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  • Writer's pictureArup Majumdar

Facing SARS in Hong Kong. Battling life and career.

SARS hit us like a ton of bricks in Hong Kong. It started with sporadic cases, and very soon became a full-scale emergency situation. Business travel came to a halt, stepping out of the house was always wearing a mask, temperature checks at airport – all happened in a rush. Same as today, facing Covid. It hit people and business. Business travel came to a near halt. Face-to-face customer meetings were ruled out. Going to office was done with extreme precaution.

Let us specifically discuss the implication on business and how we managed to emerge unscathed, finding solutions where none existed. There was no precedence to plan our future path. We were navigating unknown territory, a much worse situation that what we are facing with Covid.

Some of the actions that helped our organization:

1. Update intelligence on a daily basis.

The Hong Kong government chief medical officer was live on national channels every day at 7:00PM, talking for only 15 minutes. During the short time, she gave details of what was going on, suppressed rumors, and brought together a sense of unity among the citizens. Just like her, we held daily briefings, through WebEx, for all our staff in the 14 countries of Asia Pacific. It built confidence in our leadership.

2. Listen to experts & forecast carefully on your own, given your circumstances. Everyone has an opinion on such matters, and we were not swayed by the opinion of any one group or individual. We evaluated each suggestion on its merit and decided to apply it based on our circumstances.

3. Constantly reframe your understanding of what is going on.

Our office war room, at the end of the day, was constantly looking at future scenarios, based on the latest understanding, to either fine tune our path or stay on course.

4. Try to reduce bureaucracy in your own area -

- By cutting down on non-essential activities, procedures. We empowered people at lower levels in the organization to take decisions rapidly, instead of waiting for supervisory approval. We delegated, with full confidence, our line managers to make the right decision. It all came from a strong leadership.

5. Make sure your response is balanced across the following dimensions:

  1. Communications through email/video/teleconference. Communicate: vertically up, horizontally & vertically down - clearly emphasize the safety precautions to be taken first.

  2. Assess employee needs – what/where are the access points locally to all daily facilities, they may need.

  3. Travel: balance between “must” and “delay”

  4. Remote work, flexible working hours. We gave freedom to work from anywhere, as long as they met their goals.

  5. Supply chain stabilization: our supply chain, dependent on China, was affected. It meant longer delivery lead times. We were constantly communicating with our customers and keeping them updated on our inventory and production progress. We made them feel included in our pain, and we did not lose a single customer.

  6. Creating physical barriers to avoid people getting close to each other. In Hong Kong, we shut off the access between office & laboratories (which was an open path). It is common now in Covid, but we did it first during SARS and learnt the lesson the hard way.

  7. Business tracking & forecasting: Be realistic and accept the situation: HQ will require you to still forecast the monthly/quarterly/annual plan and that has to be fine-tuned to address different scenarios: base case, worst case, optimistic case.

  8. Be a part of the broader solution – focus on the intersection between social needs and your specific capabilities.

All these actions went a long way to show our care for people – both in our organization and society and built organizational resilience and the ability to survive and ride through an unpredictable & unfavorable situation. 

To sum up - continuous and regular communication, multi-dimensional caring for people and delegation of authority are the hallmarks of good crisis management. 

In our next blog, we will talk about the current Covid situation.

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