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Managing a business through COVID-19 lockdown – perspectives from China

April 20, 2020 |   Dandan Cheng

It’s now been almost three months ago since China went into lockdown to prevent COVID-19 from spreading further. It all happened literally overnight. On the evening before the Lunar New Year celebrations, people in Shanghai were still busy making plans for dinner for the following day. We had of course all heard about coronavirus, but didn’t really think that it would impact our lives so quickly and severely.

But the tone changed instantly when the government announced that we would be spending the most important holiday on the Chinese calendar in lockdown. For residential areas this meant that there was only one entry and exit point. Each household was issued with two tickets that were used to restrict the flow of people into and out of the building and there was a guard who was taking people’s temperature.

Almost simultaneously, facemasks and hand sanitizer were sold out everywhere. It’s quite interesting to me to notice the cultural differences in how people respond to a situation like this. I was very surprised when I first learned that toilet paper and tissues were the items that sold out in most of the Western world!

With Wuhan reopening and lockdown restrictions now being eased across the country, China is entering a phase of ‘new normal’.  Considering that much of the world is still going through lockdown measures of varying severity, I thought I’d share my perspective on how to manage a business through a COVID-19 lockdown – and some more personal lessons for getting through this crisis. 

Providing space for interaction

With an office in Sydney and an office in Shanghai, Sinorbis has been a digital company from day one. The fact that everything was hosted in the Cloud and that we were already relying quite heavily on video conferencing and instant messaging, made the transition to working from home a little bit easier than for other businesses. And looking on the bright side, the lockdown in Shanghai also saved the team over an hour commute time each way.

From a management perspective, I found that the more junior people in the team required a little more support than those with more experience. I set up regular one-on-one catch-ups with everyone to make sure they got all their questions answered and were focussing their attention on the most important things. It’s just so easy to feel overwhelmed during the lockdown and all the uncertainty associated with the spread of COVID-19, so I wanted to make sure I am offering as much reassurance as possible.

Since the daily interactions in the office weren’t possible while we we’re all working from home, I also set up regular video call catch-ups that didn’t really have an agenda. This was just to give people some time and space to interact. It was surprising to see that even though initially it seemed like nothing was happening, some topics did always come up in the end.

Staying informed is important, but only to a point

Staying informed during the current crisis is of course important, especially in the beginning and when it comes to the latest government and health authority updates. And there are also a few independent people that provide useful tips. For example, I learned from a netizen how to repurpose a pen as a tool to push elevator buttons and other high-touch surfaces.

 

But after a few weeks, I found that most of the information was just the same and didn’t really help dealing with the situation any further, so I become much more selective.

Like in other countries, there were also issues with rumours and false information surrounding COVID-19 in China. One rumour claimed that a particular herbal medicine could cure the virus. Of course, the drugstores ran out of supply immediately and the stock price of company behind the product went up briefly. Up until now, it’s still unclear where this information came from. Luckily there were no adverse effects in this case, but it goes to show how important it is to pay close attention to the source of information before trusting claims made online.

Humanity – and businesses - have an amazing capacity to adapt

One thing that has been very encouraging both during the lockdown and as things are slowly starting to reopen again, is how quickly humanity and businesses have been able to adapt to an unprecedented situation.

For example, restaurants in China were hit particularly hard by the overnight lockdown. As you can imagine, people had made reservation for Chinese New Year and the restaurants had bought and prepared meals accordingly. So, instantly they switched gear and made the most popular foods available for take-away and created some semi-prepared packages for other dishes that customers could finish cooking at home.

Also, on Tomb Sweeping Day this year in early April, we were not able to visit our ancestor’s graveyard to pay our respects and honour their memory as is usually the custom. We normally buy flowers, food and paper money in the local area and place it on the grave.

This year, virtual tomb sweeping services emerged where other people did all this for you and allowed you to watch and say a few words via video call. New technology allowed us to reinvent the tradition for the external circumstances.

In beauty and fashion stores, retail consultants turned to WeChat to drive their sales and benefited from the efforts they have put in prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.

In China, it’s very common for individuals in stores to start their own WeChat groups to keep their customers informed about the latest products, trends and sales. During the lockdown, they used these channels to still drive demand for their products by posting photos of new arrivals and giving instructions such as how to apply masks by yourself. Products were delivered contactless via courier. Quite a few stores sold out of products and I engaged more with consultants than usual since I also had a bit more time.

A slow return to normal

As soon as the after the number of new COVID-19 cases were brought under control, the confidence level recovered fairly soon and people at least partially re-opened their businesses.

Gyms in China are operating again, but the equipment has been spaced out more and machines right next to each other can’t be in use at the same time to force people to scatter more.

At my local badminton centre, only every second court is in use at the moment to avoid crowding and restaurants are starting to reopen for smaller groups and reduced capacity. Some businesses had to increase their prices a bit as they still have to cover their cost and need to put more efforts into sanitising the environment, but customers have been mostly understanding about all this.

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