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What can European businesses learn from Asia’s experience with SARS and MERS?

Ema Boccagni, Commercial Director EMEA - ECA International global mobility specialists
people walking on street near concrete buildings

As steps are taken to ease lockdown in the UK and the government attempts to get the economy back up and running, preparations are well underway to get millions of people back to work. Adjusting an entire workforce to the “new normal” is business imperative, and as a result HR and global mobility professionals will be looking for guidance on how to do remobilise in the right way.

In preparation for such a feat, there are clear management lessons to be learnt from Asia, where lessons have been learnt the hard way from past pandemic experience, and have responded far quicker and more effectively to Covid-19 as a result.

Lesson #1 – Learn from the past

Although the UK does not have the recent experience of a pandemic to learn from directly, it is possible for Western nations to replicate successful practices that have been used elsewhere in the world.

Hong Kong and Korea Republic, for example, have responded well to the COVID-19 outbreak in terms of reducing its potential spread, having learnt from experiences with SARS in 2003 and from the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak in 2015.

During the SARS outbreak, ECA undertook a survey of the practices clients in Hong Kong were initiating. The survey revealed the most commonly implemented responses were the provision of face masks to staff (as adopted by 72% of companies), cancelling business travel to affected areas (adopted by 25% of companies) and enforced social distancing measures in the workspace (also adopted by 25% of companies). Once an outbreak of COVID-19 began in these two nations, these measures were quickly adopted once again by employers and more willingly accepted by employees, having had earlier experience of such procedures.

Lesson #2 – Communicate your strategy

There has been wide criticism of the UK Government’s communication strategy during the pandemic, particularly with its most recent slogan “stay alert” which many have perceived to be confusing and hard to interpret.

Asia has lessons to offer HR professionals with regards to communication strategies, most notably with Singapore’s clear and early messaging from its Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong about the government’s response to the pandemic, which was widely lauded. For example, his addresses were credited with helping the country avoid issues such as panic-buying of certain goods when the UK and other parts of the world were forced to place buying enforcements on some everyday goods.

Therefore communicating your strategy for dealing with the pandemic should be entrusted with a person with the necessary gravitas, such as a company CEO, to instil trust and ensure compliance throughout the company.

Lesson #3 – Be quick to act

Pandemics and other large-scale crises often present senior personnel with challenges that require quick decision-making. It is therefore essential that all senior stakeholders are present for meetings where timely decisions are imperative, even if there are many unknown variables to consider.

Taiwan is a key example of how a series of quick, impactful decisions helped the country remain relatively unaffected by COVID-19.

Taiwan quickly severed transport connections with China at a very early stage despite inevitably leading to a significant impact on Taiwan’s economy (China being Taiwan’s largest trading partner, accounting for approximately 30% of its exports and 20% of its imports). Additionally, all travellers entering from China, Hong Kong and Macau were required to submit to a period of quarantine upon arrival. Despite the scale of its social and economic connections with China, the number of Covid-19 cases reported in Taiwan has been extremely low, with the country registering just 446 cases while schools, offices, restaurants and entertainment facilities remained open.

Lesson #4 – Watch and Learn from others…

We have all been watching as the cases of those affected by Covid-19 across the UK are plotted on charts and graphs against numbers from the rest of the world, but the response here has been markedly different from many other nations.

Managers are often asked to justify changes to policies or practices by providing details of market or best practice. Responses to crises are no different, with companies often framing their response based on the conduct of others.

We can see evidence that companies and governments have been influenced by decisions made elsewhere in the world. For example, Scoot, a Singaporean airline, ceased flights to Wuhan on the same day that Taiwan’s government suspended all flights there. Hong Kong and Singapore prohibited entry to residents from Wuhan within two days of each other, and the two nations later barred all overseas visitors within a day of each other.

As businesses develop their strategy to return to work safely, there is merit in benchmarking policies and programmes against other business’ and industries that may have a proven record of success in this area.

Lesson #5 – …but choose the correct response for your situation

Although we can learn from our peers, it is important to consider the unique circumstances that come with the challenge faced. Different companies and organisations will face individual challenges when it comes to safeguarding their staff and successfully making it through the pandemic, and responses should be tailored to those needs.

For example, in early March Korea Republic looked set to follow the same trajectory as China in terms of virus transmissions, with Daegu emerging as the epicentre of the initial outbreak. Rather than initiating large-scale lockdowns, the government introduced widespread testing which enabled the country to target its quarantine efforts. Residents were also encouraged to wear face masks outdoors and minimise social interaction. This meant that while some establishments were closed and some restrictions still remain in place, the country has avoided the scale of lockdowns seen in China and elsewhere.

In summary, as we start to see businesses come out of complete lockdown, it will quickly become clear who has been proactive in their response to Covid-19.  Organisations that have learnt from experience, either their own or others’, and those that have acted quickly and initiated strong and transparent internal and external communications during this crisis will likely be more successful in dealing with the many unique issues caused by the ongoing pandemic.

Strong leadership is critical, in terms of both being able to communicate and garner trust in your response, and in having the ability to be pragmatic, which may even include disregarding earlier actions if their effectiveness is limited.

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