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Working as one: Thoughtworks China’s agile approach to COVID-19

On the evening of January 20, a medical expert in China confirmed what people across the country feared: that the rapidly-spreading coronavirus was transmittable from person to person, a huge discovery that shifted the entire strategy of how Thoughtworks China would respond to the growing epidemic. With over 1,800 employees across Thoughtworks China and nearly 300 in Wuhan alone, leaders had to act quickly in order to protect Thoughtworkers and clients.

Early response, fast action
On January 21, in response to the changing landscape in the Hubei province, Thoughtworks Wuhan formed an emergency team tasked with formalizing a plan to keep Thoughtworkers (and therefore, clients) safe while transitioning employees to a 100% remote working environment

Leaders from Thoughtworks China made the decision to close the Wuhan office beginning January 22; the government, meanwhile, announced a city-wide lockdown of Wuhan the following day. Simultaneously, the Workspace team expanded their work-from-home network capabilities—along with other considerations—for the remaining seven China offices and gathered emergency supplies such as masks and disinfectants in advance.

Thoughtworks China response coronavirus pandemic

After the Thoughtworks Wuhan office was closed, the following events took place:

1. On January 23, the day Wuhan went into lockdown, what originally was Wuhan’s emergency team expanded to include all of Thoughtworks China. The team included leadership representatives from Wuhan, Head of Professional Services, Head of Finance, Head of People, and Head of Workspace, Admin Lead. Market and business unit leaders were also part of the extended emergency team to support as needed.

2. Every day, a unit leader would conduct a health check on each Thoughtworker (including any family members) and share the results with the China leadership team. 

3. After the government decided to extend the Chinese New Year by another two days until February 3, the emergency team decided that Thoughtworkers needed to work from home until February 28. After this date, employees would be allowed to go to the offices in a staggered manner, according to local government guidelines. 

Thoughtworks China response coronavirus pandemic

An agile approach to crisis management 
In order to make the necessary changes to keep Thoughtworkers safe and productive, change and uncertainty had to be embraced. The emergency team made decisions on a rolling basis and a rapidly-changing situation had to be reassessed constantly. This required fast execution as opposed to lengthy discussions about what to do next. Serious action needed to be taken in an incredibly short amount of time, so the team quickly adopted a crisis management model.

The ultimate goal was to keep employees healthy at any cost. Following typical business processes could have slowed down decision making and when you’re protecting employees during a virus outbreak, all decisions need to be made with that end goal in mind.

What helped bolster this approach was Thoughtworks’ distributed agile delivery experience, which helped the team quickly pivot to a remote working model where employees could deliver clients projects from home. Thoughtworks’ history with agile methodology helped leaders make decisions and iterate on them over time. Additionally, having a people-centric culture made it easy to focus on what mattered most: protecting employees. 

Thoughtworks China response coronavirus pandemic

Providing extra employee support 
Transitioning a workforce to be fully remote seemingly overnight was no small feat and minimizing the mental stress that comes along with isolation was particularly challenging. There was no perfect way to tackle this, particularly for Thoughtworkers in complete lockdown in Wuhan, but the emergency team provided the following resources and outlets to ease stress:

1. China’s Employee Assistance Program was updated to include 24/7 access to professional help to ensure that Thoughtworkers could talk to someone any time if they felt psychological pressure. 

2. During the isolation period, some teams organized additional cloud-based activities such as workouts, karaoke contests, games, and beach learning sessions in order to keep employees engaged and connected.

3. Daily health checks for Thoughtworkers not only helped the emergency team understand how employees were doing, but also made Thoughtworkers feel a sense of community and care from others.

Thoughtworks China response coronavirus pandemic

Free to work as one
It’s been an unprecedented time for Thoughtworkers in China over the past two months. Stress, fear, and immense uncertainty were overwhelming until only very recently. However the strength, resilience, and the commitment of our people—together with the strong support from Thoughtworks’ global offices and our clients—have been the main drivers that pushed us through the crisis.  

Sincere thanks to all Thoughtworkers in Wuhan, who are continuously online regardless of the lockdown; to the colleagues who were quarantined for 14 days in hotels for business requirements home and abroad; to the operations team who was too busy preparing health precautions to take new year’s holiday; and to the Thoughtworkers who have been actively responding to our latest policies and arrangements for the company's sustainable development.

Looking ahead
As Thoughtworks China emerges from a period of intense isolation, some silver linings become apparent after what could be considered a unique opportunity to adapt as a business. The ability to successfully extend Thoughtworks’ distributed delivery model and equip employees with the proper infrastructure proves that a remote model is just as effective as office- and client-site environments. Additionally, it’s apparent that building a diverse array of delivery models and portfolios to hedge risks is immensely beneficial to our success. Perhaps most importantly, making crisis management and rehearsal standard practice for leadership will protect our most valuable asset: our Thoughtworkers.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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