Empathy is the ultimate metric: The Acuity story in the time of COVID-19
Authors: - Rathnakala Kumaragurunathan, Associate Director, Investment Research –
Rohan Fernando, Associate Director, Specialised Solutions
Human beings are an adaptable species. It is what makes us stand out among this planet’s biological organisms. It is also how – despite disruptions in technology, business and markets, especially in the past decade – we have taught ourselves resilience. This we believed until the COVID-19 pandemic caught us all by surprise. This was different, a new kind of test that raised uncertainty levels at work – and at home – to unprecedented levels. The damage seems to have already surpassed what was experienced during the 2008 financial crisis, with almost all nations facing circuit breakers. Uncertainty makes everyone fearful for their health, the health of their loved ones, their jobs and many more factors. The absolute least we can do is understand this and do everything possible to make sure our employees are safe and provide them with a sense of security.
The collective behavioural changes to our work and daily lives beg the question, how does the show go on?
At Acuity, we have faced and overcome multiple challenges in our short 17 years of existence; resilience is among the foundational traits of our DNA. Our operations continued uninterrupted during the civil war, as they did last year after the April Easter attacks. We have taken adversity in our stride. Sustaining efforts in the face of overwhelming odds is no easy task, but it is possible. Putting our employees’ best interests first and optimising the trust of our clients are at the centre of our business continuity planning (BCP) efforts. As a business with a global presence, we were already privy to the effects of the outbreak on our delivery centre in China. Our teams carefully structured the lessons learnt and used them to modify our BCP. One of the biggest hurdles in our business is the practical issues that working from home (WFH) raises given the stringent compliance and information security standards we abide by and that are an intrinsic part of our value system.
Being prepared is overrated – having grit is more critical
But it was imperative that we found a way – our IT, Technology and Information Security teams worked on setting up a robust system that could be presented to our clients for approval. We were prepared. However, the art of bouncing back is not only about being prepared; having grit is as important.
And grit we had…
…from collaboration between our departments to the speed with which our managers and teams responded to the unplanned “holiday” announced by the government on Sunday, 15 March 2020. Our clients are our strength, too. While our managers took timely decisions by seeking approval from the respective clients to activate WFH for their teams, the majority of our clients understood: it was about the people.
Thus started the marathon for our IT team. They were the team of the hour and the critical factor for the system to be deployed and held. If deploying secure virtual work spaces for the teams was a challenge, managing internal expectations was equally trying.
This is where clear and decisive leadership was critical. Hard decisions, and sometimes unpopular ones, were taken to ensure that resources were optimised and were allocated fairly. The tone at the top was clear and respected amid all the confusion and panic. The emphasis was always on ensuring the safety of our employees while fulfilling the tall order of minimal disruption. The nature of our industry is such that we, as an organisation, were certainly not prepared for our c.3,000 employees to assume their roles remotely. Senior leadership and employees went out of their way to seek solutions to make this shift almost overnight. The leadership team was cognisant of the challenges employees would face when WFH, such as taking care of young children or older relatives, and many other hurdles. Doing the best one could by adapting to the new norm is all that was asked of Acuity employees.
Managing slower internet connections and investing more time to deliver the best to our clients did not seem to be difficulties against the grander scheme of things – the challenge of safeguarding one’s health and safety.
How Acuity’s Alternative Data team migrated to the WFH model to provide uninterrupted support to global primary research teams – an example
Acuity is engaged in many client-dependent operations such as feeding mammoth datasets for Wall Street analysts. This is more of a technological service operation carried out by many developers and data analysts. These operations are continuous, 24/7 operations, with many bots running collecting data during the most part of the day and night. So keeping those alive and providing ongoing fixes are critical. Most of the data in the alternative data space is generated through online content from the web, which is very dynamic, as each site keeps changing. So the real operation is fixing bots to adapt to website changes and compiling data in structured formats so analysts could examine the data and churn out analytics, insights and research.
It is imperative that these operations be executed even in crisis situations, as data during such situations is critical not only for live research but also for maintaining an uninterrupted time series of data.
Walking the talk – Following best practices during business-as-usual (BAU) times
Since this operation needed a lot of attention and monitoring, the team worked towards de-centralising the infrastructure, enabling the workload to run from multiple locations (as part of our BCP). With this strategy, the Acuity team broke down the operation into geographical locations and executed it from different servers.
We also ensured the robustness of a redundant network by duplicating our bots to make sure that in the event a bot is blocked or broken, we would have another bot running, collecting the same data from a different location.
BCP strategy – The nuts and ‘bots’
As part of the strategy, we had our production environment in two data centres – one cluster in a remote location (Chicago, USA) and the other in Colombo. This facilitated remote data collection, while providing one level of redundancy.
Addressing crucial questions – In a crisis scenario, how do we manage the development process, which is the backbone of the operation?
We set up a development environment with the security protocols required in the event of a real crisis. The team also set up copies of the development environment on their respective work laptops.
Thus, two levels of BCP were established – a remote development environment that would enable us to continue working during a major crisis (such as the Easter attacks) and remote working access. Production environments are hosted externally with redundancy, so it is just a matter of enabling remote access on client approval.
This enabled us to switch to WFH without any lags; the team had only to obtain the necessary approvals from the clients, and it was then just a matter of the local IT team enabling the process. In less than an hour, we had our entire production and development environment set up for working remotely.
This has allowed us to continue to capture critical data points that would no doubt play a significant role in financial analysis during the coming weeks.
BCP vs sustained catastrophe
Business continuity has been stretched in the current situation, which is beyond a disruption that spans a few days or a week. It is an ongoing change to the status quo. We believe that as a nation, we are far more resilient and ready to adapt to different conditions than we were just a decade ago. This is mainly due to the almost-three-decades-long civil war and the unfortunate, unexpected situations that we as a nation have been through. We have, however, managed to make this our edge.
Business continuity is not something most organisations started setting up during COVID-19, but it has been something that we as a nation have taken seriously and keep iterating religiously. Our plans have been put to test many a time, and here we are again in yet another real and rather opaque situation.
But, as the wise say, it is what it is – so we, as an organisation, continue to seek improvements to automate many of our operations and make them even smoother amid crisis. Our teams continue to work on containerising all production environments so we can quickly migrate them across production locations, and on building application programming interfaces (APIs) to automatically transfer data to our analysts in the EU and US. We are also looking at possibilities of migrating this to a cloud; while there is some resistance from global research houses on such migration currently, the world may be a different place when all this is over, and then, adapting to cloud computing may perhaps be faster than we predict because it has BCP by default.
Fast forward a week later: we have continued to support our clients with minimal or zero disruption. The majority of our employees are WFH, with collaboration and out-of-the-box thinking at their best.
It is time to re-think BCP strategies – conventional BCP strategies in our industry have always involved a remote location, such as a disaster recovery site, to continue services. But experience has taught us that it may not always be fool-proof when faced with sustained challenges such as the COVID-19 outbreak we experience today. It is time to proactively update our BCPs, as an industry, and look at having secure WFH access to face sustained catastrophes, seeking the necessary client approvals and strengthening information security measures, thereby keeping the trust of our clients intact.
We know it’s not over and that perhaps the hardest time is yet to come, but there is no point in wallowing over the uncontrollable; our focus is on what can be controlled and what actually matters.
Empathy is crucial.
Empathy might be the one trait that gets us through this collectively.
Was Covid 19 a catalyst for change?
2020 has had an unfair amount of challenges, from natural to financial disasters, the worst for the year would have to be the Corona Virus. Appearing out of virtually nowhere it has hit the world like a nasty punch to the gut. Companies were forced to rethink complete strategies in a matter of days. The financial implications of the outbreak were dire. Unless companies decided to act.
If you look at the history of evolution it is clear to see that organisms would not change unless forced to. If they are given the optimal conditions to thrive they will continue to do so. They are forced to adapt and evolve when they are put in a situation where they have no control over.
Covid 19 has created such an environment. Companies were faced with 2 options. Adapt or die. Just like in nature.
Antler Foundry’s founding principle was that remote working is the new norm. Companies who signed up with us locally and internationally did so knowing that they would no longer see what they are paying for. They would only experience it. We were able to continue business as usual without missing a single day simply because we have the necessary infrastructure, policies and continuity plans in place.
Sri Lanka has and will always be the perfect destination to outsource/offshore to due to our talent pool, quick recruitment cycles and literacy rate.
The fact that we have been voted as one of the top travel destinations is an added bonus for whoever wants to visit us to ensure business is continuing as usual.
How BISTEC GLOBAL responded to COVID-19: A story of inherent preparedness
The current pandemic is causing pandemonium globally. Whole industries have come to a grinding halt and the corporate work system is going through an upheaval. For businesses, uncertainty and crisis situations are always part of the game. As with all the economic, political and environmental crises faced in the past couple of decades, this crisis too shall eventually come to pass. And the businesses left standing would be the ones who were resilient, responsive and adapted to the changes.
BISTEC Global, a startup in Sri Lanka with global clients, is facing its first international crisis situation. How it responded was to adapt and respond to the situation swiftly and strategically. In the wake of the Sri Lankan government's announcement of a one-day public holiday to assess the pandemic situation, Bistec promptly shifted all its business operations and teams to work from home (WFH) for the following two weeks. With the resultant public lockdowns and curfews, the Bistec teams will continue to work remotely. Facilitated by its exceptional IT Services team, all Bistec teams were able to resume normal business operations from home with no disruption in services to their clients. Bistec has also offered free IT support and consultancy to set up WFH operations via their IT Service Desk to all businesses in need during the pandemic.
Having an adaptable business model is crucial for a business to be resilient in uncertain times. Bistec uses virtual teams and remote working frequently in the normal course of its operations. Its business model is based on the Extended Team Model concept, where it provides businesses internationally with a global pool of talent they would have otherwise not been able to access. Extended Team Model is the next stage of outsourcing, where the talent is part of the business’s extended team based in another country. This model offers great flexibility to all the parties involved and gives an important competitive advantage in times of crisis - and even otherwise.
Culture matters. And for Bistec its people and culture are the foundation on which its whole business model operates on and relies for success. The team comprises a set of talented and diligent individuals who have embraced Bistec’s vision and are guided by its promise “to create a better life for everyone connected to us in one way or the other”. The Bistec culture is based on Purpose, Meaning and Autonomy. For a business to have the flexibility to adapt to any circumstance and make strategic decisions swiftly, it has to have complete confidence and trust in its employees to share the same vision. Bistec is confident in its ability to continue operations and support all its clients in any circumstance due to the high level of trust in all its teams.
Although Bistec is a relatively young company, it has inherited the combined experience of twenty plus years from its leadership. The Senior team brings all the technical expertise, knowledge and innovation to Bistec from their experience in the IT, Software and Business fields. Having worked extensively with remote teams in their whole careers, they adopt the best practices and guide the teams in the best way.
Having the right business model, culture, people and leadership for remote working will not ensure its success, if the business does not invest in the right equipment to support their operations. Bistec invests in the best in class equipment and up to date technologies for every employee. High quality brand laptops and headsets are part of the standard issue for all the staff at Bistec which make remote working possible for all its services. Bistec’s selection of tools and cloud infrastructure make its systems robust and accessible from any location; these include simple attendance systems to more complicated developer environments.
Sri Lanka has the largest CIMA qualified accounting fraternity outside the UK. The IT Industry is actively building capacity and knowledge on AI and machine learning; these are a few areas in which the UK can use Colombo to base remote teams and overcome challenges they face in crisis situations like the prevailing pandemic. Bistec’s Extended Team Model is a proven methodology which businesses globally can capitalize on to recover swiftly from any uncertain situation.
BISTEC Global offers Software, IT and Accounting services through its Extended Teams model to clients across four continents including Australia, UK, US and Brunei.
Providing business continuity and assistance to fight a global pandemic - the Calcey experience
COVID-19 has brought the world to an unprecedented standstill. The crisis has also resulted in a working from home experiment at global scale. As a software product engineering company offering dedicated, remote teams for building digital products to technology companies in Silicon Valley, New York, London and Gothenburg - working remotely is part of Calcey’s DNA. However, having the whole company working from home instead of Calcey’s headquarters at Trace Expert City, was still a new experience.
Nevertheless, Calcey’s team has kept work going at the same velocity and in-line with all timelines committed to clients previously. As well as providing business continuity at a time of high uncertainty, Calcey’s also making crucial contributions to the efforts of some of its clients battling the epidemic.
A team from Calcey is currently working around the clock, from their homes, building modules to support Fresh Fitness Food (FFF)’s efforts to provide meals for frontline NHS workers. FFF is a scale-up offering meals tailored to individual needs and health goals, delivered to door in London. FFF has been on a steep growth trajectory in recent months - after having digitized its processes end-to-end, with a customer and workflow management solution built by Calcey. It is now facing unprecedented demand as its offering has become a magnet for Londoners facing a shortage of food supplies.
Another Calcey client - Compare Networks, a technology company based in California, supplying media and platform products for life sciences and healthcare industries, operates Biocompare.com, a global market place for the life sciences products, providig anitbodies and testing resources, along with millions of other products, for researchers racing to find cures for COVID-19. Calcey’s team has been building and maintaining all technology platforms for Compare for almost a decade and continues this work unabated, during this crucial period.
Calcey has been able to manage this shift to working from home, relatively smoothly due to quick contingency planning by the management and internal processes that support this style of working. Several weeks ago Calcey’s team conducted a companywide working-from-home test run to check whether everyone had access to all devices and systems needed. Testing devices (typically shared between multiple QA personnel) was identified as a bottleneck and a device cloud solution was set up to address this. Calcey has been working on setting up reporting and team management structures to increase self-governance capacity of its teams, make problems and output more easily visible and allow the company’s internal knowledge and experience base to be tapped easily by anyone, for some time. Coupled with Calcey’s well established responsibility driven culture, these processes have eased the transition to a completely distributed company, while ensuring business continuity and reliable service delivery to its clients at this crucial time.
CMS Continues to 100% operate despite COVID-19, supporting critical business operations of our EU & US clients
Our clients in already locked down & seriously affected countries such as Belgium, Netherlands, France and USA are relieved by the fact that, CMS is fully operational supporting their critical IT operations.
For the last 23 years, CMS (www.cms.lk) have been providing bespoke remote IT teams to SME clients in Europe and USA. Instead of a project-based approach, CMS focuses on establishing long term dedicated remote teams which is a better solution for the skills shortage in EU & US.
As an ISO/IEC-27001 certified organization supporting critical business operations of our clients, BCP (Business Continuity Planning) have been always a top priority for us. With prior BCP drills and WFH ready workforce, switching to 100% WFH during the COVID-19 pandemic was a smooth & seamless step for us. This ensured safety of our staff as well as business continuity for our clients, both which are of paramount importance to us.
As the pandemic is enveloping the world, continued business operations mean that the impact on economies would be reduced, including our local economy in Sri Lanka. All our clients have a high trust in CMS which has withstood operations during many local calamities including Asian Tsunami & Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka. This resiliency & adaptability comes with the experience and prior preparations together with the stability of our affiliate partner companies in Belgium. We’re glad to share that our productivity levels & deliveries are not affected due to the situation. In fact, as One of our employee blogs, it has even increased for their team. https://medium.com/@malakasilva/our-team-ismore-productive-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak-36fe466fb354
Just as relying on supply chains from China crippled the global manufacturing, relying on the sole offshoring capabilities of One country possess a huge risk for the global IT industry. So, it’s worthwhile to always look at diversifying your offshore teams. Sri Lanka dubbed as the “Island of Ingenuity” is an island with an IT workforce growing 20% YoY. Sri Lanka has been awarded the “Destination of the Year Award 2019” by Global Sourcing Association Awards, UK and One of the top dozens of countries in AT Kearney Global Services Location list for the last couple of years. Sri Lanka has been chosen as an alternative offshore tech hub by many global companies in US & EU (including some of our clients), where they already have tech centers in India. This geographical redundancy works well since both Sri Lanka and India share the same time zone. You could read more about this at https://www.cms.lk/corona-viruscovid-19-it-industry/
As a SLASSCOM member, we're glad that SLASSCOM has always taken the forefront during the times of crisis to share industry experience with other member companies. We wish everyone good health and hope that we would overcome the situation soon. Talk to us at www.cms.lk about building your own bespoke remote team. We could help you with our 23 years of experience providing offshore Sri Lankan IT teams to EU & US.
It is during crisis that we discover true leaders that rise to the occasion. Mitra has made the current economic turbulence an opportunity to make the best out of their global team by getting together and taking this battle head-on.
Having the experience of its business span over several continents as well as dealing with overseas clients over many years and engaging with them remotely, Mitra had a head start when the Covid19 crisis hit. As Social distancing was first recommended and then enforced in Sri Lanka, their staff of over 200 were quickly enabled with the working from home facility and they took the baton and ran with it. Mitra has always prided itself in being an Agile driven company with a mature delivery process. This was evident in how quickly they transitioned from having their teams being co-located to now working 100% remotely. Working remotely requires high levels of maturity, discipline, self-drive and accountability. Traits the Leadership had been cultivating in their Delivery, Quality Assurance and Engineering teams.
Mitra has also stepped up to assist its new and existing clients as well as society at large during these volatile times, adapting and Innovating to meet the current needs. Existing clients’ deliverables are being supported and have also been equipped with tools, frameworks and new ideas to support their end customers during this crisis. Mitra is also working with its clients to adopt innovative ideas and work through altering roadmaps to align to mid-term and long-term business needs.
With the increase in demand for remote access to even the basic of needs, Mitra has developed several products to meet this demand. Of these, the Dynamedics platform has been developed with Healthcare Specialists in mind. It enables remote and accessible healthcare between healthcare professionals and patients who require it. Mitra LifeEssentials (or MiliE for short) is an e-wallet directly connected to a bank account, integrating through a unique framework to enable the purchase and payments for essential goods and services through a single app. This is also geared towards assisting SMEs, who don’t have an online presence, keep their businesses afloat. As working from home has become the need of the hour, Mitra Remote Working will empower small, medium and large businesses continue their day to day activities by guiding them in assisting their staff adjust to the new arrangements while maintaining productivity, choosing the right technologies and tools as well. This service is being offered for free.
Mitra understands that Staff Communication and Employee Engagement are priorities during these pressing times and that while it is important to deliver and grow business, it is critical to reinforce a message of hope, encouragement and the organisation’s commitment to its Global Team in the current situation. Teams are keeping their morale high through regular interactions in the “Mitra Workplace”, in lieu of physical interactions. These initiatives have ensured business continues as usual with low risk and high productivity, with growth reported in several key accounts during the past few weeks of curfew and lockdown. This is a tremendous achievement that has been credited to the dedicated teams who have demonstrated that they are capable of rising up and leading in these times of crisis.
SIXER VIDEO’s response to CORVID-19: Remote Working and assisting companies affected to conduct interviews virtually
The coronavirus pandemic has taken over the world. Globally, it has crossed 180,000 cases. In Sri Lanka, we have over 50 reported coronavirus cases. The work environment is also another hard-hit area. With a recommended “stay at home” protocol in place, several companies have already taken the initiative to switch to remote working.
We at SIXER VIDEO have adopted the ‘work from home’ policy for our team and attend virtual meetings with our clientele. As an initiative to help companies during the crisis, we have made our video interview platform free of charge without any commitments.
Companies can continue with interviews but virtually with candidates and continue their recruitment process. As the officials globally are working around the clock to stop the spread of COVID-19. We believe that as a company we should play our part in assisting the officials to control the spread as much as possible. Based on that we have made the platform free to use during the crisis.
We urge all companies to consider to adopt digital product and services to operate smoothly in the future. If global financial or non-financial crisis rises, we will be capable to handle the situation if we adopt digital strategies.
We welcome all companies to use video interviews during the crisis. You can visit our website www.sixervideo.com or email us to email@example.com
Stax’s Response to COVID-19: Remote Working, Automation, and Digital Transformation to Prop Up the Economy
As the coronavirus threatens to bring economies and industries to a standstill, it is pivotal for businesses to respond, not with mere hope that the pandemic will quickly cease, but with rapidness to adapt by adjusting business models and leveraging technology to ensure their survival.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin
The global management consulting firm Stax’s Center of Excellence in Colombo has taken a dedicated stance on continuing to contribute to the economy despite the crisis. Having switched to a 100% remote working model over the span of a single weekend utilizing virtual networks, cloud technology, and team collaboration software, Stax Colombo’s employees are continuing to support their American colleagues, as well as their global clients.
By relying on and receiving support from Colombo’s cross-functional teams of specialized consultants and technical specialists such as data scientists, all of Stax’s offices have been able to smoothly deliver on due diligence and value creation assignments for their private equity clients worldwide. As these projects involve the turnaround of companies and the betterment of their value propositions, they are by nature, essential to safeguarding the stability of the global economy.
In Sri Lanka, Stax Colombo’s digital transformation work with its local clients has been paramount. As the world heads towards digital centricity, technology is not only a means of obtaining a competitive advantage but also a means of establishing resilience during trying times. Through Stax’s projects on digital strategies, implementations, and change management, the company has provided Sri Lankan conglomerates and enterprises the skillset, mindset and toolset to adapt and has thus contributed to the strengthening of the Sri Lankan economy to withstand shocks and continue on, business as usual.
Times of crises lead to emotional turmoil which is detrimental to knowledge workers as focused thinking time is crucial to high-quality delivery. As a Center of Excellence, Stax Colombo proactively used machine learning, automation software, and algorithms to build tools and solutions capable of handling time-consuming tasks to a high degree of accuracy. Time saved through automation has lessened the emotional strain, on Stax’s global team, of balancing remote work and life during a pandemic. As a by-product, the team can now use their invaluable time to focus on the more important human elements of business problems rather than technical issues.
Human ingenuity dictates that the Coronavirus isn’t here to stay. It is very likely a blip on our radar, but a challenging one to overcome, nonetheless. As companies like Stax move towards the new norms defined by these crises, it is the onus of every business leader to safeguard their employees’ livelihoods and the greater well-being of the economy. After all, resilience and adaptability have always spelled prolonged success.