Looking at data from global health organizations, Microsoft began to detect signs of an emerging pandemic in the December 2019 to January 2020 timeframe. Paying attention to these early signals meant Microsoft was one of the first companies to issue a global stay-at-home work order for its employees.
In the intervening months, Microsoft has relied on its people, technology, predictive analytics, and plenty of real-time data to strategically manage a global workforce in the COVID-19 era.
In a recent discussion, Kurt DelBene, executive vice president at Microsoft and leader of the company’s COVID-19 response, shared how the company responded in the initial phases of the pandemic and the unprecedented challenge of determining when and how people can safely return to work.
Always be prepared
According to DelBene, the success of the company’s initial response was due in part to the hard work Microsoft had already invested in preparing for such an event.
The company has a well-defined crisis management infrastructure, with regional crisis teams distributed worldwide, funneling information to the global crisis team. Table-top exercises performed regularly by the senior leadership team further bolster this model, testing readiness and improving response times.
“We took a very proactive approach,” stated DelBene. “When we realized we might be facing a global pandemic, we immediately scrambled the regional crisis management teams to understand what was happening and to determine an appropriate response.”
The team realized that the company needed to set up remote work quickly. Fortunately, Microsoft had already transitioned the core functions needed to run the company, including its SAP SuccessFactors environment, to its cloud platform, Microsoft Azure. This infrastructure supported a smooth transition to the remote working model the company uses today.
In the earliest days of the pandemic, Microsoft’s senior leadership team met daily to assess the situation. One of its first tasks was to identify the criteria under which an office would be closed. Microsoft’s regional crisis teams worked with public health officials to establish access to local data, which helped inform decision-making.
Ultimately, using regional and global data sources, the Microsoft team created dashboards with powerful visualizations to reflect the impact of the virus in every country that was reporting data to the World Health Organization. These dashboards remain in use so the team can examine and adjust the company’s strategy, and are publicly available to any user to view data by country to refine and localize insights. The most recent addition is the Vaccinations Dashboard that examines the progression of vaccinations around the world.
Post COVID-19 observations and insights
“We have seen a significant acceleration in digital transformation,” said DelBene. “Businesses recognize that they must move their estates to the cloud, and because of the pandemic, we see years of digital transformation occur in just a few short months.”
This transformation must also address infrastructure changes to provide greater flexibility in how people work, including collaboration tools. While he was Microsoft’s executive champion for the Department of Defense (DoD) account at Microsoft, DelBene witnessed the rollout of Microsoft Office 365 and Teams to 4 million DoD users in just a few months.
This shift in the working model has also forced companies to rethink their security infrastructure. Today, most people are working outside of the intranet, and without an established perimeter, the concept of zero trust networking becomes even more critical. This security model will allow organizations to more easily adapt to our new reality, embracing the mobile workforce and protecting people, devices, apps, and data wherever they are located.
Even with the best technology, we can try to predict what’s going to happen, but we can never know for sure. The companies that survive will be those that can adapt quickly. This will require a robust digital foundation and technology platform that can change business processes in rapid response to the times.
Although it’s been a long journey for Microsoft, the company is optimistic about its ability to support customers, partners, and employees through whatever is to come.