The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a radical upheaval in the global marketplace on a scale previously unseen in the modern age. It has forced businesses to completely overhaul their operations so quickly that many of them haven’t survived the transition. But those who have managed to remain flexible enough to continue operations have emerged stronger and wiser, with knowledge that can help other companies undergo a similar transformation.
As a global business, PTW was forced to confront the new pandemic reality on multiple levels simultaneously. Transforming from a studio-based delivery system to an almost entirely work-from-home (WFH) model demanded a level of planning and execution that taxed resources and required a high level of buy-in from our clients. Here’s how we did it, and what we learned in the process.
By the end of 2019, the coronavirus had asserted its hold in China to the extent that our Shanghai studio began the transition to WFH, which we completed in February 2020. This change propagated across our other studios across the world, with each line of business running pilots for WFH for every location. Over 1,000 new devices were procured and shipped to WFH employees, with 1,966 staff remote by August of 2020.
Given the rapidity of the change, we had a lot of wins. 180 QA Testers for a key client transitioned from studio-based to a full WFH model with only 16 hours of downtime. Over 95% of the global player support business moved to a WFH model over a two-week period with zero stoppages in cover. We delivered almost the entirety of our LQA business from a tiny team operating out of our Montreal site.
As of August, 2020, 84% of PTW’s workforce was delivering from home with only 14% working out of an office and just 2% (48 people) had periods of unbillable time due to COVID. We made the decision that we would continue to pay our teams even if their time was unbillable. 36% of these costs were incurred in April, and nearly 100% were incurred in India, where we had the greatest challenge to shift our employees to a WFH model. Since then, we’re pleased to report that the transition is complete and we’re back to a full delivery schedule with no loss of quality.
Audio’s biggest challenge was in setting up voice actors’ home environments for optimal recording. Not every
home is configured to allow for a quiet, isolated recording space, especially for those involving multiple occupants.
Yet SIDE successfully helped nearly 200 voice talents set up their home studios and maintained a significant
volume of delivery schedules. Delivery was slow, complicated, work intensive, and impacted by external factors
such as Internet instability. Increased communication was required to manage client expectations. Fortunately,
this has only strengthened our process and we’ve experienced no further delays or hiccups in product delivery.
QA presented different challenges. The studio environment is configured for security, a mandatory requirement
for all clients. When working from home, however, IT grappled with remote users and the difficulty with testers
accessing game builds that resided within secure facilities. Increased global procurement timelines for mobile
devices and PCs caused initial delays in project start times. Lack of availability of hardware meant testers had to
work weekends or extend their shifts to accommodate ramp-ups, resulting in increased overtime. The inability
to execute certain certification tests on a WFH model required developing a remote testing solution that is
acceptable for certain clients.
Delays in onboarding staff occurred due to greater logistical challenges in administrating contracts, bank account details, ID cards, and background verification checks for new joiners. Interestingly, initially Tester productivity increased due to the lack of travel and staff feeling fresh and in a positive attitude at the start the day. However, as WFH continued, the impacts of staff using their personal space for long periods of time created challenges in balancing work/life separation and reduced the initial increase in productivity. This curve has since smoothed out and staff have reported a full return to business as usual.
While it might seem from the outside that changing Customer Experience to a WFH model would be simple,
deployment revealed its own challenges. Management of the team required multiple daily ‘touch bases’ to ensure
staff were engaged throughout the entire shift.
Having smaller and more frequent team syncs became critical but sometimes coaching sessions were interrupted
by power or internet outages. This was particularly prevalent in India but happened across all sites and regions.
Transitioning to Amazon’s VDi Platform required a high degree of effort and coordination. The configuration of virtual desktops requires input from IT and the operational leaders closely monitored productivity to ensure there were no impacts on delivery. We’re proud to say no deliverables were dropped, and the process for setting up remote employees has been ratified to the extent that no further issues have developed.
The Translation department’s issues were more socially-based. It has been important to prevent teams from feeling
disconnected and ensuring they have a voice to raise concerns while not in studio. The sharing of information and
instant answers available when the team are working from a studio have been replaced by questions sent over
Microsoft Teams or email, which has increased message traffic. Monitoring the utilization of billable positions has
become harder, resulting in more meetings to properly control workload.
This additional time initially resulted in increased overtime payments for Project Managers. Translation has now hired new non-billable positions–Junior Vendor Manager and Junior PM–to support the new delivery model.
Troubleshooting no longer happens with a small number of individuals covering hundreds of Testers on the floor, but remotely with the Ops Assistants using a queuing system. Many LQA Testers have limited technical knowledge and English is not their first language, so remote support is extremely challenging. This has added substantial time to deployment of teams to new projects and creates frustration. Now that the teams are set up and deployed, there haven’t been any major differences or drops in terms of productivity. However, the time needed to deploy Testers on new projects/platforms has had an impact on billable hours. While less-experienced Testers would normally rely on seasoned members of the team in a studio environment, providing this support remotely was a challenge. Fortunately, the institutional knowledge base has increased, with specific recurring issues being addressed in documentation directly. This has led to fewer and fewer cases of direct supervisor oversight being required, and this leavening process will continue going forward.
Our HR department also stepped up with important alterations to policy to enable a smoother transition to the
WFH model. They amended sick pay policy to ensure that anyone who contracted Covid-19, or who had to
self-isolate, did not suffer financially. HR was responsible for setting up the Covid Care Fund in India to ensure
support for our most vulnerable staff and their families.
Recruitment has become remote with a switch to the video interview method for volume recruitment. Training was adapted to allow virtual sessions and onboarding, and we adopted a new learning platform, transitioning training materials.
It’s clear that these COVID-induced changes have made a lasting impact on the way PTW does business. Our
Player Support service now has a full Work From Anywhere offering to go alongside our traditional studio-based
delivery. This model allows access to talent from around the globe with faster ramp-up times. For QA and LQA, a
percentage of staff will continue to work from home, which allows greater flexibility if client projects suddenly
need to escalate and our studios are already full. We will operate on a combination of office- and home-based
working where projects allow.
PTW has learned to operate flexibly, not adhering to a static model of traditional operations. We were guided in this working philosophy by our dedication to putting the health and safety of our employees first. In this way we were prepared for the second surge of illnesses in India, and we devoted a portion of our earnings to helping those workers get treatment and vaccinations for themselves and their families. During this time of trial, our commitment to our clients has never wavered. No matter what the future throws our way, we’ll face each challenge with compassion and empathy; only in that spirit will we have defined true success.