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Lessons from Corporate China: how companies are returning to a new way of operation and what can be learned.


Natural selection favours a sense of flexibility. It is not always the strongest species that survives; it is sometimes the most adaptable’.

Charles Darwin


Around the world, economies are reopening from the enforced shutdown and leaders are looking to find quick solutions to “power up” their organisations and teams. A survey conducted by Bain found that 97% of executives say they anticipate changing their operating model because of the pandemic – and of those, 42% expect to make significant and systematic changes.

Companies which have demonstrated agility to this unprecedented pandemic will look to take forward the best of lockdown and incorporating this into a new way of operation, whilst at the same time, not returning to the rules or needless friction and complexity.

The following article looks briefly at what companies have found has worked well during this period of time and what aspects can be taken forward.

Be Transparent:

During lockdown, many IP Managers stated that they worked hard to keep teams informed on the state of the organisation, as well as the priorities of the business. They maintained frequent and open communication and were direct, frank and personal in their output. Leaders had to take a visible and active role in communicating to their teams and sharing the pain, rather than shielding them from it, as was often the case before Covid-19. This transparency helped to keep teams aligned towards the common goal; almost like a ‘them and us philosophy’ with ‘them’ being the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lessons to take forward:

Maintaining this transparency will build confidence and loyalty from employees and may also help to reduce the ‘politics’ often felt across an organisation. It will help companies to react quickly to competitor challenges and industry shifts.

Use New Modes of Communication:

During lockdown, companies have seized upon many forms of technologies to aid communication and foster a company community whilst working remotely. This has opened up many new opportunities to utilise this technology to aid flexible and remote working. Companies have used video communication at unprecedented levels, in preference to telephone or email. The upside of this has been the improvement of maintaining close engagement of remote workers and a sense of belonging for new employees. The drawback, from speaking with attorneys, has been the increase in work activity by attending multiple video meetings which can extend through the working day.

Whilst there has been an increase in engagement, has this been to the detriment of productivity? With one client we spoke with, they were faced with a myriad of different online video platforms for different meetings. Examples mentioned included using MS Teams for external meetings, Zoom for internal meetings, WhatsApp for one-to-one conversations, Skype for informal group calls, the list went on and on! Furthermore, a lot of people have commented on the intensity of video meetings and reduced opportunities for personal conversation and small talk, which have traditionally served to strengthen relationship bonds among colleagues.

Lessons to take forward:

There will be a need to rationalise these various modes of communication, but they will still have a significant place in the working environment. One client can see the benefit to utilising video communication for remote workers who choose to work part of the week from home and the other part in the office. One client confirmed that virtual video meetings will continue to be the norm even in the workplace, when all attendees are physically present in the same office or building. There will be fewer large, in-person meetings and more virtual events, believing them to be more efficient, direct and goal-orientated. 

Formalise and enable remote work:

This has been a positive outcome for businesses during the lockdown. Many companies often moved away from the idea of working remotely, preferring a presence-driven model. In our capacity as search specialists, we have always tried to encourage this remote working practice for the reasons of attracting the best talent, and not just the talent available within a certain geography. Remote working can also instil a deeper sense of loyalty, which can be off-set by the need for an above-market salary to attract someone to move. With spouse careers to consider and a good education for children at the heart of decision-making, working remotely during this time, with the support of a robust technical platform, has shown it can work.

Lessons to take forward:

Leaders should take the opportunity to give their employees more control over their schedules. In speaking to a CEO of a major software corporation, he confirmed that he will deploy 50% of his workforce to work from home and as long as the output is achieved at the required time, he does not care when the employee does the work. Ensuring transparency of communication and a strong technology interface with sound onboarding practices will help to embed loyal employees who feel entrusted and valued to provide the end results. 

Help your employees build resilience:

This period of uncertainty and anxiety affects everyone and it is how companies can engender a feeling of calm and positivity which will help employees. Interestingly, recent studies show that millennials are most concerned, having enjoyed a decade of prosperity and career growth, they now worry that the future will be less bright, with growth opportunities significantly reduced.

Lessons to take forward:

A greater awareness is needed in employees mental health and ongoing support in this regard. HR play a significant role in supporting this but these skills need to become the premise of the line manager as well.

Foster a more connected organisation:

What has been interesting to witness through this pandemic is the closer bond between managers and employees working remotely. Ironically, the distance apart has brought people closer together. Employers have shown higher levels of tolerance, patience and empathy. Seeing colleagues on video calls in their homes, dressed casually, with family members and pets making an appearance has helped to personalise these interactions. Many team leaders and partners have gone out of their way to set up zoom socials with drinks and celebrations and social quiz events.

Planning for the Post-Covid World:

From a study conducted by the Harvard Business Review of Chinese organisations, of the market-leading firms, which had strong finance to weather the storm, their response during these tough times has not been to preserve resources but to invest in strengthening their firm’s competitive position. They are speeding up and expanding their digital strategies and implementing many of the above practices. Time will tell if this approach is successful but from a psychological perspective, engaging in such positive actions helps to unite a firm towards a common goal, in the hope of coming out on top at the other end.

The coronavirus pandemic will be remembered for many reasons, sadly many of them negative. Nonetheless, there is a strong case to be made that this period could also offer some positive legacy.

Learning how individuals can best be supported in their own environments, ensuring that the technology and infrastructure to enable those individuals is in place, and creating new norms for digital interactions is all happening in real-time and promises real long-term benefits around work-life balance.


Alle, J, Bain & Company, May 25 2020  ‘A New Social Contract’

Huy, Q, INSEAD, May 12 2020, ‘Four Strategic Priorities for the Post-COVID-19 World

Narayandas, D et al, Harvard Business Review, June 5, 2020:  Lessons from Chinese Companies’ Response to Covid-19



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