Saw Ken Wye, the CEO of Singapore-based digital government services firm CrimsonLogic, has been involved in government IT initiatives in one way or another for decades: as part of several of the Singapore government's major strategic IT projects in the 1990s, later heading up Microsoft's public sector business division in Asia, and then taking the helm at CrimsonLogic in 2013. His company provides the technological underpinnings of e-government services in dozens of countries, complete with legal, cybersecurity, and document security services to go along with the platforms and infrastructure.
People Matters asked him for his take on the COVID-19 crisis and how he has adapted both the business and his personal management style to the situation. Here are the highlights of the conversation.
What have your priorities and challenges been throughout this crisis?
My first priority is always the employees: are they coping, are they safe? Once they are taken care of, the next question is whether they can work effectively. Once I've taken care of my people, they can take care of the customers.
And that brings up a third big challenge: not all of my customers are ready. I need to educate them, ensure that they understand how telecommuting works. Some of our services operations have to be conducted virtually; I need to have access to their systems off-premise in order to support them.
There are a lot of fears about COVID-19 going around. How have you helped your employees cope?
The first thing you need to do is calm them down and make sure the facts are clear. When this first started a few months ago, the infection rates and the fatality rates outside China were low; and even today, the majority of cases only have mild symptoms. It's only older people, or people with underlying conditions, who have issues. So you need to help people to put things in perspective: it's not as if you will die tomorrow if you get COVID!
The next step then is to show them what you have in place to support them. In Singapore, if you are a COVID patient the government will pay for your treatment. Otherwise, there is insurance coverage—and that was one of the things we immediately looked into, getting the additional insurance coverage if needed.
And then you need to educate people. Not just employees, but their families and extended families. We might sound like politicians, repeating the message to stay home over and over again, but the fact is, staying home helps to break the chain of transmission.
How have things been going, with the restrictions on business activities?
I have operations in over 40 countries, so for me, this is an issue across the globe. In Singapore we are better prepared and in better control, but overseas, how can I make sure that they're following the same practices and recommendations?
We're lucky here in Singapore because the government took action very quickly, and the other businesses here know how to operate even under some degree of restrictions. But in many other countries, this is a new experience. So with some businesses overseas, their first reaction is to shut down everything. But if you shut down, and you have no business continuity plan prepared, how are you going to operate? We've already seen this with some offices in other countries.
So responding to this crisis is not just about working from home, it's about making sure that the processes are in place.
How are your processes holding up?
In one way, our company is fortunate: we're set up such that everybody has a laptop. So device-wise, we are not in any difficulty. Our consideration is instead whether our devices can connect easily and stably to our operations environment and the customer's operations environment. For that, you need to have done your planning in advance.
There are actually a lot of similar considerations in this move to telecommuting. We need to understand that staying home and working from home are completely different things. You can use platforms like Zoom or WebEx, but those are only communications. What about your setup? And you need to think about cybersecurity. What happens when you allow so many people to access your corporate systems from outside? And what happens if the infrastructure goes down, if there is a network outage that affects a lot of people?
Then we have functions like procurement and payment, which have to be adjusted. What happens when people are not to give the approval in person? Can we allow email approvals instead? We've even had to talk to our auditors about allowing the use of digital signatures until the person is able to sign the document physically. These are just some of the processes that need to change.
You've mentioned the importance of planning ahead a couple of times. What are your thoughts on planning for the post-COVID future?
What this situation has taught me is that, the systems for working remotely are only the start. You absolutely need to have your processes in place to support the systems, as I've described just now.
And then I started asking myself: "Why do we need so much office space?" Because telecommuting is effective! I have always been flexible about what time my staff come in, as long as they do their work. But I have never had a situation where 90-100 percent of my staff are all telecommuting. And now that it is happening, their productivity has not been affected. In fact, they appreciate the savings on travel time. My staff in India have a two and a half hour trip to the office—with telecommuting, they save up to five hours, and that leaves them fresher, more alert, able to do their work better.
And this tells me: moving forward, maybe I don't want to be as prescriptive about how we work.
Is this situation changing the way you yourself work?
I do miss walking around the office—that's my style, in between meetings I will walk around, talk to people, ask how they are doing, bounce ideas off them. Not being able to do that changes the relationship a bit. But other than that, a lot of what I do has quite easily moved to virtual.
It has given me an opportunity to do one thing I've never been able to do. To engage with people is very important, and so I asked my senior leaders to use the month of April to reach out to every single staff. Have small coffee and chat sessions with them, six to eight people at a time. Talk to them, hear from them. This, I think, is a very big improvement. Virtual linkages have allowed us to reach all of the staff on a very personal level.
How are you coping personally?
Chill, very chill. Part of coping is that you must plan, and stay focused, and execute, and then refine. We were really fortunate. In early January I decided that we should prepare for this virus—even though it was just in China and just a few cases at that point—so we stocked up some masks and sanitisers, we refreshed our workplan with split team setups. So when the government pulled the trigger and set the alert level to orange (the second highest level in the national response system), we were already prepared. And then we kept refining our policies. We catered food for the staff in the office so they didn't have to go outside to eat, allowed them to claim for Grab fares so they didn't have to take public transport.
If you have your plan in place, if you keep refining it, then you won't be stressed.