A slow and steady hand was needed to return to a post COVID-19 normalcy in the heart of China’s business hub, Shanghai. And QR codes, which show health in different colours, coupled with optional masks are part of this new business landscape
On May 8, the Shanghai government announced lowering of the COVID-19 alert to the third level. The city had activated the highest level of public health emergency response on January 24. The alert was lowered a notch on March 24 and now it has been lowered by another notch.
The city can breathe a sigh of relief – masks are recommended but not a necessity anymore, unless one is in an enclosed or crowded area. Of course, if one is in a hospital or there are symptoms of cough, fever etc then a mask is necessary.
I cannot help but dwell on the long way we have come, over the last three and a half months, in Shanghai. I know that a lot of people want to know what lies ahead once their lockdown gets over.
The path to resumption of work that we took in Shanghai was slow but meticulously planned. Initially, we took baby steps starting mid-February and then built up momentum over the successive six weeks.
Let me begin in February first week – the local authorities in Shanghai had announced that work would be allowed to resume from office premises in a gradual manner starting February 11. It was predicated on certain conditions being met.
We checked with our existing facility managers and were told that it would take them a few days to get the necessary approvals. We decided to continue work-from-home for our entire team for that week while putting in place a plan for re-opening the office space from February 17. This involved a lot of inputs and effort from multiple teams, especially human resources, administration and leadership groups.Information collection
There was a clear requirement from the authorities to only have those people back at work who did not have any history of travel outside Shanghai in the preceding two weeks. We had been keeping track of the wellbeing of our team members on a regular basis, now we also started keeping a record of their travel history. We had already stopped all business travel. Based on the guidance from local authorities, we also actively discouraged our team members from any non-essential travel outside Shanghai.
There was a clear guidance from the authorities that anyone coming from outside Shanghai had to isolate himself/herself (along with their housemates) for 14 days. That made it imperative for us to know the travel history of not just our team members but their housemates as well. We asked all our over 350 team members to inform us if any of their housemates (family or otherwise) had any travel history over the last 14 days.
For those who were outside Shanghai, we started encouraging them to make their way back to Shanghai (only if they felt comfortable traveling).Getting the facilities ready
Local authorities had mandated that we arrange masks for all our team members working in the office – we were to arrange two masks for each team member for each day of work. At that time, masks were in limited supply in China – while we were reaching out to different suppliers, we also reached out to our different offices spread across the globe (India, USA, Chile and Romania) for additional supplies. They all came together and shipped us masks at this critical time.
We also started arranging other critical supplies – sanitisers for all entrances and eating areas; disinfecting wipes; high grade disinfectants for office cleaning; non-contact infra-red thermometers to measure body temperatures from a distance. At the same time, protocols were set up and communicated to our office support staff – the guards at the door were asked to measure and record the temperature of every employee at the time of entry.
As technology plays an important role in life in China, it kicked in in the form of health QR codes accessed from your cell phone. This government mandated QR code was checked daily for all team members. The QR code tracks travel history as well as medical history – only if the QR code was green, were people allowed to enter. As a matter of fact these health QR codes were necessary to visit any office space and were (and still are) a critical accessory for everyone in China.
Cleaning staff were instructed to thoroughly disinfect the office and all furniture at least twice a day.
Importantly – social distancing guidelines were set up for our team, they were to maintain a minimum distance of two meters from the next person. The tables in the cafeteria were meant to accommodate six people, but now only two could sit there and that too not facing each other. There was also a clear guideline for not more than five people in elevators (normal capacity is 16).
Our senior managers and the human resources team started communicating the plans for resumption of work as well as the safeguards we had taken to the teams.- Which teams to start with?
The most critical aspect of the resumption process was to make our teams feel safe and confident stepping back into the workspace. We also realised that resumption of work would have to be a phased process. Accordingly, we identified teams that were to start first, based on the criticality of their presence in the work premises.
Phase 1: February 17-28: We had just around 10 people in an office space meant for more than 350 – these were critical people managing IT infrastructure, local office administration and a small portion of two client teams which were required to work from office premises. I went in for a couple of days each week too.
Phase 2: March 2-13: This is when we had almost 10 percent of the team in the office (25-40 people). The teams were again identified on the basis of criticality of presence vis-a-vis function/role. Most of our senior managers were going to the office a few days each week in order to boost confidence and morale.
Phase 3: March 16-April 3: This is when we had more than 30 percent of the team in office (close to 100 people). All senior managers were in the office all days of the week.
Phase 4: April 7 onwards (April 6 was a holiday) – we had more than 80% of the team back in the office. The only exceptions were people stuck in places with travel restrictions (within China or in some countries outside China).
During phase 1 to phase 3, we dissuaded people from taking mass public transport (metros, bus, etc) and asked our team members to use their own vehicles or ‘good quality’ taxi/car service (Uber equivalent). We reimbursed the expenses so that people felt comfortable commuting to work.
If I had to write down the key factors that worked for us, I would resort to the oft repeated phrase – planning, communication and execution. I am fortunate that we have a great team working with us in China, which could ensure that all three factors were taken care of flawlessly.
The author is Country Head, Greater China, Evalueserve, a leading analytics partner that helps companies with management and business processes across all functions. Based in Shanghai, Chander plans to share his perspective of the world's second-largest economy in a series titled 'The COVID-19 zeitgeist'. This is the second of his post-lockdown articles from Shanghai in China. The first one was ‘The COVID-19 zeitgeist: Labour day notes from China’