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When the new coronavirus outbreak struck China, companies found themselves in a situation in which remote work was a necessity, not a luxury.
Citrix Systems was one such company. With a technical support staff of 100 in Nanjing, China and Tokyo, Japan, the firm faced travel bans and quarantines as it worked to continue operations. It also had to deal with a further complication: The outbreak coincided with the Chinese New Year, the largest travel holiday in the world, which scattered Citrix employees across China.
James Singh, Citrix's director of worldwide technical support, helped implement a remote-work policy to ensure business continuity for the company. Using a variety of tools -- including the company's Virtual Apps and Desktops and Workspace products, as well as applications such as the Slack collaboration tool and the expense management software Concur -- Citrix was able to roll out a remote work strategy in 24 hours. Its implementation has been up for two and a half months thus far; the company is scaling out the strategy, as it is now encouraging employees in California, Oregon and Washington to work from home, if possible.
Singh spoke recently about the challenges he faced in deploying Citrix's remote work strategy and how he overcame those challenges, which included making people, not technology, the focus.
When did the coronavirus concerns first come to your attention? What did your preparations for it look like?
James Singh: We started off in late January. Myself and the team in China were closely monitoring the situation before it made world headlines. My management team reached out to me and said, 'Hey look, this thing has the potential to go [widespread], and it would be best to start looking at options in case we need to work from home.' We already had a plan in place … we had never tested it to this degree, but we did have something to go off of.
The moment we heard that it [had gone widespread], we started working with our local HR team, IT team, legal team and security team, saying, 'OK, we're going to have a large group of our folks work from home. What does that look like?' From an IT perspective, it meant making sure there was infrastructure in place. From [other sides] we wanted to make sure people were taken care of -- that everyone had access to healthcare, that everyone understood what to do.
The virus started making its way around China when everybody was on holiday, celebrating the Chinese New Year. We had -- and we still have -- people throughout China. It's not like they were concentrated in Shanghai, Nanjing or Beijing. They were all over the place. So, it was more like getting in contact with people, where are they, [seeing] if they could get back to Nanjing and, if not, were they going to be locked down? And that's exactly what happened. Some people got locked down.
What was the most difficult part of enacting a large-scale remote work plan?
Singh: The hardest thing was the communication piece, and that's still a bit of a challenge. We're talking 100-plus people across China and Japan. Getting ahold of everyone was a thing. [We were asking]: A. are they OK, and B. what their status is and making sure they're able to work from home. There are remote parts [of China] that don't have internet, or don't have high-speed internet.
From a technology point of view, it wasn't difficult at all. We already had that in place -- people had access to Virtual Apps and Desktops and Workspace. That was probably the easiest thing to do, in comparison to getting the messaging out [and] saying 'Hey, this is what you need to do.'
There was a lot of concern from people; managing that aspect of it was probably more challenging than dealing with the infrastructure.
You mentioned that not everyone might have the needed internet connection to handle remote work. How did you deal with that and the other technology challenges on the user side?
Singh: It wasn't widespread. For those who didn't have a good link, we asked them if they could move somewhere -- at least within their province -- and see if they could get to a location where they did have internet access. That made it a little easier.
The other thing that we did notice [was] when we have engineers and managers in the office, everyone has dual screens. There's a small percentage of people who didn't have that at home, so what we had to do was work with IT and say, 'OK, for those who don't have dual screens, what we're going to do is ship out an additional screen from our office.' It wasn't difficult, but it was part of the logistics [issue], especially when there were restrictions in place [with the postal system].
It's things like that you don't always think of.
How did you ensure everyone had the training and knowledge necessary to work from their homes?
Singh: We work in a collaborative manner. It's not uncommon to have groups of engineers … all working together to resolve a customer's issue. The challenge was [making sure] we still have that when everyone's dispersed across the continent.
We had to make sure people knew how to work at home. It sounds simple -- you just go to your desk, turn on your computer and work. But it's not that simple, really. What we had to do was … deliver training to people about how to manage working from home -- if you've got small children, or a large family, or if you haven't got a desk and are working from your living room.
There was also the psychological aspect of it. People have been working from home for four, five, six [weeks] -- it's been two and a half months. So, it was more about giving them the training, guidance and coaching, letting them understand how to be effective working from home.
We set up Slack channels for everyone to converse on. A lot of the engineers, managers also set up -- they can't use WhatsApp in China, but they set up WeChat.
What has been the most challenging part of this experience?
Singh: It was more the people side -- making sure people are engaged and communication is free-flowing.
It's gotten a lot better. Initially, we were getting a lot of feedback saying, 'Hey, I'm stressed. I can't go into the office, I'm just locked down, it feels like I'm in prison.'
What we did was set up daily calls where managers would reach out to engineers … and just talk about everyday stuff. It didn't necessarily have to be about work -- it's more about … making sure their families and everything was OK.
Just having a normal, everyday conversation helped a lot. I think management plays a very important, critical role in making sure there's the right level of communication.
James SinghDirector of worldwide technical support, Citrix Systems
It's important for every company to have some level of planning in place. We were in a fortunate situation in the sense that we already had the tools in place to enable this -- and do it really fast. It's more about the people side -- that's sometimes at the back of your mind, but I think it very much has to be part of it.
How is Citrix applying these lessons elsewhere?
Singh: We've already started looking at this on a global level. We're well into having other teams across the U.S., Costa Rica, India and Bangalore start to do this. We're making sure they're connected, have a plan in place, are testing out infrastructure and have access to the cloud.
It's a lot of work for me now. The management team is saying, 'Hey James, you've done this in China and Japan, let's just replicate this locally.' That's essentially what we're doing: enabling a global workforce to work remotely, from anywhere.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.