About the episode
Remote work has quickly transformed from optionality into reality for tech companies around the globe, with many tech behemoths like Twitter, Facebook, and Google extending work-from-home timelines with no clear end to the COVID19 crisis in sight. The crisis aside, the wheels for remote work to play a bigger role in how companies operate and grow have been turning. More tools are available to facilitate remote work, and there’s an increasing preference to explore remote work or work-from-home arrangements among millennials and Gen-Z.
But transitioning to a remote-first culture or becoming remote-ready as a tech company takes more than just Zoom meetings and a Slack workspace. To explore what it really takes to maximize productivity for remote teams, we talked to three experienced leaders of remote engineering teams in our portfolio: Carro co-founder and technology team lead Kelvin Chng, Wiz.ai co-founder and chairman Jianfeng Lu, and Insignia Ventures partner and head of technology Ridy Lie. As an event in partnership with Huawei Cloud, we were also joined by Leo Jiang, Chief Digital Officer at Huawei, who shared his insights on the future of remote work in Asia.
About our guests
Thoughts on the future of remote work
(1) Jianfeng Lu: “I think working from home is very important in the future. One part is for your own business. And another part is the globalization of talents.” Enabling remote working in the company opens up opportunities to tap into the global talent pool.
(2) Kelvin Chng: “Being remote or not seems less of a concern. [It is] more like, how do we actually allow the person to work where he feels the most comfortable? That going forward should be the normal itself because, at the end of the day, we are not factory workers. We always want to find joy in the thing we are doing.”
(3) Leo Jiang, Chief Digital Officer at Huawei: “So if our organization is transitioning from a traditional to a more tech firm, they have no choice but to encourage remote working. And if they couldn’t cope with it, then it is probably in the declining phase for them. Whereas if a company can make it out of digital transformation, they will probably have better success. So I think this is more of a choice to make, not a reality to live.”
00:27 Paulo introduces Ridy;
1:03 Ridy introduces Jianfeng Lu;
2:47 Ridy introduces Kelvin Chng;
3:40 What the experience has been so far managing remote teams since lockdowns began;
10:48 Key learnings from the managing remote (engineering) teams;
15:42 Why some employees are performing better than others when working remotely;
19:59 How do you ensure productivity for a remote team?;
21:48 How should companies ensure that they don’t overload their staff?;
24:07 Has remote working truly become the new normal, or just an expedited normal?;
29:56 Ridy and Jianfeng talk about open positions in Insignia Ventures’ portfolio companies and WIZ.AI for engineers;
Ridy: I’d like to start by getting to know how you guys have been managing work from home and remote working for your companies since the lockdown began. You know, I know both Jianfeng and Kelvin have managed teams across Asia, which have gone into lockdown and opened up, you know, at different periods of time. What has the experience been like so far?
Jianfeng: Okay, thanks Ridy. COVID-19 is a crisis for almost all companies. One of our key engineers was locked for three months near Wuhan while visiting his parents during the spring festival and our CTO was also locked for two weeks since his neighbor returned from Wuhan. So like the whole block would be locked. Everybody is not able to go outside, so you’d never know what will happen next.
So the best preparation is to embrace the change and embrace the so-called new normal. We actually quickly sped up and strengthened our three practices, which we prepared. We were not originally prepared for cross-regional teams and originally we wanted to rollout in the second half of 2020.
The first one is actually we try to find some kind of good tool. The adoption of tools to help improve internal communications. We are right now using Larksuite, the office collaboration app. I think it’s a very good product by Bytedance, and it’s a combination of tools, several different features, such as messaging, like Slack, collaboration docs, just like Google Docs, and shared drive, like Google Drive, and video conferencing, like Zoom, and also like a team calendar, et cetera. It’s all free right now.
And it also provides translation tools. For example, like somebody in China, they can write in Chinese, then people here in Singapore, they can just translate into English. And so far it’s, you know, pretty good. And also you know, there’s some integration, with some tools like to-do lists or something like that.
So that’s first, we find that good tool. And the second part is, we think more communication is a must. Every day we are running 15 to 20 minutes daily team huddle through Larksuite to sync up the plans and the results of yesterday.
And the third part is to emphasize the result-driven project management. Small steps, fast pace, fast iteration. For example, we have one major release for our software system every three weeks. And, between those, we also have one or two minor releases every week. So for every release, we just have an improvement, which a customer can clearly know and perceive. And everybody can easily sense the progress and the delay. So far we experienced some communication issues but the overall project progress, in my own opinion, is as good as last year.
Kelvin: That’s pretty lucky. I think the good thing is we were actually operating in small teams before COVID actually struck. So we actually have a team in Myanmar, a team in Vietnam, a team in Indonesia, a team in Singapore, a team in Taiwan and two guys in Wuhan.
So, we actually felt the entire COVID thing spread all the way from China down to Singapore and then spread to the rest of the countries. So we actually saw it on a firsthand basis. When one country goes into lockdown, the other country will actually start clamping down, and then one starts opening and the other starts opening as well.
So I totally echo what Jianfeng said that tooling is actually extremely important. Because we have multiple small teams, not by choice, we were actually forced into it. I think you guys would know the hiring of engineers is extremely difficult in the region that we are in.
So we actually chose to go where talents are rather than being fixated on a country. So we chose to actually have micro-small teams to specialize or get them to so that we can hire specialized skill sets with each team. And we were very forward in thinking that if we were to operate these small teams, we needed better tooling, better collaboration. So right from the start, right, we actually tried to find tools that will allow multiple small teams to communicate with each other.
So Jianfeng is using Lark, I’ve actually evaluated Lark before COVID. We wanted to actually move to Lark as well. but we were actually sold on Notion before that.
So Notion was our de facto tool in actually communicating. So the same features in there, we have online collaboration of documents. We’re able to share files in there. We don’t have the video conferencing capabilities in there. But it actually promotes a lot of discussions and a lot of accountability in how a discussion actually goes because the document will change, the comments will actually be recorded within Notion itself, and actually helped [record the] different experiences of our engineers. Those who are more junior will be able to read up on the history [of the project]. Those who are more senior will then be able to communicate and develop more of that document as a record of the system itself.
We see a lot of changes. I think productivity, I’m not sure whether it’s my perception or not, productivity was a bit affected, especially, I think it’s a given thing that when people work from home, right, there would be more distractions as compared to being in a proper working environment like an office where you’re actually able to concentrate for periods of time.
So we do see that some of our guys had initial trouble in getting a good space to work even within their homes. I just got a baby during the COVID period. If you asked me to actually sit down properly and…engineer, it couldn’t be more than two hours. Within two hours my baby will cry and then you will be distracted…so a lot of our guys are new parents. We have people without a proper room to work in.
So there would definitely be some hiccups here and there. But I think we got through it pretty okay. The guys are actually quite dedicated to the task at hand and most of all, they trust each other. We believe in hiring people who can gel and fit with the culture of the team. So each of them is like friends as compared to colleagues. So they trust each other and take care of their backs.
So they will know that even if somebody is out of action, somebody else will pick up the slack for them to make sure that the thing goes on and according to time. So, so far so good. I think most of our guys are coping and accommodating to these changes or even adapting to it.
Ridy: That sounds good. So as both of you know, Insignia also has its own engineering team.
We have a small team but we’ve always adopted the remote-first culture. So meaning that as a company, we are committed to make it this first-class experience for remote workers.
If you are working in different countries if you’re working at your house and in the coffee house we give you a commitment that you will not be missing anything. All our processes and tools are designed in such a way that more than workers will be able to fully participate.
So this is again, to your point Kelvin, we made this decision to be able to include as many people in the workforce as possible. We like bright engineers from anywhere. If you are most productive at your home, you can work from your home. If you have two-year-old crying babies, please proceed to the nearest working place together. Right?
And so two things that I heard from you is communication is key, a lot of communications, and also what was the last thing you said Kelvin — collaboration, communication, and trust, — trust between employees.
Ridy: So, you’ve been forced to do this remote experiment for three or four months. Are there key learnings that other tech team leaders can learn from you guys? would be a word of advice?
Kelvin: I don’t think we are good enough to teach people how to do it. I think what we can share is remote working comes with its own problems and its own issues. I see from the Q&A there are a few questions talking about morale and talking about mental health.
This is exactly the thing that we were also extremely concerned about because when we started our first foreign overseas hire, that person was alone in the country without any support structure, no colleagues, no office, nobody to actually powwow with, nobody to actually brainstorm or bounce ideas with.
We were extremely concerned about that person’s wellbeing, and whether he’s in it with us as well, because when we hire we’ll make sure that person feels involved, feels that he is actually part of the team and he’s then able to contribute for a longer period as compared to him leaving.
So we made a conscious decision every country you go in we do not hire just one. We make sure that we have a team. We make sure there’s a support structure around that person so that there is a certain level of teamwork that they can actually experience of that structure itself.
So with that, we also made again the conscious decision to ensure that these people are always roped into all the major conversations that we have, even though they might not be involved in the immediate work at hand, but they do get involved in the conversations itself so that they are aware of what’s happening across the entire structure.
We do not work like an offshore center — “Oh, okay. This team does this.” — We don’t do that. Ours is a team structure. Everybody works on the same stuff and at different times that you’ll be involved in different things. So we try to make sure that our message gets circulated around as much as possible. We even have more senior guys in the team who are organizing lunches, and then he would just share lunch and talk about different things.
My guys are quite innovative in that sense. We use Slack for communication for most of the mundane stuff. So we create a channel right to even post, “Hey what did you guys have for lunch? Or what did you guys do over the weekend?” So that thing that is missing, the face-to-face interaction that is missing, they actually tried to keep it within a digital way of communicating be it taking photos. We have Telegram channels, we have WhatsApp channels. They actually do share nonsense stuff about what they’re eating and stuff. That actually helped build the same trust and camaraderie that we see even without face-to-face interaction.
So I think in a nutshell, the key here is to make sure that even without the physical office, face-to-face interaction, that bond that you built right cannot be any way lesser than what it is supposed to be. So we try as hard as possible to be able to do that.
Jianfeng: Yeah. There’s a lot of people talking about don’t waste any crisis. Crisis in Chinese is weizhi. It not only means crisis but also means opportunity. So a lot of my friends, they do a lot of practice, a lot of things, and try to find out — there’s a lot of good results, circling around, like in the moments of WeChat.
So I just like to try to summarize, and I think, most of them, the capability of handling remote teams enhanced through this crisis. So, one part is, during the crisis, people usually looking more into details for progress, results.
So you can easily identify those best performers with culture fit. And you can see who is fighting together with you, who is not, then you can know which part of the team will be the core team of your future organization. This part of the team will be the engine of your future growth.
So this is the first learning point. And the second part is actually, for us, Kelvin’s team is big, we are a rather small team, like 50 to 60 people, right now. Our product is in an even earlier stage, the business just started, so with this crisis actually, we think, less is more, so let’s focus more on the core product, core customers to make sure we are the best of the best.
So we’re providing the best product, providing the best services, making sure the business model is running, as much as we imagine. This could be, you know, the source of our future revenue. Right now we build a solid base then, after the crisis, after the pandemic, when we need to grow the business, then it will be much easier for us to replicate the organization as well as the business model.
And the third part is actually because we focus then we also keep improving the process for the developing in the software system, process for, specifically for us, doing the dialogue engineering, which we are the pioneer for those voice and speech-related products. And also we have tried to improve the process for our presale as well as sales, you know, because a lot of things we just do then check, and just see how we can improve, then do this process improvement cycle again and again. As an entrepreneur, we are always optimistic and enthusiastic. So we always deal with the worst in fighting [to be] the best.
Ridy: Actually I want to ask one question about what you said earlier, so it’s interesting. that you said that, out of your area or engineers, some are actually performing better, with COVID and some are actually performing worse, with this remote working. What factors do you think play into this? I’ll ask the same question to you Kelvin. Why are some people performing better when they are doing remote and why are some people not performing better? And then what they can do to perform better?
Kelvin: I think to each their own, right? Everybody has a different way of working, style working and not everybody is able to work alone in an environment that they are not familiar with like at home, right? There’ll be a lot of distractions. So working from home comes with its own perils.
You need to be extremely disciplined to be able to make sure that you are on point on time, to be able to do and deliver your stuff. That discipline is not universal across all the engineers that we have. And it takes quite a bit of mental work to make sure that you are always able to segregate what is working hours and what’s non-working hours.
And I do have staff that starts working or being productive after 7:00 PM. And I have staff that will take longer lunches because they are home where they cook. So they prepare longer lunches. At the end of the day, right, they don’t stop work at six, they stop work at probably nine. So it really depends on each individual way of wanting to operate within their own confines and their own structure.
So it’s difficult that everybody has now a different schedule, not like when we are all working in one office, right where the schedules are more or less aligned and you are able to then at the end of the day, do a checklist and say, “Hey, have we finished everything for the day before we go off?” Now you are not able to — I stay up until eleven or twelve to make sure that most of the tasks that we want to complete during the day are at least more or less there before we are able to close off the day. So it takes a bit more work to make sure that all these things are adhered to. But going forward, this is going to be a normal and it’s extremely difficult to monitor or make sure that everybody confines to a certain structure or rigid schedule. That’s going to be difficult.
Ridy: Yeah, I agree completely. Self-discipline is very important for remote working. I found that only those who are self-motivated who are, you know, like really enjoy your work, really enjoy actually making an impact to the customers will be able to thrive in a situation where you don’t have coworkers beside you to give you motivation. How about Jianfeng, anything to add?
Jianfeng: We’re just like normal people. Kelvin’s problems actually exactly happened for myself. You know, when I looking for my first job, I always want a job [with] a high salary, feel responsibility and work from home. All the time, better all the time. And always like [working] from home makes me happy. I can save commute time for sleep and enjoy my expensive and very good speakers and drink my favorite tea. And so on, so forth, better like without any job.
But the problem is like always a lot of distraction and always I need to spend a lot of energy and the discipline to [get] back to work.
Now, I think like, for this part really like a little bit hard for everyone, working from home. So, what we are doing is we try to, having like a daily huddle, where [they] tell everyone else in the team what he is going to do, he’s going to achieve for the day. So for this part, the first one is like a plan for him or herself. Then the second part is better for the collaboration.
So they’re like when I finished the modules, they’re like, I can pass to someone else. And my colleague will be prepared to take the next step. You need to fight with your own human nature a little bit difficult, yeah. But so far, because we have a lot of customers on the waiting list. So everybody is very excited. So it’s not a big issue for us, so yeah, it’s still okay and even a little bit good, in my sense, so far.
Ridy: It is very interesting that you mentioned, once an engineer gets distracted, it actually takes a lot of effort and willpower to start again. So, actually there are multiple studies on this, but most studies actually say that the average time for an engineer to get back to work, once they get disrupted, even for a few minutes, it’s around 15 to 20 minutes. So if you imagine, an engineer got distracted just like four times, five times in a day, that’s like an hour or more than an hour of time down the drain. So interesting point.
Ridy: The first question is, from Yan, how do you ensure productivity for a remote team? Kelvin, you wanna take this.
Kelvin: Sure, I think our productivity is measured by the number of — we actually do quite conventional tracking of what we’ve done: like number of features released, number of tickets, how many bucks on the code and stuff. So productivity to us is more measured in terms of output rather than the time you actually spend on the engineering itself.
So we don’t actually have any difference in the way we actually measure productivity pre- and post-COVID, so that’s quite the usual thing for us. The other part of productivity is not just in terms of output, we also increasingly worry about the quality of the code that is being developed.
As engineers, we all know there are many ways to skin the cat, right? You can actually do things in multiple ways to get through to the end requirement, right? So we are also increasingly conscious about that and trying to make sure that we have a more robust review or peer review across the entire code base, make sure that things are kept up to a certain standard before they are released into our production.
Ridy: Yeah, I think, remote and in-house work, there’s no difference in terms of productivity, the way we check productivity. Primarily because just having your boss, somewhere in the office doesn’t change your productivity? In fact, again, I read some surveys that say having a feeling that you are being watched will actually make you less productive. You just feel that you were being watched. You feel that you’re not a hundred percent solving the problems. And as you know, like engineering is a creative problem. It’s a problem that requires a lot of brainpower. So, if you have this lurking feeling that somebody is watching you, that’s not gonna help you much.
Kelvin: That’s actually [why] we are not concerned about productivity.
The bonus of working from home is you want to try to clear your work as soon as possible so that you have more free time for yourself, right. I think that’s natural for everybody, right? Let’s do it as fast as we can, we finish the code. That’s why we are slightly more concerned about the quality of the output as compared to the number of output that we actually get nowadays.
Ridy: Right. Another question from Heng Tew Wong. I’ve heard from a few friends that they are working harder and more meetings working from home. This is because they don’t spend time travelling. How should companies ensure that they don’t overload their staff? Interesting question. Anyone wants to give the first go? Jianfeng, maybe?
Jianfeng: Yeah I think like Kelvin, just said, it’s very hard to monitor or measure the engineers’ productivity, especially when they feel like [they are] being monitored or like a being measured. They would feel very unhappy about this. So I think the better way for this, after years of practice, is, as I just said, small steps and a fast pace.
It’s very hard to monitor or measure the engineers’ productivity, especially when they feel like [they are] being monitored or like a being measured. They would feel very unhappy about this. So I think the better way for this, after years of practice, is, as I just said, small steps and a fast pace.
You try to give them, a shorter or clearer go there so that they can finish like in one week or something like that just kind of like playing a game, you have some, very quick, feedback system. So when you do something then you will see the result and their capabilities. Then after this, you’re facing another challenge, then you do this again and again, and again.
And also most engineers, they are very passionate and try to finish something, especially in China, a lot of engineers, they are fighting for their own life, for their house. It’s like millions of Singapore dollars, even though their salary is two thousand Singapore dollar or something like that. So success and achievement are really important for them. And when we try to use a fast iteration, try to use those methodology, it’s very easy for them to get in this kind of positive feedback loop — achievable and very clear objective is much better.
Ridy: Got it. Yeah. And I think you mentioned a couple of good points especially, with this very passionate engineers and hardworking engineers sometimes they can overload themselves.
Sometimes they’re working too hard, so to speak. Especially in Insignia what we want is we want people to have long-term success which means that you’re not burning out, that you are taking care outside of your career. You’re also taking care of your family. You’re taking of things outside of work.
So in a little way, our approach is actually pretty sensible, which is that we emphasize that to our employees, that their life being is important to us. We don’t value them only as a contributor on how much they are able to code. We value a long-term partnership with them. We want them to grow. We want them to continue contributing to our companies And in the process, everyone will be in a better place.
Ridy: So we have time for one last question. Actually this is a very perfect question for everyone, and it’s always in the mind of a lot of people for remote working, especially in this COVID So this is from Jake Thui. One question I have for you guys is whether you will have gone remote or promoted remote working if there weren’t a pandemic. Has remote working become the new normal, or is this just an expedited normal for the way we work? So, in other words, like if the COVID miraculously ends soon will things go back to normal or do you think remote working is the new normal?
Jianfeng: Remote working for us is a must. Right now, like we have, three teams. We have teams in China. We have a team in Singapore. In Singapore we have like more than 20 people. And we also have a small team, like in Indonesia and we started to recruit and they have their first employee in Manila.
Remote working is inevitable. Especially for millennials, I think like engineers, after a boom, like after the 1990s, people started to like chasing for his or her own freedom. They want like more free style of working.
I think working from home is very important in the future. One part is for your own business. And another part is — especially, after the pandemic although, right now globalization is, you know, started to be seen as a problem globally, but I think like globalization of talents is the new trend.
I think working from home is very important in the future. One part is for your own business. And another part is I think globalization of talents is the new trend.
For example, in China, I think like in 2020 we have about like 8.74 million new graduates getting out of universities. There will be a lot of talent there and they are very passionate and hardworking. But it’s easy for us, like a startup, try to connect with this kind of resource pool, like we can leverage a lot of low cost and hardworking talents for our business.
But another part is you have to accept working remotely. It’s kind of a challenge for us, how we can manage them efficiently. So we need tools, we need also some kind of a mentality to accept this is like a natural. Yeah. So, and also like for us, I think it’s very hard to find some people like that, [who are] going to help with the communication, help with managing the teams, even with those tools.
Kelvin: I think this is a tough question. It is to do with the maturity of the company, I believe because we started from a startup where we have less than five, ten people right? And actually working remote, right, wasn’t a clear option for us because we wanted to move things so fast already. We wanted people to be around, to have that type of war room concept right where everyday we are chasing for a certain feature to be developed.
So as we went down the maturity path, right, as a team called bigger and tasks became more defined and we have more people do actually work on proper ticketing, proper way of institutionalizing the system itself, right, then remote work became a clear possibility for us.
So it’s both a mix of the new normal and expedited normal, because I do believe that going forward, right, it wouldn’t be whether it’s remote or not, but where the person is most comfortable working. I think that is where we fail to notice.
Some just prefer being in an office. Some people just prefer to be at home. And I don’t think it’s right to say either is best for that person. It really depends on the person itself, right, where he can actually focus and work best. Even in a cafe, I find it noisy. Some people find it extremely pleasing to be able to code within the cafe itself.
Being remote or not, right, seems less of a concern. More like, how do we actually allow the person, right, to work where he feels the most comfortable and that I think going forward should be the normal itself because at the end of the day, right, we are not factory workers and we always want to find joy in the thing we are doing.
And I think that is a very large part of how we actually derive joy in actually sitting down in front of a computer, doing the things we do.
Ridy: Same echo from me. I think the word Jianfeng used is inevitable and Kelvin used is a new normal, and this is not only in Southeast Asia, right. Facebook, Google, Microsoft, all of them have extended their working from home date and even companies like Twitter has already a stepped forward and said that they made remote working optional permanently. This is a trend that we believe is actually good for the industry and will be the way going forward.
Leo: Can you just share one perspective on this? I think it’s quite interesting, the way the question has been asked. I mean my previous role, so I did a lot of consulting and one thing is about workplace consulting and I think according to a certain research, they say today there are five generations in the workplace.
So, you know, from my generation, so I was born in the seventies and then all the way to generation Z, right. And I think if you look at it, industry progression, especially in the tech industry, there are more digital-native companies who are hiring more younger generations or the millennials who are more intrigued or more in-tuned to work at a remote level, because of the way they’re socializing with their friends.
It’s very, in nature, very easy for them to transit. Whereas you look at the traditional industries like automotive, you know, medical. They’re probably less so. It doesn’t really matter how the world will change. The generation is still the same. So there’s still five generations in the workplace. The only thing that changes is how people change themselves or the organization prioritize people.
So if our organization is transitioning from a traditional, sort of digital transforming to a more tech firm, I think they have no choice, but to encourage remote working. And if they couldn’t cope with it, then it is probably in the declining phase for them. Whereas if a company can make it out of digital transformation, they will probably have better success. So I think this is more of a choice to make, not a reality to live.
Ridy: Yeah, to have access to the global pool they will have no choice but to do that.