The post lockdown story: How China went back to work

By | 4 minute read | July 10, 2020

China was the first country to be hit by the Corona Virus. On December 31, 2019 China formally declared Wuhan the epicenter of Covid-19, which later affected all of China severely. 100 days after the first formal outbreak announcement, lock down in Wuhan was relieved, companies gradually went back to work and life slowly transitioned back to normal. However, just two months later the second wave of Covid-19 hit Beijing in June, and strong measures and restrictions were put in place to control the spread.

Labor flexibility and continuous employee development

During the outbreak, companies went through various operational challenges:

  • Shoe manufacturing company, Dusto, tried to resume their operations with the use of disinfection. However, many of their employees were unable to return to work after being with family in their hometowns and subject to travel restrictions. Dusto hired temporary workers in the region and reskilled back office employees to help facilitate factory production. However, there were issues with the effectiveness of this temporary workforce that were slightly offset by the success upskilling of existing employees.
  • Hema, an online supermarket, had to handle explosive demand and an understaffed workforce struggling to keep up with the market. They collaborated with small local services businesses in the region to borrow temporary workers and better serve their customers during these challenging times.
  • Cosmetic Company Lin Qingxuan had to shut down 40% of their stores during the lockdown resulting in a decline of 90% in sales. They instantly had to shift their brick and mortar store operations to major online commerce platforms. By training their store sales agents to communicate with customers through mobile messenger, sales revenue per agent increased 400%.

Today, most companies in China are back to work but the economy and the business environment is still uncertain, volatile, and even more complex. Many companies have suffered from a significant drop in sales from domestic and international business, and this is expected to continue for some time. This inevitably leads to the restructuring and redesigning of their business models and even business platforms.

Flexibility and agility of business operations are becoming crucial to many companies in order to survive through this era of uncertainty. Organizations must now focus their HR operations on making their workforce more resilient and future-proof. They must address how quickly they can either reskill employees or reassign them to new roles. This places increased attention on continuous employee development initiatives, as well as running flexible organizational structures.

Work in the digitalized workplace

China is an international leader in digitization. For example, mobile payment systems in China accounted for 60 billion transactions in 2018, representing $41 trillion in value. But not all companies have aggressively adopted digitalization. Early in the pandemic, many organizations found was they did not have a workplace platform for their employees to work and collaborate remotely. Many processes were manual and required human intervention, including necessary operations such as payroll and contract processing. Business leaders needed to adapt to communicate with their teams virtually. Through circumstances out of their control, companies found they were simply not ready to flourish in this new normal.

There was an initial rush to purchase and deploy online collaboration platforms for business continuity. Alibaba provided Ding Ding, their online collaboration platform, for free to 10 million companies in China during the outbreak, reaching over 150 million users. Within three months, organizations went from initial adopters of remote digital platforms to wanting custom platforms for online work.

Business leaders and employees started to recognize and understand the convenience and benefits of working online. Meetings were easy to quickly schedule regardless of location and leaders could communicate more effectively and broadly to their teams.

After the initial outbreak, most Chinese employees who used to work online returned back to the office and domestic travel resumed. But with the second wave, companies in Beijing moved back to remote work with a freeze on travel. Companies now realized that the new normal is a flexible shift between remote and in person work and HR has now been tasked on how to adopt this hybrid workplace model. HR is leading the way in preparing digital workplace tools and platforms aggressively to transform employee services and training. They also have been challenged to build effective workforce processes with a digital culture, ultimately helping form a digitalized business for the future. Their focus is not on digitalizing HR system, but more on how to enhance work in a digitalized environment.

How HR is leading the “new normal”

Resiliency is fast becoming the keyword for new normal. Making organizations more agile and flexible will be essential. Embedding employee development into daily life and evolving employee skills continuously will be the most important strategy and focus.

The digital workplace will become the digital twin of your physical workplace – making the digital workplace complementary and seamless of the physical workplace. Digital workers and those onsite must be able to collaborate. While many thought this change was years away, Covid-19 brought the future to businesses earlier than ever expected.

HR needs to lead the charge on preparing companies for the new normal. While reshaping organizations to operate during this time, HR needs to play a pivotal role in workforce transformation. HR needs to be the change agent, firstly reshaping its vision and model, as well as addressing future skilling. As well as exploring agile methodologies and learning how to adopt and design a digital employee experience—helping the entire organization and workforce lead within the era of “new normal.”