One year ago, COVID-19-related travel restrictions and shutdowns disrupted Lunar New Year celebrations in China, one of the first signs of the significant impact the pandemic would have on our day-to-day lives.

In a conversation organized by AlixPartners’ Asian Leadership Insights and Growth Network employee resource group (ALIGN), Masa Fukusawa, Jungmin Lee, Xinyi Wu, and Stephen Yu discuss how the pandemic upended business culture practices in Asia, what they learned after a year of adapting to this new reality, and which of these changes they think will be permanent.

Xinyi: It’s been a little more than a year since lockdown began in China. What do you remember about the first few months of the pandemic and its impact on your work?

Jungmin: I was on a business trip in Tokyo last February. At that time, people were just starting to take precautionary measures, but there wasn’t a sense that the world would change to this degree.

Masa: I had a similar experience. Early on, I met with a few major companies in Japan about the situation. In that meeting, we discussed what the impact would be if the virus spread across Asia, but I believe no one expected that the issue would become a global one. We were initially too limited in our imagination!

Xinyi: When you realized the extent of the situation, what were the most significant business challenges and how did you overcome them?

Masa: How we worked with our clients was the biggest issue, because if you are helping a client implement operational changes, you want to be on the ground, which was obviously difficult. But we came up with creative solutions.

Jungmin: To build on that, conducting meetings was definitely challenging at first. However, after getting comfortable with the technical aspects, I think virtual meetings have been a huge benefit to us. Many of our projects involve colleagues from around the world, and meeting over video allows everyone to have an equal presence, and so, our ability to service clients with global teams has improved significantly.

Stephen: I agree with both Jungmin and Masa. Our response has been a great example of how adaptive humans can be. In our eDiscovery and forensics work, we typically need to collect a lot of data, which always needed to be done in person. But we quickly developed tools and processes to handle this technically complex work remotely, which enabled us to continue to support our clients.

Masa: As a Managing Director, I think a lot about the “people” side of these situations. I was very proud that very early on, before we even had a full understanding of the pandemic, AlixPartners placed the highest priority on the safety of our people. Establishing those protocols, which impacted how we worked internally as well as with clients, forced us to think creatively about how we would solve our clients’ problems. And that mindset has been helpful as the pandemic has gone on.

Xinyi: In addition to your client work, how did the pandemic and meeting restriction impact both networking and meeting with new clients?

Masa: By March, we had a better understanding of how this situation was going to impact our clients, and so we could reach out to them to help them prepare and educate them on how to cope with this.
The lack of opportunities to meet face to face obviously reduced our ability to extend our network. We were fortunate, however, that in recent years we have focused on deepening our existing relationships.

Xinyi: When reaching out to clients and business contacts, did you use social media more in 2020 than in the past?

Jungmin: Yes. In previous years, I used social media and messaging apps mainly to communicate with my friends and family. In 2020, these channels became a way to stay connected with clients and other business contacts. I’m also using the channels more interactively than before, like commenting on and sharing articles.

Xinyi: Stephen, what about you? I know LinkedIn isn’t as popular in China.

Stephen: Quite the contrary, actually. LinkedIn is very popular with my clients, and I’ve used the platform for years to keep in touch with them. What I’ve noticed this year, however, is people are actually easier to get in touch with because I think everyone has just been sitting in front of their computer screens. I’ve also found that people are more receptive to check-in message asking how they’re coping. So, in addition to communicating more over social media and apps, those interactions have been more personal, which is nice.

Xinyi: We have discussed many changes so far. Looking ahead, which of these changes do you think will be permanent?

Masa: That’s a difficult question. Frankly, and I think this is true for most of Asia, tradition is important, right? Sometimes that means we are slow to change. The pandemic has forced organizations to make changes very quickly, and, I think, realize that change isn’t always a bad thing and can make things more efficient. I hope that mentality continues.

Stephen: I don’t think this is true of all of China, but from my perspective, business culture here requires an in-person presence. When we pitch something, to show respect to the clients, we want to be in person in their boardrooms. And this was an expectation from the client side as well.

But now, people have been more willing to relax this expectation and receive pitches over the video, for example. This has continued even as China has, to a large extent, suppressed the virus, so I think that it is something that will stay with us for at least the foreseeable future.

I do not think that this represents a change in our culture, but rather an acknowledgment that conducting more business over video has not affected our ability to show respect to our clients and the process. It’s another example of how the pandemic has pushed us to find ways of working with each other a little better.

Jungmin: I also agree that the most significant permanent change will be in the way we communicate, particularly using virtual meetings for business. As Masa mentioned, the pandemic accelerated the adoption of new practices very quickly, including video conferencing. We are already seeing the benefits of it, particularly in enhancing the productivity of collaborative work. As we come out of the pandemic, I believe it will remain part of our communication toolkit and will evolve further.

Masa: If I can just make one last comment—we’ve been discussing the many changes that we noticed with our clients and how we worked with them. We underwent similar changes internally, and I appreciate every one of our colleagues who made it through despite the difficulties or challenges they faced. That is very much the AlixPartners spirit.

This month, in recognition of Lunar New Year, AlixPartners is sharing stories of renewal—how we are applying the lessons learned and moving forward following a challenging 2020.

Click here for more information about our D&I initiatives, ALIGN, and our other ERGs.