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A China crisis that became a blueprint for the rest of the world
Sean Li
31st March 2020

The true horror of what was unfolding in China struck during what should have been the happiest time of the year.

Our New Year is normally a time of celebration and hope in China, a time spent away from work with family and friends.

This year it was spent watching the emerging crisis coming out of Wuhan and within days everybody across China was in a state of confusion, caught in what looked like a potentially life and death situation.

As a family man, my first concern was for those nearest and dearest to me but as a business leader, it was impossible to ignore the possible consequences of an enforced lockdown – how that would affect the Chinese economy, the impact on our business and my colleagues in the Shanghai studio.

The reality then and it remains true today is that China – or any economy for that matter – can not stand still for a quarter. The immediate consequences would be disastrous and the road to recovery unimaginable – in China it was estimated that 85 per cent of small and medium sized businesses, which make up two thirds of the economy, would not survive three months with no income.

While the outbreak was still in its relative infancy, the Chinese government announced that we could no longer enter our studios, something that we had anticipated when it became clear that the response to this outbreak was likely to be unprecedented.

As part of a global practice, the Shanghai studio was able to call on the support of colleagues across the globe, be that practical, technical and even pastoral (never underestimate the power of kind words of reassurance from trusted colleagues.)

Thanks to a phenomenal response by our IT and digital practice teams, the Shanghai studio was working completely remotely by the beginning of the second week of February.

The outstanding workload at this stage was significant and although the stalling of a number of projects – particularly those that were on site – eased some of pressure, it was critical that the teams were able to operate to as fuller capacity as possible.

For a few days there is no doubt it felt like this process was just about survival and difficult decisions had to be taken right at the beginning but very quickly the focus changed to how we manage the new normal.

The upshot is that through the diligence and commitment of all of the team in Shanghai, we have been able to continue to deliver for our clients when that has not been the case across the industry. The positive impact this response is likely to have on our future relationships with these key clients and our reputation in the market generally is immeasurable.

As the restrictions have eased in China’s tier one cities, we have been able to slowly ease ourselves back into a more recognisable structure and for the first part of March we had a 50/50 split with half in the studio and half at home but we are now back up to full strength in the studio.

China is certainly not out of the woods yet and there will remain restrictions and challenges ahead as the nation works to prevent a second outbreak of the virus and there is an undoubted determination across China to work extraordinarily hard to reclaim all this lost time.

We have already seen all of our key projects back on site, a situation significantly helped by the Shanghai studio’s focus on the more robust education sector and there is no doubt that expertise and reputation are key business resilience factors in times of crisis.

The last month has been the longest I have ever experienced and hopefully ever will. There is no rule book on how to respond to a crisis like this, one that has such a wide-ranging impact on both our personal and professional lives.

But there are certainly positives to have emerged from this experience. From a studio perspective, I think we are stronger than ever. Every colleague has come through the other side of this process and the collaboration and comeradery that is necessary to overcome challenges like this will provide a long term dividend that I think we will continue to collect in the months and years ahead.

The last three months have also reinforced the benefits of our global footprint, allowing the practice to respond to the market in the various stages that the COVID-19 crisis has struck, reacting more quickly to opportunities and ultimately providing the opportunity for a strong recovery when the current situation abates.

Our experience also provided a blueprint for the rest of the practice as the virus has continued to spread over the last couple of months. We have been able to respond and adapt as a global practice much more quickly, providing the right support to colleagues to work remotely as well being able to reassure clients that the show can and will go on.

The COVID-19 crisis is not over – far from it – but it is quite incredible what can be achieved with sound technology, a commitment to adapt and the right communication so that colleagues feel connected and empowered and clients feel reassured.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel that is getting brighter by the day and we can certainly look to the future with a significant amount of positivity – and that includes hopefully celebrating the next New Year in a much more traditional way!

“Every colleague has come through the other side of this process and the collaboration and camaraderie that is necessary to overcome challenges like this will provide a long term dividend that I think we will continue to collect in the months and years ahead.”
Sean Li, Director, Shanghai studio