Looking to China for Lessons Learned and Reasons for Optimism

What can we learn from employers who first experienced the COVID-19 crisis several months ahead of Canada? In Shanghai, all but essential businesses were ordered to close in January. Now, some 3 months later, the state of emergency has been lowered, employees are returning to work and companies are trying to return to business as usual. Three stories from Shanghai, China provide some lessons learned and challenge us to be optimistic in the face of current uncertainty.

Geoff Watts, Director of Human Resources, Amer Sports, Asia Pacific Region

Geoff Watts has spent nearly a decade focused on how to create a great workplace culture, and most recently, how to connect the dots between cultures. His experience navigating the unchartered waters of the COVID-19 pandemic suggest that employees are after one thing: their personal and family’s safety from the virus. In order to continue doing their work, this need must be met by employers.

“The safety of our employees was paramount”, he shared. “Once work from home orders were lifted  and our workplace was reopened, we initially had only half our team in the office on any given day to decrease the amount of people interacting and the amount of people traveling back and forth via public transportation. Employees are required to wear masks at work, we continue to take employee temperatures twice daily, and have them complete a daily health questionnaire. Without these precautions, employees in China simply don’t feel safe to return to work.”

The COVID-19 pandemic came as a surprise to Watts, both professionally and personally. “This is not something anyone anticipated. It was the isolation that was hardest. I deeply missed the interactions that I had taken for granted before social-distancing: smiling at someone on the street; getting my morning coffee; interacting with friends at the gym; taking my daughter to the park; and laughing with my colleagues at work. When the social distancing measures were enacted in Shanghai, all of this changed overnight.”

One lesson for employers is to find ways to help employees battle the feeling of isolation. This is an opportunity for companies to get creative. “Ideas I’ve had include providing online fitness opportunities to help employees stay active and burn off steam at home and making use of health spending accounts so that employees can purchase some equipment (e.g., resistance bands, small weights) or online fitness services”.

Having the adequate technology can make all the difference in making telecommuting successful. “I’m very thankful for the remote working tools that we already had in place, like Microsoft Teams.” adds Watts. Even for those businesses who were not prepared with the infrastructure to enable telecommuting, this may be a great opportunity to build capacity for the future.

Anna Wasyl, CFO, Robotics Business, ABB China

Anna Wasyl, who leads the finance team for a robotics business unit in Shanghai, has a unique personal challenge. Her husband and 3-year-old daughter are in Spain, where they initially fled to avoid the virus in China. Now with the Chinese borders closed to foreign nationals, she is on her own working in Shanghai, while her family remains in self-isolation in Spain with an uncertain timeline for when they will next be reunited.  “The main challenge for me has been the uncertainty of how best to balance the safety of my family, my work commitments and the expectations of my company’s management team in China”, says Wasyl.

As in China, Canadians have to balance similar concerns. Families need to be kept safe, our community members who are older and are immunocompromised need to be protected, we have work and childcare commitments, and we may not be working at our best due to the psychological and emotional strain of social distancing and isolation. Business managers and leaders need to be able to navigate and balance these multiple priorities.

Wasyl describes the challenges she’s had running a team where every member is working from home. “I knew that my team was very capable of working remotely since we’ve had particular team members working from home in the past, as individuals and on an ad hoc basis. The real surprise was how hard it was to have every team member working from home at the same time. How do I keep the team spirit up?”

Keeping employees motivated, and teams working effectively and efficiently, while spending so much time apart is a key challenge for any leader trying to maintain productivity. “I arranged a Wechat group competition for the funniest ‘working from home’ video and tried to do regular calls with the team” shares Wasyl. “What I didn’t realize at the time was the importance of also doing one-on-one calls to understand everyone’s individual situation as each case was so different – some people were homeschooling kids, some were terrified about the conditions of their family members in Wuhan, others had toddlers disturbing them and others were totally alone. This has been a strong test of leadership and it has become an opportunity to build a stronger team.”

Emily Beavers, Owner, Jitterbugs

Small business owners have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19. Emily Beavers owns Jitterbugs, a company that runs musical movements classes for children across several locations in Shanghai.

“The biggest professional challenge for me was accepting that I had no control and had to very unexpectedly close my business and put my 6 staff members temporarily out of work. A sudden complete lack of revenue paired with many fixed expenses is a painful situation to be in, especially when there’s no timeline as to when we can get back up and running.”

All businesses are wondering – when will things return to normal? Although each country will experience the pandemic differently, the experiences of business owners in Shanghai provide some ideas, and as Beavers experienced, some sectors will start returning to normal at a different rate than others.

“We are still waiting on the green light for Jitterbugs to start classes again. While many offices, gyms, and restaurants are opening, schools and especially ‘non-mandatory child care programs’ have not been approved to open yet. Even when they do, I’m hesitant to rush into opening on day one. The health and safety of our families is our priority and I’m just not willing to take the risk of being responsible for the continued spread of this virus”

Her experience as a small business owner highlights some of the great challenges faced by businesses in our community. For parents, her story suggests that businesses catering to children may be slower to resume operations after the COVID-19 pandemic, and employers will have to consider this strain on their employees, even as their own business may be starting to return to normal.

Beavers also has some advice (both professionally and personally) for everyone struggling with the uncertainty of the pandemic:

“The biggest lesson that I am continuing to learn through all of this is the ability to accept the things that I cannot control. Being a type A personality and somewhat of a control freak, it’s been a big struggle for me not knowing what the future holds or how to plan for it, but all we can do is take things one day at a time and hope life and business can get back to a new kind of normal very soon!” bh

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