Using tech to ease the fear of unexpected US travel ban

Oct 12, 2017   |   Lukas Velush

When President Donald Trump announced that people from some countries would be banned from travelling to the United States, many Microsoft employees began to worry, even panic.

The company has many thousands of visa-dependent employees working in the United States, and though only a few are from the six countries that Trump called out in his ban, most had questions about who could be banned next and how they might otherwise be affected based on the heated political environment surrounding the ban.

“It worried everybody – anyone who had a visa status,” says Marty Shively, Microsoft’s associate general counsel for U.S. Immigration. “It created a lot of anxiety. We immediately began getting lots of inquiries from our visa-dependent employees.”

The ban came on a Friday in January, and by Saturday many on Shively’s team were working in the office, doggedly answering one frantic question after another.

“We had a bunch of lawyers and paralegals in the office, doing it the old-fashioned way—responding to emails,” says Shively, whose team sits in Microsoft Corporate, External, and Legal Affairs (CELA). “We were, one by one, working out of an inbox and trying to respond to them all.”

Corporate photo of Mary Shively
Marty Shively, Microsoft’s associate general counsel for U.S. Immigration, turned to his partners in Microsoft Core Services Engineering when his team became inundated with questions after President Donald Trump banned travel from several countries to the U.S.

When thousands of employees and their family members come knocking on your door, you can’t talk to everyone; there just aren’t enough people.

“We couldn’t scale,” he says. “We had to come up with another way of helping all of those people. Most people were just worried—they just wanted to be reassured that everything was going to be OK.”

However, that larger cry for reassurance was drowning out the people who really did need help, people who were from the banned countries, and, worse, who were out of the country and worried that they now wouldn’t be able to make it back.

It all added up to one thing: Shively’s team was going to have to do things differently, and it would need some help.

Turning to Dynamics 365

Iliyas Chawdhary’s team in Core Services Engineering (CSE, formerly Microsoft IT) was already helping CELA build a new Immigration Management system on Dynamics 365 that would allow its attorneys and paralegals to manage and track employee immigration matters, when Shively came calling.

“He reached out to us, and he said things were getting bad—they were just getting bombarded with emails,” Chawdhary says. Adding to the confusion, they found they weren’t answering questions in the same way via all the one-off emails. “He asked us if we could help them automate their responses, so they could work on their high priority cases. We said we would stop everything and work on this.”

The first thing his team did was create a visa-dependent employee engagement portal on Dynamics, which would allow the employees to get their questions answered on a “public” view, and on the same platform, allow the CELA lawyers to manage all their work on the ban on a “private” view.

Chawdhary’s team immediate job was to help the team automate responses to the most common questions that were coming in, like “Will this ban go beyond the initial six countries and be executed for all countries? I have plans to travel and how would this ban impact me? My family is outside of the U.S. and is heading back home, what should I tell them?”

“We wanted to help them from having to respond to questions one email at a time,” Chawdhary says.

The team first started bucketing the common questions under common headings, and then loading the best answer they had for each into the portal. If an employee had a common question, automation served up the answer and answers to similar questions.

Once basic bucketing was done, the second wave of work was to get information from all the many people who were asking questions to figure out who had the most pressing need for help. Chawdhary’s team did this by asking the respondents to answer a series of questions about their country of birth, their family (how many and where they were located), their citizenship status, their current location, if they needed to travel, and so on.

If they were traveling, the CELA team—working in conjunction with the Microsoft Travel team—prioritized talking to them as quickly as possible. In addition to reassuring them that Microsoft would help them get through the crisis, the aim was to discuss whether it was better to wait to travel, to make sure they had the right documents, and how to handle requests to search their devices, and so on.

Once an employee hit the portal and submitted his or her information, a case was automatically created, and a priority was assigned. “The goal was to respond to the critical ones within four hours,” Chawdhary says.

Answering the call

Within a few days, the Dynamics portal was up and running and the many questions that people had were being answered without eating into the immigration team’s time. “Two weeks was incredibly fast to get it up and working,” Shively says.

That speed allowed the team from CELA and MS Travel to find the employees who really did need help—the select few who were affected by the ban and were travelling or who were out of the country and needed to return. “We had a lot work to do to help those people, and so we really appreciated having our time freed up,” Shively says.

For its part, the MS Travel team was helping those affected prepare to travel the moment the ban was lifted, says Eric Bailey, global travel director for Microsoft. That meant figuring out how the visa-dependent employees were going to be contacted, get to the airport, lock down tickets on the first flight out, and other similar travel logistics.

There were many examples of people who needed help, ranging from an employee of Syrian decent who had just given up his job in Dubai to take a new job in Redmond and was suddenly stuck (his old job had even been backfilled), to an employee from Iran whose wife got caught in Vancouver, B.C., on her way back from visiting family. “Each case was very trying, and stressful,” Shively says.

There was pushback on the legality of the original executive order, which eventually resulted in the ban being temporarily lifted. “The moment there was a stay, we had an action plan ready to go for each person,” Shively says. “As soon as the stay was put in place, we got people moved to where they needed to be as quickly as possible.”

On the MS Travel side, it was pivotal to both get people on the first plane out and coordinate with CELA to make sure there was someone waiting for them when they landed. “We needed to do everything quickly because we didn’t know how long the stay was going to last,” Bailey says.

Now, several months later, the lessons from the crisis that the ban brought on are still fresh, and Shively’s team is more prepared if there is a next time.

“There is a legacy that is going to come out of it,” he says. “We’re still trying to understand how far we can go with this Dynamics portal, but we know that in an emergency, we can triage inquiries coming from broad swathes of employees so we can focus on the problems that require the most attention.”

For Chawdhary’s part, knowing that his team could help answer the questions his fellow Microsoft employees had about their visa status was very rewarding.

“I had an opportunity to make a difference,” he says. “I was moved. It was a really humbling experience to see Microsoft really care about their employees, to see the company spend time and effort helping these people who were so worried about what could happen to them and their families.”

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