Managing remote IT support teams in Asia and in Covid times

I’m going to start this article, with an ask rather than at the end. How do you manage your remote teams in Asia or manage any teams who are remote to make sure you bring them together as a team? After reading this article, how can I improve? I want to be better at managing remote team so if you have any secret sauce to share with me on how you do it then I am all ears to learn.

Let’s get a couple of things straight before we get into this.

  1. China is not Asia. Singapore is not part of China. Singapore is not part of Malaysia. China is a country in the Asian continent.  Singapore is a country.
  2. Asia is probably one of the most culturally diverse continents in the world. With language, customs and backgrounds being very different from country to country. If you remember when you were young and went back packing. Which gave you a more cultural diverse experience going through UK, France, Germany, Italy or Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia?

So here is my premise for managing teams and what I tried to do to manage my teams

My premise / goal for managing teams

  • Like all managers, my primary duty to any team is to care and protect my team. This doesn’t not matter if they are in the same room or spread across Asia.

The role of any manager / leader is build a framework where their team can perform the best they can and can build a better and better team around the framework set.

  • A team should be a team and have open lines of communication to each other and the wider IT department to share ideas/ problems and jokes (humour brings people together so this is very important to me that this happens) no matter where they are in the region / world. No person should be an island / left on their own even when they are geographically the only support person in that country.

So what did I try to bring my team together across Asia?

  • Team meetings, everyone from across the region attends a 1 hour meeting every two weeks where I would go around the virtual ‘room’ / meeting to make sure everyone got the chance to speak and bring up any issues they were facing, either for me to escalate / help with or for the team to suggest a fix for the IT problem someone was facing.
  • 1:1, every team member got a 30 mins 1:1 every two weeks. The meeting would start with the team member having uninterrupted time to speak about anything they wanted to. We would then talk this through. After which I would speak about projects that were coming up and sometimes also used this as coaching sessions to highlight places where they could improve.
  • My teams who provided IT support to call centre functions and therefore key business areas, had a meeting with Engineering and Network teams every two weeks. This meant any IT support lead in any office had direct access to senior teams to either know what projects were coming and could speak about the roll out or to give feedback or voice up issues that were coming up to get a more permanent fix.
  • Microsoft Team chats. I had two main chat groups:
    • A chat group just for the team to converse in, send jokes or memes, talk about issues / IT problems they were having.
    • A chat group with the team, other support teams around the world and engineering and security in this group. This was more to highlight issues Asia might be having and to see if other support teams around the world had these issues. Also engineering and security were involved so they could give advice in real time to the IT support world for the company.
  • Every member of my team knew they could ping me on chat / email and either write their issue or ask for a chat and they would get to chat to me about anything. I made myself super available for my team.
  • Attend bridge calls when there was a serious service outage or degradation of a service in Asia to help my team push back when needed on engineering / networks or help refereeing what was being asked for by a senior technical team to the IT support person on the ground was reasonable and was broken down enough so the person, who’s first language wasn’t English, understood the request. I want to be seen as a manager who will ‘go through the trenches’ with my team and does not allow my team to suffer on their own.
  • A Servicenow report showing me the number of tickets that were more than a week old that were assigned to my team. This allowed me to see if someone needs help on a ticket and doesn’t suffer in silence.
  • Yearly anonymous survey monkey survey which was sent to everyone in my team asking them to give me feedback on my:
    • Overall management, what is good and bad
    • Team meetings, what is good and bad
    • 1:1, what is good and bad
    • Any additional comments or feedback

We tried daily scrum / catch up calls to find out what everyone was doing across the region but it was quickly ended as it seems too work vs not enough reward and just didn’t work for my teams in bringing people together so regularly, it felt a bit artificial.

Though in all honesty, I am not sure this was all enough or I could have been better at managing my teams? Life as a manager is hard as there is no one to really give you feedback who was in the meetings or knew what you were trying to do against what was done. How do you make sure everyone is comfortable enough in a meeting to express themselves, their challenges and how they are doing if they aren’t totally comfortable speaking in English if this is a 2nd language? How do you cope with Asian ‘saving face’ and a team member struggling to admit a mistake to you as their manager? As a Western manager I try and make all allowances for my team and I love being in Asia to learn about these different culture and people but I also think and question if I can do more to understand someone more in Asia but be authentic in how it is delivered.

I also struggled with not ever seeing the offices I was managing due to Covid and travel restrictions. So it was hard to really understand the struggles some time of the support people who were support the office and to give advice when I had limited context of the issue. How do you manage remote offices that you haven’t seen and might be a totally different business unit to the one you normally manage?

During Covid time

Communication and trying to be as together as we could as a time was even more important but it was extremely hard to do. In Singapore, where I live, the weather is 28c all year around with 80-90% humidity. It is mandatory to wear a mask all the time you are out of your house and can only remove it when you are eating or drinking in a restaurant / bar / food court. For most of the last two years offices has been closed or max 50% capacity meant the office when from a very vibrant and fun place to be to being a ghost town as by the time the office was allowed to be opened everyone was so used to working from home and masks were also mandatory to wear in the office. To meet outside was also restricted with Singapore with groups of 2 -5 being the maximum allowed to meet since early 2020 to the present time of writing (Jan ’22)

I met my Singapore team for lunches when restricts allowed it but the silly, water cooler conversations were something I missed very much. Coming off a hard meeting and not being able to turn around to a colleague and talk about their dinner with friends they were looking forward to after work or something to take your mind of the meeting was really hard.

Personally, my mental health suffered and this is one of the reasons I needed to take some time out. I felt very not centered and therefore was not my best for my team. Whilst we can all joke about our commute being so much shorter when WFH. We are humans and we are build to be around other humans. Video conferencing helps but the funny, random conversations along with seeing someone face to face in real life were lost. You don’t normally have a video conference just to talk about yesterdays sports match / news article, some office gossip or overhear a conversation that you can join in through being around colleagues in the office. Thought my flat is and was normality for me as I don’t have to wear a mask when walking around my flat.

During this time out I have reset, read lots, exercised lots and repaired. I have developed some coping mechanisms plus just personally improved my whole outlook on life and learning and I am pleased to say Singapore is opening up a little to have 5 people able to dine together. Along with vaccinated travel lanes which makes it easier to go back home to the UK to see friends and family and not need to quarantine in a hotel for 14 days after the trip. So I very excited and look forward taking on my next challenge in Singapore.

How have you coped with Covid restrictions where you are as a team member or the manager of team?

These articles are meant as a learning experience for me. I have laid out everything I do but I know I could be better. So I would ask, if anyone is reading this and can suggest better ways or a new idea to help manage teams better then I would love to know. Thankyou.

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