose between work and their personal safety.”

“When it comes to business operations decisions, we always put people’s safety first,” Samuel says. One staff member was on an extended holiday in China. Amidst news that the border would be closed, Samuel feared the employee would be stuck there. “But we felt we should not interfere with their personal decision. They chose to complete the trip and were able to come back just before the border crossing was restricted. It was a great reminder for us to support our employees’ choices and not to overreact to gloomy news.”

Mental Health

Starting to work from home at a moment’s notice, with a workforce that did not willingly choose long-term remote work and with a pandemic raging is nothing like the idyllic take-your-laptop-to-the-beach that some people think of when imagining remote work.

Samuel thought he had a plan to help his team’s mental health as they tried to deal with the epidemic. He was particularly concerned about those living alone, so he made sure they would be contacted by phone by two different people each day.

But he quickly learned that each employee faced their own challenges. One was completely exhausted after a week of careful showering and doing laundry after every trip outside. Someone else was so worried about the safety of his children that he didn’t leave his house for weeks.

“I’ve learned to listen to them to find what they actually needed, not what I thought they needed,” Samuel noted.

People can be reluctant to ask for help. Some don’t want to bother others when everyone is going through the same thing. Plus, the lack of face-to-face communication makes it harder to gauge emotions. Samuel’s advice for managers is to “Share your own concerns – your quest for toilet paper is a great conversation opener.”

When it comes to help, taking care of yourself is equally important: “Put some structure into your day. Make sure you have breaks throughout the day and exercise. Drink enough water, get a good chair and a good screen.”

And then there are the kids. “Initially, I was incredibly anxious about my kids showing up on screen during a video call,” says Samuel. But he now recognizes that as the wrong thinking. “I had to learn that my house is their house, that they don’t have school and they don’t have a playground.” Accepting that reality, he says, was a huge relief. “It’s an unusual time, and I’m not here to deny my kids the right of being kids or banish them to some other part of the house.”

“But all of this also took a toll on me. I once found myself unable to sleep, well after midnight, boiling over a particular work issue. Then it dawned on me that it was a problem I’ve often faced in the past and had never before fretted over it so much.” That’s when Samuel saw the insidious part of the stress – masking itself as a work challenge. “After that incident, I recognized the same in others too, and my own experience helped me support them.”

Bloomberg's software engineering team in Hong Kong

Productivity

Working from home inevitably changes the way teams work together. It’s frustrating to wait two hours to get a response to a message when you’re used to simply strolling over to someone else’s desk to talk to them. It was a great opportunity to ask the team how to fix the problem. A simple solution was effective. Everyone changed their chat notification settings to know if someone else needed their attention. “This approach made a big difference and was well received by everyone in the team,” he said.

Communication

“If you are a manager, make an effort to over-communicate,” Samuel stressed. In the absence of information, people are more susceptible to believing rumors. By letting staff know there is a plan and being transparent about its execution, leaders reduce the odds of people filling the gaps with their own worries.

But carefully planning all-staff communications can be taxing itself. One night (not the only one!), Samuel found himself unable to sleep. For weeks on end, every day had brought a new crisis – border closures, new infections, food shortages, or other people’s problems.

“That’s when a year-old advice rang in my head,” he says. ‘How will your manager know that you are stressed?‘ Not a man of many words, he wrote: ‘I am worried. There’s talk about food shortages and people are thinking about leaving Hong Kong.’

“My manager was in New York at the time. And he was quick to offer his help, but most importantly, he underscored how much he appreciated my efforts during an incredibly challenging time. I read that, I showed it to my wife. I smiled and went to bed.”

“In that particular instance, some good words were all I needed to hear,” Samuel says, “and I appreciated them a lot.”

The lesson? Have a special communication channel – with someone with whom you can share all your unfiltered worries. It’s crucial for your own sanity!