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Managing assignments during the Coronavirus pandemic – what management lessons can we learn?

This is the fourth article I have written in relation to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on global mobility and much has changed since my first. Even when I wrote my last article dealing with the issue of repatriation a month ago, official recorded infections were at approximately 400 000, whereas they now stand at over 3 million. Our previous blogs on Covid-19 have focused on the operational issues associated with managing employee mobility in the current situation. However, this blog aims to look further at the various responses to the pandemic, and the lessons that managers of HR policies and mobility programmes can use to help implement changes within their own departments. It should be noted that I will mainly discuss responses from Asia, purely as I am more familiar with them. This article does not seek to argue that the actions of people, companies and countries have been more effective in Asia than anywhere else, but in many cases Asian practices have been replicated elsewhere in the world.

Lesson #1 – Learn from the past 

Two locations that have widely been seen as responding well to the outbreak in terms of reducing its potential spread are Hong Kong and Korea Republic. Globally, Hong Kong was one of the earliest-affected locations, reporting its first case on 23 January 2020. As of 20 April, Hong Kong has had 1 026 confirmed cases, representing an average of 11.5 cases a day. Furthermore, as the chart below shows, with the exception of a spike in the number of cases between mid-March and mid-April associated with people who had contracted the illness overseas returning to Hong Kong, the typical daily rate of new infections has been relatively low (just over three per day outside the peak period).

There are several reasons for Hong Kong’s success in managing the outbreak of Covid-19. One of the key ones is the fact that people and companies were able to refer to their experience during SARS in 2003 and apply the lessons learned. During SARS, ECA undertook a survey of the practices of some of our clients in Hong Kong. Looking back at the survey results, the most commonly implemented responses included providing face masks to staff (as adopted by 72% of companies), cancelling business travel to affected areas (adopted by 25% of companies) and enforcing social distancing measures in the workspace (also adopted by 25% of companies). As employers and their staff had earlier experience of such measures, they were adopted more quickly this time and were more willingly accepted by employees. While the wearing of masks in public spaces is not mandatory in Hong Kong, the overwhelming majority of the population has worn masks throughout the Covid-19 outbreak, probably helping to reduce transmission rates in the city. 

Similarly, although Korea Republic has recorded more cases than Hong Kong (10 661 as of 19 April 2020), it has been able to flatten its curve of infections much more quickly than other countries. This has been credited to the fact that the country was one of the worst affected by the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2015. The Korean government was quick to take various measures to avoid a similar situation again and it seems that the planning put in place in response to MERS enabled decision-makers to act quickly in the current pandemic. We will look at how Korea has responded to the pandemic in more detail shortly.  

Lesson #2 – Communicate your strategy

Although Singapore has experienced a spike in cases in recent weeks requiring the country to implement a stricter lockdown on people’s lifestyles, clear and early messaging from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong about the government’s response to the pandemic was widely lauded. For example, his addresses were credited with helping the country avoid situations such as panic-buying of certain goods that accompanied the escalation of cases elsewhere in the world throughout the following months. Therefore, if you have a strategy to deal with a pandemic or crisis, entrusting the communication to a person with significant gravitas, such as a company CEO, can help to instil trust and ensure compliance throughout the company. 

Lesson #3 – Be quick to act

Pandemics and other crises often present senior personnel with challenges that require quick decision-making, even though there may be many unknown variables to consider.

Taiwan’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak has been such that in spite of the scale of its social and economic connections with China, the number of cases reported has been extremely low. As of 20 April, the country has registered just 422 cases while schools, offices, restaurants and entertainment facilities have remained open throughout the pandemic.

There are several reasons for the low number of cases in Taiwan. One of them was the decision to sever transport connections with China at a very early stage even though this inevitably led 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). Passengers arriving in Taiwan on flights from Wuhan were already subjected to medical inspections from 31 December 2019. However, on 23 January, two days after the first reported case in Taiwan (an imported case involving a Taiwanese person returning from work in Wuhan), all flights between Taiwan and Wuhan were suspended. This was further expanded on 10th February to flights between Taiwan and all locations in China with the exception of Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai and Xiamen. Additionally, all travellers entering from China, Hong Kong and Macau were required to submit to a period of quarantine upon arrival. In taking these far-reaching decisions quickly, Taiwan was able to reduce the likelihood of imported cases and the compulsory quarantine reduced the risk that any imported cases would spread to the local community before they were detected. 

Lesson #4 – Learn from others…

Managers are often asked to justify changes to policies or practices by providing details of market or best practice, with superiors often keen to ensure that what they are doing is in line with that of their peers. Responses to crises are no different with companies often framing their response based on the conduct of others and the evidence shows that many companies have been influenced by the decisions made by governments elsewhere. 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, on 27 January and 29 January respectively, and both later barred all overseas visitors within a day of each other, with Singapore barring entry from 24th March and Hong Kong doing the same from 25th March. 

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

Responses to the pandemic have shown that it is important for companies to consider their own unique circumstances when faced with a challenge. The origin of the pandemic in China was accompanied by large-scale lockdowns of cities in order to reduce the risk of transmission, the most apparent of which was the lockdown of Wuhan. When Korea Republic reported a spike in cases in early March, it looked set to follow the same trajectory as China in terms of transmission of the virus. Therefore, large-scale lockdowns of affected cities in order to prevent a significant increase in cases seemed to be the likely response. Like Wuhan in China, Daegu emerged as the epicentre of the initial outbreak in Korea but neither the city nor the country have been the subject of a widespread lockdown. Instead, the country introduced widespread testing which enabled the country to target its quarantine efforts. At the same time people were encouraged to wear masks outdoors and minimise social interaction. This meant that while some establishments were closed and some restrictions remain in place, the country has avoided the scale of lockdowns seen in China and elsewhere. The success of the response is evident in the fact that in spite of daily new cases in Korea, it has still been able to host nationwide parliamentary elections in April.

The chart above shows the cumulative number of confirmed Covid-19 cases over the course of 46 days since China and Korea Republic each witnessed its first spike in reported cases. The number of total cases reported in Korea have been far fewer than in China, which is partly reflective of its smaller population. Nonetheless, the trajectory of the curves shows that in spite of the fact that Korea Republic followed a different path in terms of dealing with the pandemic, it was able to flatten its curve quicker, although it hasn’t had the same level of success in levelling off the number of new cases since doing so. 

Lesson #6 – Be pragmatic

Crises such as this show that it is important to have a plan in place. Singapore set up a multi-ministry committee on 22 January to deal with the pandemic, even before its first case was confirmed. Similarly, many organisations have crisis management teams and plans in place to be implemented as soon as a crisis unfolds. However, no two crises are the same. Therefore, the ability to adapt and even re-introduce measures to deal with a situation is important. Within five days of the first case being reported in Hong Kong, the government announced a work-from-home order for all government departments. This was subsequently also adopted by many private enterprises. As Hong Kong seemed to have control over the spread of the virus, this order was rescinded in late February. However, the government took the step of reimplementing it again in late March after a significant spike in the number of imported cases. Once again, many companies followed suit, and this has helped to reduce the potential of imported cases spreading into the wider community. This shows the importance of ensuring that decision makers are given the leeway to be able to deviate from a pre-planned response if circumstances require. 

In summary, it is clear that the preparation required for managing a crisis can often be framed by looking at how you have responded to challenges in the past, and that applying any relevant lessons learned previously is a proven way of mitigating its impact. The ability to look at what others have done to overcome a particular challenge is important too, while also ensuring that best practices or the responses of others should be adapted to ensure that they reflect your company’s individual circumstances. The other critical factor in dealing with a crisis is leadership - 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. 


ECA remains available to support our clients during the current situation and help companies with establishing or reviewing rules for dealing with crisis which may affect your international assignments. Please do not hesitate to contact us or your ECA point of contact directly if you would like to discuss any of the above or seek our advice regarding how to manage your mobile employees during the current pandemic. 

  Please contact us to speak to a member of our team directly.

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