How the Coronavirus Has Affected Employers in China

Global HR

​When the Chinese government locked down the city of Wuhan and the rest of Hubei province, Yijing Shi, a resident of Shanghai, was on vacation in Singapore. The lockdown, which was followed by strict travel restrictions throughout China, coincided with the Chinese New Year, and many employees of her Shanghai-based e-commerce company, Blissful Baby, were traveling outside the city and country.

Shi decided to return to Shanghai, but many of her employees remained outside the city, and strict regulations meant there was no way to work in the office through all of February.

“Starting from March, a lot of offices reopened, so people started to go out to work,” Shi said. Her business was easily able to adapt. “Our company is a small company. We have about maybe 30 to 50 people in our office, and we do online business,” she said. “And a lot of work can be done through the Internet. So actually, for these few months, we are not really impacted negatively.”

Only one employee, who had been stuck in Wuhan, ultimately left the company. Otherwise, Blissful Baby retained all its employees.

Shi has been lucky. The coronavirus pandemic has been a boon for e-commerce businesses. With much of the country staying at home, either out of necessity or by choice, e-commerce businesses have become lifelines for people to acquire food and other goods.

Small and midsize enterprises are poised to suffer the most in the economic downturn, and those businesses account for 60 percent of China’s gross domestic product.

More than 460,000 businesses closed in China during the first quarter of 2020. Like much of the world, China has had to grapple with its economic downturn while simultaneously containing the spread and damage of the novel coronavirus. This has affected employees and employers across the country.

Santana Wulsin, vice president at the PR firm Weber Shandwick in Beijing, also was outside of China when the pandemic hit. After visiting family in the U.S., he was initially unable to return to China and had to work remotely from Taiwan and Thailand.

“I ended up coming back” to China in March, Wulsin said. But he was not allowed to enter his office building until he could prove that he was clear of the disease for a two-week period.

Strict Rules

Though many offices in Shanghai and Beijing have reopened, there are stringent protocols in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Even things like walking into the office has become somewhat of a ballet” of showing permission to enter the building and clearance on a tracking application that can tell whether an individual has been exposed to a high-risk area, Wulsin said.

The tracking app generates a color-coded QR code that indicates whether a person is safe to enter an office. “If it’s green, it means OK,” Shi said. “If it’s yellow, it means we have been somewhere [outside the city] in the past 14 days.” Only if it’s green can the employee enter the building.

Once inside the building, all workers are monitored for symptoms. Temperature checks, which are required to enter the building, continue throughout the day. The temperature “is reported to the government to ensure that no employees are showing symptoms of the fever,” Wulsin said.

There is disinfectant in the elevators and tissues to use when pressing the buttons. “Even in the office, colleagues are all encouraged to wear masks,” Wulsin said, and within the office space, there is “hand sanitizer everywhere.”

[SHRM Resource Spotlight: Coronavirus and COVID-19]

Impact on Businesses

Wulsin said that in many ways, the change in the content of his work is as noticeable as the change in office protocols. “You’re not doing what you had envisioned you would have been doing four months ago.” His main accounts previously focused on beauty and the travel retail sector and dealt with events, product launches and influencers.

“There’s been a pivot to making things go virtual,” Wulsin said. “But the problem is that given the macroeconomic uncertainty with everything, the funding isn’t necessarily there anymore. I do feel like many, many companies are very nervous to spend money right now until there’s a clear indication that things are somewhat back to normal.”

Wulsin’s agency is large and able to focus on other sectors to buoy the company while the travel, retail and beauty segments struggle. “It has made sense to pull manpower from other sectors to support in those areas and go after new projects. So that has been beneficial,” Wulsin said. “I think my agency has put a lot things in place to ensure that even in the face of this situation, we’ll at least be able to survive the year.”

Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul.

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