As business leaders continue to adapt to the challenges posed by the current restrictions on daily life, many are also attempting to plan for a new normal as the UK begins to emerge from the current lockdown.
The government has indicated that some measures to facilitate social distancing are likely to be in place for months, perhaps years. The impact this could have on multiple industries remains to be seen. In the absence of concrete data, discussions in many boardrooms around the country are turning to lessons which can be drawn from China.
Much of its recovery and return to work has been greatly aided by cultural norms and infrastructure which have been established for some time.
So, asking ‘What can we learn from China’s response to COVID-19?’ is perhaps not quite the right phrasing. It makes more sense to examine the practices, policies and technologies that Chinese businesses, and the state, have built up in the years following the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic of 2003.
That outbreak is thought to have played a role in the increased prevalence of e-commerce in the country. In the 17 years since, China has moved to an increasingly cashless society. The omnipresent social network, WeChat, has normalised the scanning of bar and QR codes to pay for goods and services.
Many Chinese people have become accustomed to living large parts of their life online – with a greater proportion of both work and leisure interaction taking place virtually.
For the elements of daily life which necessitate leaving the home, post-SARS there has been a focus on hygiene and use of PPE which many observers may have viewed as over-cautious. Amid the current pandemic, it looks rather less so.
Most companies in China able to operate remotely have been doing so since the start of the year.
Even now, with the lockdown lifted, many businesses are mandating homeworking, or limiting the days in the office to one or two per week. Hot-desking is out and staggered start and finish times to minimise headcount and allow for social distancing are in.
In manufacturing, construction, and industries where homeworking is impossible, many of the larger corporates are offering free shuttle buses to remove the need for public transport.
Employees in most workplaces are required to have their body temperature checked upon entering a building or site; data which is added to an online health profile. This technology has been in widespread use in many airport and train terminals following SARS.
The mass adoption of WeChat has laid the foundations for digital contact tracing and a traffic light system of health profiles within an app. A green status indicates that a person is not infected, amber that they are self-quarantining, and red that they are under medical observation.
Cleaning practices and policies are understandably being given appropriate priority too, with ultraviolet light widely used in offices and public spaces for its ability to kill microbes, including viruses, on surfaces.
How effective has this proven for Chinese businesses’ attempts to return to work?
One month after the lockdown was lifted in Hubei province – and around two weeks later in the city of Wuhan – many businesses, including more than 80% of SMEs, had returned to work. The financial services sector was the fastest to resume operations. Auto-repair services restarted quickly in line with increased car use, while airlines, trains, subways, buses and taxis began to operate.
Demand for restaurant take-out services also increased and the lockdown delivered a massive boost for e-commerce which has continued. Online orders for fresh produce in Shanghai grew by 80% during the lockdown and remain high. The requirement to work from home meant that more than 400 million people registered to use online office services during the lockdown. Online gaming experienced 20% new user growth and the number of people reading on digital devices increased by 10%.
Growth in these areas of the economy has been tempered by others such as bricks and mortar retail, travel and leisure which are continuing to struggle.
Any attempt to draw conclusions about UK industries must come with the caveat that China was not responding to this pandemic from a standing start. SARs left it, and several other Asian countries, with learnings and technologies they have applied to COVID-19.
Whether the UK public will be as willing to embrace contact tracing via a mobile app and the implications that has for personal data, remains to be seen.
Attempts to predict this with any certainty are in vain. What’s more certain, however, is that across multiple industries businesses will need to examine their digital readiness to support more virtual ways of doing business; the health and hygiene of their people, both in the workplace and during any increasingly-scrutinised commute; and how they can apply learnings from this pandemic, to ensure they’re ready for the next.
To discuss how we can help you to restore and reimagine your businesses for the new normal, please get in touch here https://www.grantthornton.co.uk/people/neil-mcinnes.