SINGAPORE (May 29): While many countries are still battling the Covid-19 pandemic hard, it is heartening to know that some cities around the world have already begun their recovery process; reopening things slowly and readjusting to what was once their old normal while finding balance in an infinitely more aware new normal. We speak to two corporate figures on work and life today in Guangzhou, China, and Seoul, South Korea. 

 

SEOUL

MARK RAINE

VICE-PRESIDENT OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING, MERCEDES-BENZ KOREA

I have been living and working in South Korea for 10 months, together with my family, relocating here from Kuala Lumpur in the middle of last year. South Korea, Seoul in particular, is very fast-paced and vibrant and progressive in many ways. In terms of technology and digitalisation, it is a forerunner and yet, it is also a country of contrasts, with many norms and traditions.

On the one hand, you have the speed, progressiveness and a very driven, goal-oriented society that places advancements, achievements and material success above most things. On the other, it is a traditional society, quite hierarchical and Confucian. All these elements, coupled with the language barrier, can be challenging to newcomers trying to adapt to both country and the environment. But the music, fashion and pop culture — particularly the music and television dramas — as the beginning.

This led to the virus being contained, mostly in the Daegu region. Another key success factor was the rapid testing and tracking of people who came in contact with infected individuals. The highest level of alert — red alert — was raised fairly early on while the virus was mostly still in the Daegu area. Almost all businesses and the public sector reacted likewise, with strong preventive measures taken, including widespread home office rules. Schools and kindergartens were closed immediately and have been for over two months now.

With the exception of Daegu, nearly all shops, including our Mercedes-Benz showrooms, remained open, whereas offices and businesses chose to implement a home office ruling, with up to 90% of staff working from home. Our company, too, chose the home office option. There was never a complete lockdown or Movement Control Order put in place and life remained as normal as it could, given the situation. Only public gatherings, like concerts and sporting events, were called off with immediate effect.

At a later stage and as part of a social distancing campaign, gyms and churches were made to close for four weeks. From the moment the red alert was well as discovering all the new trends, amazing food, dessert and coffee culture, make Seoul a very cool and interesting place to live in. I have since learnt that, in addition to many other fine qualities, Koreans are disciplined and hardworking. South Korea is also a safe and clean country, very advanced in many ways, especially the infrastructure and social services.

This, I personally believe, played a pivotal role in the country’s success in handling the Covid-19 pandemic. As South Korea was pretty much the second country, after China, to feel the severe impact of the pandemic, it was, at first, very scary and intimidating. Adding to that was the sheer fact that no one knew how the whole situation would evolve; not to mention feeling restricted far earlier than other countries in the region, which, at the time, did not seem as badly affected yet.

For many, locals and foreigners alike, it created a state of uncertainty, if not fear, because all we had playing in our minds were the drastic measures imposed on the people of Wuhan by the Chinese government. Here, the government and authorities went about things in a structured and orderly manner, with strong measures from announced, the public was highly disciplined. One could instantly witness the slowdown in public life and reduction of crowds in public areas. Although restaurants and bars mostly remained open, they were, by and large, deserted in the first month following the outbreak. In the first two weeks, South Korea seemed like an island disconnected from the rest of the world.

But looking back and comparing it to what is happening in most countries around the world of late, the measures do not seem so drastic anymore, with the strong and strict initiatives introduced early on clearly preventing more severe spreading or outbreaks. As an expatriate, there was also always the question: Would I consider sending my family out of the country temporarily? Because at the time, the crisis seemed a world away from Europe. Granted, there was almost no social life in the first month and the family stayed home mostly. If we had to go out, we avoided personal contact at any cost.

Through it all, I still went to the office and tried to keep a “normal” work routine for my entire team, keeping the business running without any major disruption. This was crucial as we wanted to minimise the impact on our business operations while supporting our dealer network and serving our customers. Our main target was business continuity! Together with our partners, we implemented a wide range of safety and precautionary measures, mirroring official procedures from the authorities.

Truth be told, it did feel weird at first, not having anyone around in the office or doing everything via telephone or video conferences. It also felt like the workload did not lessen! As a result of the organisation adapting quickly, the transition to an “untact” modus operandi was fairly quick and smooth. This is also a tribute to the advanced IT infrastructure and connectivity that has long been in place here. The crucial success factors throughout the Covid-19 situation in South Korea is the high level of communication, strong and close alignment with all business partners and stakeholders, and ensuring morale and motivation levels stayed high by investing extra time and efforts in looking after staff and colleagues.

We exchange experiences and give constant updates about the situation. Step by step, we learnt to deal with the uncertainty as an organisation and became even more agile adapting to daily changing conditions. From a business point of view, I realise the importance of personal contact and the human touch that goes into our business and customer touch points.

Our customers value this and it really makes all the difference in driving the business. We also spent a lot of time strategising and planning for what comes next without losing focus on the essentials; the same could be said from a personal context. While it has been impossible to travel, I strongly feel this situation has brought me and my family and friends across the globe a little closer.

In fact, my daughter reads a book to my mother, who is in lockdown in Spain, every day via a WhatsApp video call to keep her entertained. In the evening, I have Zoom meet-ups with friends for a drink or online exercise sessions. All these have forged even closer connections, which I hope will continue once all this is over. This pandemic has given us all time to reflect on what is truly important and the way we live — what is essential? How spoilt we were in many ways for so long? Now, even the simplest things, like dinner and drinks with friends will be appreciated again — but in a new light and with even more gratitude.

I personally look forward to being able to travel to see friends and family again. Especially in Malaysia.

 

GUANGZHOU

ANDREW KHAN

CHIEF MARKETING OFFICER, CARLSBERG GROUP CHINA

I have been working in China since 2011, when I was assigned by my former employer in Kuala Lumpur to the Shanghai office of Moet Hennessy Diageo.

Last year, I was approached by the Carlsberg Group, one of the leading brewers in the world, for a challenging new role; this time, based in Guangzhou. Ironically, one of my earlier career ambitions was to join a brewer. Being Malaysian, the two main choices would have been Carlsberg or Tiger. Instead, I went on to start my career in wines and spirits.

Never after 18 years, did I think I would have the chance to complete my alcohol portfolio. Carlsberg Group has a wide range of offerings, comprising local and international brands, but it wanted to “premiumise” its image and accelerate growth in China, which is something I am passionate about.

Plus, I couldn’t say no to my dad’s favourite beer brand, could I? When I first arrived in China, I spent a lot of time observing and immersing myself culturally. China is all about scale and speed. It is also about making decisions on the fly and having a strong appetite to navigate ambiguity, especially when the tide shifts. And the tide shifts continuously in China. Shanghai was already modern and advanced in so many ways, so the transformation is probably more noticeable when we travel to different cities in the country, which my job gives me a lot of opportunity to do.

Working here has made me demand more: from myself, my team and my business partners. As a country, China is charged with motion, optimism and a sense of purpose. Nothing stands still for long in this country. Incidentally, I was not in Guangzhou when the Covid-19 crisis started to get really serious. I had left a few days prior to celebrate Chinese New Year, which fell on Jan 25, in Malaysia.

There were early signs, of course, but the scale and magnitude of it all never struck until perhaps the news of Wuhan’s lockdown was announced. I worried for our staff and friends who were there. We had our first crisis management meeting via Skype and, from then on, almost daily to ensure all our staff were safe and that mitigation plans from every department were in place. We also wanted to ensure our business partners were safe and prepared to face the challenges ahead.

The fact that the Chinese New Year holidays were extended nationwide — to encourage everyone to stay indoors and not travel — was a clear sign things were going to get tougher. I returned to work in Guangzhou on Feb 10. I felt it was important to return to China to show support and solidarity for our colleagues in the breweries all across the country, much against the will and advice of family and friends. I arrived home in Guangzhou to a sight I had never seen before: rows and rows of airplanes parked on the tarmac.

The mood was sombre but the staff on duty were serious and diligent, following procedures through most thoroughly. I have never before seen the airport and city, which has a population of 20 million, so quiet and empty! There were several checkpoints along the highway where we were stopped for temperature checks. This was also done in order to be allowed into our housing community. Once back at work, we had to register with a government app that allowed our location to be tracked for contact tracing as it shows where you have travelled to.

Most premises today require you to show this, alongside the mandatory face mask and temperature check. This is now the norm. There were days when I walked out without a face mask and had to return home to get one. It is as important as your mobile phone. We also made sure every staff received an ample supply of face masks before we opened up any of our offices. Once the safety procedures at both the office and brewery were in place, we felt safer and more assured. Constant communication is imperative.

Thankfully, technology makes things so much easier. Post-Covid-19 recovery plans are simple: plan for the worst, hope for the best. Even though life has resumed somewhat in China, it is not yet back to normal. We would typically have three phases — crisis, recovery and rebound. Our business revolves around people and socialising, so we need to find new alternatives. Guangzhou never went on a full lockdown, anyway. The festive holiday definitely helped, so everyone could just stay home. It also provided time to reflect and slow down the pace a little.

We could still walk in the park or go to town. The Chinese were also conscious of civic-duty, almost as if by instinct. To cope with it all, I made sure to stay positive, exercise and keep in touch with friends and family online. I enjoyed walks along the river and even cycled around the neighbourhood. We cooked and ate in 80% of the time and even had a sterilisation station set up at the entrance of our home. I do miss eating in restaurants though. Guangzhou is a haven for Chinese cuisine.

There has been a lot of support also to rally behind favourite bars and restaurants to ensure they stay in business, such as having takeout or delivery or even adopting beer kegs. The pandemic certainly gave the business world one of its biggest trials. From a business continuity perspective, we must further define our company values and principles so that it will act as a decision-making barometer for future crises. From a morality perspective, it was a good shake-up, reminding us all of life’s impermanence as well as how interconnected globally we all are.