How Microsoft is Reactivating its Workforce During The Pandemic

I recently had the opportunity to interview Kurt DelBene, Executive Vice President of Corporate Strategy and Core Services, Engineering and Operations for Microsoft, as part of the SAP Think Tank Initiative, a collaboration by SAP and our global partners to share best practices and lessons learned as organizations try to get back to business in a COVID-19 world.

We discussed how Microsoft is trying to bring people back to work in light of the pandemic. You can see the full session here, and below are my paraphrased notes from the conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

My personal, edited, unofficial, paraphrased transcription:


I understand that Microsoft was one of the first companies to issue a stay-at-home order for its employees at a global level, so how was Microsoft first alerted that a potential pandemic was underway?


We were very proactive in our approach. We have a crisis management team across the world. It’s basically a distributed architecture where we have a centralized team and then we have a team in every geography around the world. And in December or January, we started to see the virus coming on in Asia where we have actually a quite large set of facilities. And so we scrambled the crisis management team and started looking at the data from very, very early on.

This crisis management team has been absolutely critical. As a senior leadership team, we have done tabletop exercises to be prepared for a situation like this. It’s always been somewhat of a theoretical exercise. But it really helped us because when it actually happened, we were able to jump into action quickly. And so we started meeting as a senior leadership team once a day and we brought together the situation we were seeing.

We focused very clearly on Asia to begin with but then started to pull together the entire team. We got together people in facilities and HR, and all the different disciplines, we figured out the situation, and then we started to triage, figuring out what the situation was around the world and what were the criteria under which we would actually have to close offices.

We also started creating links with public health officials in each location to make sure that we got the information on the ground. Again, that came through the local crisis management team into the overall crisis management team at headquarters. And we started creating dashboards of the situation within each location around the world, and we got into a regular rhythm of triaging the situation and figuring out what we needed to do along the way.

The other thing that I think is really critical in our response was we had set up an infrastructure that allowed us to go remote for our employees fairly quickly. And so within six weeks we were closing offices around the world, but we’d set things up so that all of our core facilities that we run on were moved to the cloud. A lot of these were built by SAP—we’re obviously are a big partner, but also a very big consumer.

We moved it all to Azure, and that enabled us to allow all of our employees to work from home. Everybody had access to Office 365. Microsoft Team’s usage spiked very, very quickly, and people were able to very quickly to move into this mode of working remotely. They had access to all the core functions of SAP and all the core functions they needed to run the company.

And finally, we started sending mail to the entire company once a week, and that mail says “here’s what’s going on.” It’s very fact-driven, but it’s a combination of facts and how we’re responding as a company and how people are responding personally. It’s a feedback loop. I get between 50 and 100 responses every time to my weekly mail, with people expressing thanks for us connecting with them and giving us input on things about our response that we need to change.


 It’s obviously a great thing to have scenario in place, and it’s unfortunate that you had to actually use the plan. Your experience actually sounds quite similar to ours. We also have employees around the glob, and were able to get people working from home almost immediately. We’re both very lucky we work in an industry where our employees tend to already be equipped to be able to work at home, at least from a technology point of view.

 And we have our Qualtrics software for customer employee experience, and we have used that to keep track of the pulse of our employees to make sure that everybody is coping as well as they can with the pandemic.

 There have been huge regional differences: different countries have very different statuses and approaches. Looking to the future, could you share how Microsoft plans to decide when and how and if employees return to the office?


One of the early learnings we had was that we found ourselves focusing on “what’s the date when we’re going to get back to normal?” and we quickly realized that that’s probably not the right way to think about things.

So we established what we call a “dial” and we talked about “living in the dial”. There are six stages, from “hard closed” all the way to six, “we are open and there are some provisions like increased filtration of buildings that are still in place, but we’re pretty much welcoming people back to campus.” And we knew that the situation was going to change in different locations, and so we established a place on the dial this city by city or country by country,

We decided to be very principled and data-driven about where an organization or location is in the dial, with criteria for moving to the next stage. For example, one of the very big stages right now for a lot of our facilities, particularly in the United States, is when we would move to what we call a “soft open,” which means people are welcome back in the office, but we still recommend that you work from home.

We’re seeing a lot of people are fatigued from being at home for a long period of time dealing with everything in the home environment, plus their work. If nothing else, they want to come in temporarily or for a couple of hours a day or a couple of days a week.

We actually have some locations, particular in Asia, but also in Oceania, where they’ve actually gone to stage six, and so we’ve allowed that flexibility across the different geographies. And it’s very, very data-driven. We use dashboards that show the incident levels, the levels of hospitalization, all the data, and we use that in the decision decision-making process.

The other thing that we noticed is that actually, because with the ebb and flow of the pandemic, locations can actually move back, and so we’ve had ones go all the way from six back to stage three or even stage two even, and so this “living in the dial” notion allows you to be flexible in how that occurs.

I would also say we’ve very transparent with our employees about where things stand and what we’re seeing around the world.


I’m based here in Paris, and we have indeed had a soft opening, but sadly cases are rising again here, so we’re now encouraging people to stay at home again. But I’d like to drill a little bit into this dial notion—because it sounds like going” back to normal” is the end state, whereas I believe strongly that we should take the advantage of the new opportunities of these new environments.


Yeah, that’s a really, really good point. We have definitely heard feedback from our employees that they would like some more flexibility in how they work. We’ve been working with our leadership and employees as to what that looks like. We know that people still value the workplace and coming into the workplace, but we also know that they want that flexibility, and so we’ve started to think about that, and we actually just released our first guidance to employees this week, for when we get to stage six.

What is this new normal look like? It does include greater flexibility. It all depends upon having an environment where it’s actually easy to work remotely. What does it look like to have an infrastructure where everybody can work remotely if they choose to do that?

And we’re hearing from customers about an acceleration of that digital transformation, to having everything accessible virtually from everywhere, particularly having things like Microsoft Teams available across your entire workforce, having access to your SAP systems from anywhere, and that’s really become a critical discussion with our customers and a critical thing we’ve been working on internally.


 Flexibility is clearly going to be the name of the game going forward, and that the future of work is something that we could probably talk about for hours. In order to support these decisions, we clearly need data, and it sounds like you have some great data trackers and tools to support all of these different decisions around policy. Are those available to other organizations?


Yes, they are available. When we engaged with local public health officials, there was a demand to create standard data sources for all information around COVID. It wasn’t just about how Microsoft could make decisions internally, but how could we make to help others make decisions across the board.

As you know, we have a strong set of capabilities around Power BI to be able to create dashboards. All this information is available, and you can drill down to see it in various geographies around the world. We decided early on, through our AI for health initiative, that we were going to make those available for everybody. And so the dashboards that we started creating internally then became data sources that are available to everybody, to help people out in this very difficult time.

I know you all have done similar initiatives, and I’d love to show you some of those dashboards. What you see here is a Power BI dashboard, and in this particular case, it’s a world view of the situation in terms of confirmed cases around the world, and you can drill in and you’ll see all the different countries in the world, and then you see a snapshot view on the right-hand side of what the case levels are around the world.

I actually include snapshots of both of these in my email every week, and then point people to the dashboards to be able to look for more, and then the other thing we can do is look at what’s happened in terms of the cumulative levels of the virus across different geographies, so you can compare, for example, the R value, the reproductive rate.

We’ve created a metric with our data scientists called P0, the progress to zero, and we talk in terms of the progress to zero in terms of case counts and deaths. It’s very visual and something somebody can grasp really quickly. And so not only are we making this data available to everybody, we make the underlying data available and we’re always looking in looking for new visualizations that we think will present things in a different way.

So that’s kind of a gist of what we’ve done, and there are other things, such as AI to help triage people and figure out where they can go for help. Our team have focused on “what’s the distinctive capability that Microsoft has and how can we help?


I believe there’s been a massive explosion of interest in data. Data has always been important for organizations, but now, faced with so much uncertainty, everybody is interested in having more. In particular, they want to be able to look forward into the future, and so they’re interested in things like leading indicators and predictive technologies—anything that gives a glimpse of what’s coming down the pipeline.

You reminded me about a dashboard that we help put together for a Portland hospital, a public healthcare institution that looks after Dallas County. They actually have the largest emergency department in the US in terms of people visiting each year, and they very quickly put together a COVID-19 command center, scraping data from various websites using cloud-based technology.

 And so it really is about data, not just helping to optimize business, but also to make the best use of healthcare resources, and ultimately trying to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic and help organizations adapt to the new normal.

Are there any other technologies that we should talk about?


I think we’re going to be in this situation for a while. Even with optimistic views of the vaccine, it’s going to be some time, and so I think one of the critical things is to really put your data and your infrastructure in a position where you can have this greater flexibility. I know that’s been a point of collaboration between Microsoft and SAP for some time, this whole notion of moving your estate to the cloud, making it run very well there, and creating a set of collaboration tools.

We have seen, for instance, an incredible spike and the usage of Microsoft Teams to the point where I believe the last statistics are in excess of 85 million active users at any one time, which is just a remarkable number, and so we feel like we’ve got a set of capabilities across the spectrum that really allow people to move into this new way of working. And a lot of it does come down to the infrastructures and how do you really drive that digital transformation very, very fast.

Satya [Satya Nadella, the Microsoft CEO] talks about years of digital transformation happening in a short set of months and really driven by COVID. So I think that’s really key. We’re seeing a lot of folks need to get resiliency in their data centers, and seeing them accelerate their move out of their data centers so that they don’t have to think about on-premises facilities that they have to manage in such situations.

We’re also seeing a number of places where people are looking for near-term solutions, like the one that you mentioned: “How do I triage the situation? How do I triage cases internally? How do I triage anything in a rapid way and do it from anywhere”?

And then the final thing: it’s really caused an acceleration of people rethinking their security infrastructure. This whole idea that everybody is working from outside of the intranet really changes the way you need to think about defending your institution. This whole idea of zero trust networking, where the perimeter is not the way you secure it, but you secure it of by making sure that you trust the devices that are connecting; that all of your core services reside in the cloud as opposed to inside of this intranet where there are vulnerabilities that you can go laterally in. And so we’re getting a very deep set of conversations around how people amp up their game of security as well.


I think that security point is excellent. We’ve also seen lots of organizations want to take more and more advantage of the cloud. It’s clearly accelerated the use of these technologies because it’s more flexible and because you just can’t have everything on-site anymore. To your point about Microsoft Teams: we are huge fans. We use it for every aspect of what we do throughout the company, along with all of the other Microsoft tools.

 I’m seeing basically two types of technology that people who are interested in. One is the small packages that they can be used right now, to make a difference. The Qualtrics tools, for example: “How are my employees doing? How have my customer needs changed? What is it that people expect from us? What is different now?”

 And then the other end of the spectrum, although some organizations have canceled some IT projects, the big strategic ones have not been cancelled and in many cases have been accelerated. Because it’s not like the need for digital transformation is going away! It’s become even more important along with the need for agility.

We can try and predict the future, but ultimately, we don’t know what’s going to happen. There have been so many of these events that come out of nowhere. What organizations really need is the ability to adapt quickly when there is a change—hence the need for a digital foundation, a technology platform that they can then agilely change their business processes.


I couldn’t agree more!


You’ve got great experience of dealing with teams around the world, and you are clearly thinking very proactively about how to make the best of the situation, maybe even to take advantage of it in some ways. Do you any advice for the audience of what they could do different, things they might not have yet thought about?


This is obviously consuming everybody, and I don’t think Microsoft think of ourselves as having a lock on the truth. I can only talk from our own experience for us. What’s been important is that connection to employees, and maintaining it, and being there for them, and really expressing a connection that is real, that feels personal.

When I send my email out once a week, I feel like I’m personally speaking to 150,000 people and hearing their feedback, and I think that connection is really letting people to stay connected and be focused. For my team in particular, it’s caused me to want to get real clarity on what our fiscal year goals are, and what we’re trying to accomplish for our internal systems. Because it’s easy to get wrapped up in the here and now and let things settle rather than realize there’s a bunch of stuff we need to get accomplished. So this living in the new normal, and supporting the new normal and keeping people focused on where they need to go, I think it’s critically important.

The other thing I would say is that for example I’m the executive champion for the Department of Defense account at Microsoft, and one of the things that’s been amazing there is that we laid out this new environment for Office 365 and Teams for four million users. The Department of Defense is an organization that hadn’t really embraced mobile working, and they had to do it all of a sudden.

I think the thing that you realize is that if you’re presented with this situation, you can be bold and actually use this as a catalyst to do that transformation that you know you need to do. And the thing that keeps getting reinforced me over and over again is that things we’re being forced to do, to become more adaptable, is what you have to do anyhow. And so I would encourage everybody to be bold, and to look at other examples where people drove really, really hard and have gotten a lot accomplished. Don’t let a good crisis go to waste. Use this as an opportunity to do that, to get on that path towards transformation.


Absolutely, and I’d echo that we’re seeing a huge uptake in the combination of Microsoft Azure, a great hyperscalar platform to gather information quickly from various different sources, and the SAP business technology platform and our applications on top. We’re seeing a big uptake of this among our big strategic accounts.

The second thing is that I love your point about the human connection. I think ultimately, that’s what’s most difficult for me in these environments. We can do business in these new environments, and we’ve proven to be actually pretty effective, with lots of go-lives of technology projects, even with everybody from home. But retaining that human connection, and creating new connections? I think that’s the real challenge that we’ll have in the world going forward.


I totally agree, and I think we’re both hearing that people want that additional flexibility in terms of how they work, and you need to provide them an infrastructure. I think we’re going to be in a competitive environment, where the organizations that are going to win the talent battle are going to be those that provide an environment that feels supportive and feels flexible to match the way that people feel like they need to work in these situations.

And your point about the human connection: I can’t tell you the number of times I hear back from my email saying “I feel supported by Microsoft, I feel like we’re living our values to us, that investment we made in terms of our culture is really paying dividends right now”. I’ve been a Microsoft a long time and it’s been a journey, and I’m so thankful for that investment that we’ve made, that is really paying off for us.


Well, thank you Kurt. It’s been wonderful talking to you. I wish you the best of luck in your projects.


Thank you for the partnership between SAP and Microsoft. I’ve seen it over the years, and it’s never been stronger, and it’s so gratifying to see. Thank


Thank you everybody for attending this event, and good luck with your projects!

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