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Working Remotely in Pandemic Times? Nothing New for Nearshore

While the COVID-19 pandemic makes its way across the US and results in preparations and some panic, many US companies are telling employees to stay home and “telework” or “telecommute.” While these represent new, novel working paradigms for some, those terms are so “the year 2000 and before” for companies that have availed themselves to working with Nearshore.

Working with Nearshore is unlike working with offshore teams where your people better exactly nail down requirements before shipping them off to be, hopefully, worked overnight. With Nearshore you can send those half-baked ideas to the team and expect real-time, agile exchanges via email, telephone or video-conferences in which all participants are awake, speaking English, challenging each other (because their relationships are like that) and then set off to analyze the problem before coming back together after lunch to look at solutions. This just doesn’t happen with offshore unless you’re working with the “B” or “C” team that’s been forced to stay up all night to document your concerns and pass them to the “A” team that arrives in the office many hours later.

This new way of working for some is what Nearshore has always done. Collaboration is crucial and is where nearshore excels. Collaboration means working together closely, even if remotely. Collaboration means creating relationships without the “director-doer” hierarchy that characterizes offshore relationships. Collaboration means coming together to co-create where everyone participates – it’s harnessing the energy and brain-power of the team instead of the few. This is quite simply how Nearshore has always worked and one of the reasons why it is usually the best sourcing alternative for US companies.

Onshore Risk Mitigation – Or Lack Thereof

But back to COVID-19. In 2012, I presented on delivery center security at a conference. Part of the discussion detailed the threats a delivery center should consider regarding its Policies, Proximities, and the Perspicacity (shrewdness) of its leads. And keeping with the “begins with P” theme, the last section was called the Wild Ps: the alien Plutarchs, Pandemics, Predictability, Pandemonium, People’s Republic of… – the idea was to help attendees plan for the unthinkable and unimaginable and to, therefore, better understand the actions they can take ahead of time to prepare – even for the unplanned.

Before plunging into the pandemic section, it’s worth reviewing the “things to avoid” that I listed in the Proximity section:

  • The ocean, rivers and flood plains
  • Seismic faults
  • Large trees, other buildings, floors above and below your floor(s)
  • Concentration (what percentage of YOU is there?)
  • Airports
  • Police stations / prisons
  • Military bases
  • Government offices
  • Power (electrical/nuclear) stations
  • Fuel storage facilities
  • Hospitals, Fire Departments – reasonably close
  • Dams/reservoirs
  • High wind areas
  • Demonstration areas / Mass transit areas

There were, of course, examples and implications for each of these, but the one I spent the most time on was “Concentration – what percentage of YOU is there?” I can’t tell you how many times I would roll my eyes when I’d hear a client say they were thinking about outsourcing an entire function to India. I would remind them they were only a missile, flood, riot, earthquake or terror attack away from seeing that entire function rendered completely inoperable. Likewise, for non-outsourcing clients who did not distribute at least some operations across the US, those similar risks of overconcentration were undeniable. The proverbial dangers of “having all your eggs in one” basket are always true – even in the safest, securest, remotest part of the US. Murphy’s law says: “If you are positive nothing at all can go wrong, you’ll probably be affected by COVID-19” – or something like that.

With that backdrop, we are witnessing how the current pandemic is affecting some US companies that have always performed all their work from one location. Now, with their one and only work location compromised, they are finally forced to rethink their work distribution models – or to create some!

Handling the Pandemic

I had previously led a center in Monterrey, Mexico, through the Swine Flu pandemic (as well as a once-in-a-lifetime hurricane – but that’s another story). I refamiliarized attendees with the post-9/11 events that had occurred up to 2012:

  • SARS – China (February 2003)
  • Bangalore Film Icon Death and Riots – India (April 2006)
  • Mumbai Commuter Train Bombs – India (July 2006)
  • Mumbai Hotel Siege and Bombings – India (Nov 2011)
  • Swine Flu – Mexico (April 2009)
  • Hurricane Alex – Mexico (July 2010)
  • Earthquake and Tsunami – Japan (March 2011)

All these disruptive events unleashed considerable consequences and unforeseen fallout. I asked two more questions on the same slide:

  • Local, seasonal, predictable?
  • Do early warning systems guarantee an effective response?

The obvious answer was that even when we have some advanced notice of an impending disaster, many times, humans are not prepared. But can we be ready?

Based on my experience, I described what would likely happen in a pandemic scenario:

  • People will be seeking information – communication systems may fail
  • Key personnel may be unavailable for lengthy periods (permanently in a worst-case scenario) – apart from those falling to the disease, many people may choose to stay at home rather than risk exposure
  • Offices may be closed voluntarily or by government health authorities
  • Transport systems may be disrupted
  • Movement of people may be restricted in and out of offices, cities, and countries
  • Third-party suppliers of goods and services may be affected
  • As panic-based evacuations are attempted, law and order may suffer

It’s interesting to see how my Swine Flu scenario has unfolded with COVID-19. Still, there are ways to plan for the unplanned, no matter where in the world your operations are, to mitigate risks both ahead of time and during a crisis. Some key points to consider are:

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  • Ensure arrangements are in place to secure your premises for short- and long-term periods of vacancy. (First responders such as police/military will likely have reduced-response capacity).
  • Meet with, and understand, the plans and limitations of local police and emergency services.
  • Identify a named contact within the police and emergency services organizations and provide them with a designated contact (and alternate) within your organization.
  • Plan for personnel security at all times – in the office, traveling between home and office, and at home.
  • Plan for secure provisions of staples – food, water, essential “household” items.
  • Establish global, regional, local plans (e.g., WHO, CDC, ECDC)
  • Consistent communication, consistent source
  • Practice, practice, practice – city, state, country

I work closely with a northern Mexican company called Dextra Technologies, and they have already considered and implemented many of my suggestions. One such point is “Consistent communication, consistent source.” With so many different versions of a company’s truth floating out there, it is vital for companies to communicate regularly with employees and for that communication to come from the same source. This avoids the ambiguity of mixed messages emanating from multiple sources. Instead, everyone is on the same page and well-informed of what’s going on within the company and with its clients.

Jon Butler

Jon Butler, Principal with StrategyShore, is an expert in technology operations, outsourcing, offshoring and nearshoring. For over 20 years, Jon has helped clients succeed in India and nearshore locations. Jon gets personally involved in client success, having lived for 2+ years and created technology delivery centers in both Mexico and Italy, and also having lived for six months in Peru. Jon’s travel to 60+ countries underpins the importance and power he places on sourcing location cultural affinity. His resulting passion for employee engagement makes him a much sought after webinar and conference speaker.

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