In July 2019 I had the opportunity with Thoughtworks to travel from Brisbane, Australia to Sao Paulo, Brazil (nearly 14,000 km away) to create the role of Offshore Delivery Manager for our teams in Brazil supporting our clients in New York. I was hoping to mix work (new role, new region, new challenges) with pleasure (new culture, new sights, new experiences).
In October 2019 the leadership team decided to relocate the teams from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Recife, Brazil (over 2,600 km away). This would maximize access to our strong offshore talent in the Recife office and minimize the talent drain on our teams from the active start-up market in Sao Paulo. We developed the plan to transition over 30 roles from Sao Paulo to Recife, costed the travel expenses, and collaborated with the team members to achieve the outcomes by the end of 2020.
By December 2019 the coronavirus had surfaced in Wuhan, China and our Thoughtworks China colleagues started to respond while other countries took steps to protect themselves. Our New York team members and clients braced themselves as the U.S. started seeing new cases of coronavirus in January 2020 and our Brazil team members soon followed with the first coronavirus cases in Brazil in February 2020.
We were faced with a complex set of challenges in Brazil - the health pandemic, social inequalities, and political fragility. A Brazilian colleague described how she was feeling at the time: ”politically disgusted; emotionally exhausted & intellectually perplexed & that is Brazilian”. My new role in Brazil became a whole lot more challenging.
We had to move our delivery model to fully remote, reassess our plans to relocate to Recife, support our people as they faced health and political concerns, and protect our business’ viability.
We approached this unchartered territory in a similar way to our usual Agile software delivery approach - clarify goals, think creatively, communicate continuously, move cautiously, celebrate and learn collectively.
Our software delivery teams moved from distributed work out of offices in Brazil, U.S.A. and Costa Rica to fully remote teams working from home. A few team members changed their work hours, some relocated to friends or family in other cities and many adopted strict self-isolation strategies. We encouraged more online social interactions and team building activities and heard from some teams that they felt more connected to their team members due to this intentional focus than they had when they worked together in our physical offices.
Our onboarding of new team members in Brazil relied on laptops being physically provisioned from the client office in Sao Paulo to our Thoughtworks offices in either Sao Paulo or Recife. With transport and travel sectors being heavily affected, we faced challenges both procuring and provisioning laptops. We experimented with repurposing laptops from a rolled-off person to a rolled-on person with remote wiping and configuration and found we could provision laptops faster this way than we were doing pre-pandemic.
Our teams had a number of people on temporary visas in both Brazil and the U.S.A. and we were unsure if the governments would extend visas or the people would want to stay away from their home country. We invested in our people, added additional team members to at-risk teams and created shadow/pair roles for at-risk roles to support our people and ensure delivery stability.
Our transition to Recife could not rely on the original plan of face-to-face handovers which made our handovers more difficult and team building more challenging. We invested in longer overlaps to allow extra time for successful handovers and focused on additional team building activities (e.g. after work socials via zoom) to strengthen team culture.
Our people and teams came under increasing stress as the coronavirus became more prevalent for our team members and their families in Brazil. We held weekly remote all-hands meetings for people in Brazil, regular information sharing with our teams, included a 1-10 rating for "how are you feeling” check-ins in our 1:1 catchups and reviewed our regular fortnightly “temperature check” team surveys to detect any noticeable impact from the pandemic or remote working conditions. We were able to detect problems with people or teams early and provide individual support for people and additional capacity to teams.
Although the challenges were unprecedented, our approach was very consistent:
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.