What can we learn from China about post-lockdown life?

Opinion: Hard though things are, this is an opportunity to glimpse the future, and maybe change it.

by Andrew Missingham
Last Updated: 22 Apr 2020
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Food for thought

I'm sure you've heard lately about how the Venetian waters are now crystal clear thanks to the local lockdown, and how pods of dolphins and schools of fish have been seen swimming freely in the famously murky lagoon. I asked a friend of mine, a professor at the University of Venice, about this last week. 

First he told me that luckily (and perhaps surprisingly) to date none of his family have had the virus. Then he told me that the clear water isn't because of ‘lack of pollution’, which is what much of the news media has been saying. He instead attributed it to a lack of disturbance, as the sediment that sits at the bottom of the lagoon isn’t being churned up by the daily traffic of boats and gondolas.

And the Prof also told me another surprising thing: despite living in a country hit hard by COVID-19 and hearing all the time about the human cost, he currently feels unusually free in his home environment. In the absence of tourists, the small local population can see their city in a different light for the first time. 

All this sets up an interesting question for the business world to ask itself during this crisis. While accepting the difficulties we’re all facing, and without in any way dismissing the suffering that’s taking place, what is now being revealed to you by the lack of "disturbance" and the freedom from your day-to-day hustle? 

Okay, I know what you're thinking. It's a tough one to answer, because yesterday's distractions and noise have been replaced by altogether more distracting and urgent issues to focus upon today. 

However, it is still worth looking for the signals amongst the noise. Because when you find them, you'll probably have a glimpse into your future. 

One place we're currently looking is to China and our team in Shanghai. China was the origin and centre of the pandemic but now the government is lifting the lockdown. 

Our team first heard they would have to wear surgical masks and cut out social interaction around Chinese New Year, at the end of January. Now, following app-assisted home-bound lockdown, after a little more than two months, they can (as long as they wear masks) go to work or the café or the gym. They can go shopping or out for a picnic. 

One thing our team told us, though, is what people are allowed to do, and what they're prepared to do are quite different things. Coronavirus concern will likely outlive coronavirus danger by quite some margin. 

Like the rhetorical meme put it ("who's responsible for your digital transformation: your CEO, your CTO, or COVID-19?"), this disease has accelerated many changes that we've hitherto put on the back burner. 

In addition to digital innovations that, like most, we've fast-tracked, not being able to travel in person has accelerated the development of our China team. This is a good thing. Skill-building elbowed its way to the front of our queue of priorities because it had to, and that trust has been vindicated. 

Not only can we keep doing our work to the standard our clients expect of us, we're now armed with a broader team that brings local nuance and insight as standard. Could they have done this before? Undoubtedly, but "business as usual" and assumptions on our part obscured this possibility.

So whilst there’s a lot of noise surrounding China at the moment, look and you'll see signal, too. First, China gives us one possible exit model. Secondly, China's example can help us figure out how to engage with the post-coronavirus countries despite still being in lockdown ourselves.

Every country and every business's exit strategy will be slightly different, but learning from China (or Italy for that matter) gives us scenario plans for the staggered lifting of lockdowns around the world. For you, it might mean empowering local teams through training, but it could just as well mean having to centralise some of your functions. 

So, hard as it seems, take a moment to look into the uncommonly clear blue water of a transformed business environment to see what's now visible and possible. Doing so could put you a step ahead. And, if you're lucky, like Venice's marine life or our talented Shanghai team, your answers may be ones that are already around, just hitherto hidden from view. It was only the churn and murk that's been obscuring them.

Andrew Missingham is co-founder of consultancy B+A

Image courtesy of B+A

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