Insights from the Ground: Managing Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

June 11, 2020
Christine Lam, Citi Country Officer, China

In this series, we share insights from our Citi Country Officers (CCOs) around the globe as they reflect on their experiences during COVID-19. CCOs are responsible for leading the entire Citi franchise in their country. They provide alignment and leadership to bring our global strategy to life in each of their jurisdictions.

1. Can you share with us some of your early observations from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Christine: I still remember the shock to the world when China announced the lockdown of Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, on January 23. Never would anyone have thought that so much of the world would soon follow with some form of "shelter in place" arrangement.

Many of us have lived through the first few months of 2020 in ways that would have been unimaginable less than a year ago. As I look back to our journey over the last four months, I take great pride in how my Citi China family pulled together as one team in the face of adversity and that we continued to deliver the best for our clients.

Tibor: It is still far too early to draw final conclusions and try to compile a neat list of lessons learned from this crisis. But as I go through the daily drill of responding to a pandemic of unprecedented proportions, I've started organizing my thoughts around what initial lessons can be drawn that cover issues ranging from managing a remote workforce to operational resiliency to communications. What is clear to me is that the "new normal" post COVID-19 will be very different from the one we are used to, at least for the foreseeable future until a widely available cure is found, but very likely even beyond that.

2. What were the early days of the crisis like for you, for the businesses you run and for the teams you manage?

Christine: From the onset of the pandemic right through to today, protecting the health and safety of our employees and clients has been our top priority. Citi China initiated its crisis management and continuity of business teams at the onset. These cross-department groups worked around the clock during the Chinese New Year holiday to define safety measures in line with Citi's disease response plan and national guidelines.

Our talented technology teams upgraded our network over one weekend to enable over 6,000 Citi China employees to work remotely. Our global procurement network sourced protective gear and masks for our staff in China and we implemented safety measures, such as temperature checks at all of our premises in China to ensure that our site-dependent employees were coming to work in a safe environment.

These were a lot of unknowns, and major changes were happening quite rapidly so we also put a significant amount of time and attention into measures that would help our employees manage their day-to-day challenges. We arranged a special local transportation subsidy and meal allowance for all site-dependent colleagues who were coming to work for parts of February. We also approved an "overtime" payment for those who worked over Chinese New Year. And we collaborated with one of China's leading online health consultation service providers to provide free online medical consultations for our staff and our customers.

Tibor: As COVID-19 spread across the globe, governments, corporations large and small, the public sector, educational institutions and families all raced against time to introduce measures they saw fit to respond to a crisis they have never experienced and most likely were not fully prepared for. The advantages of our interconnected, globalized world, things most of us take for granted, turned into major risk factors overnight. Global travel meant the virus could spread at the speed of an airplane. Open borders, so important to free commerce, suddenly became a source of further spread of the virus. Supply chains, usually seen as drivers of efficiency and competitiveness, turned into potential conduits for operational risk. Social gatherings like concerts, soccer games, fairs, meetings and the whole tourism industry – all critical components that drive the global economy – suddenly became too risky from a public health perspective.

I spent the early days of the crisis making sure Citi Thailand staff could effectively work from home and then making sure we all adjusted to operating in this new way. Even how we interacted with clients needed to be scrutinized and viewed through this new lens. We gradually introduced virtual meetings to clients and regulators with whom previously we'd had only in-person engagements. It's incredible, in retrospect, how quickly this situation unfolded and how rapidly we had to adapt.

3. What have been some of the greatest challenges and opportunities you've faced as a leader and as a business during this pandemic?

Christine: It has not been easy for any of us. We are dealing with the fear and anxiety produced by the virus itself, the logistical issues of working from home with children, pets and sometimes sluggish internet access while also navigating the extreme volatilities in the financial and energy markets.

As for the opportunities, this situation has allowed us to build tighter bonds with our clients. We have maintained active engagement with them through phone and video meetings and are delivering timely macro content related to issues ranging from supply chain management to liquidity management and capital optimization to help them navigate the current situation.

The crisis has also provided us with an excellent opportunity to accelerate our digitization agenda. We have been able to facilitate trade transactions using paperless solutions to facilitate payments for institutional clients and open accounts for these clients using 2DO (two-day onboarding).

In our Global Consumer Bank, we introduced remote identity verification to ease the credit card application and we upgraded the mobile banking app with enhanced features.

Tibor: The new work modalities pose a whole array of challenges, but also opportunities. Achieving high levels of work from home percentages was just the first step. Once we equipped our people with all of the equipment they needed to do their jobs remotely, we have had to remain nimble and ready to address new challenges as they arose.

For example, the top three emerging issues our employees face today are all related to the new challenges of working from home: emotional and physical wellbeing, remote workspace constraints and access to technology and systems. But there are also some positives: many of our employees value the fact that they spend less time commuting and are finding new efficiencies that contribute to work-life balance. They are also able to be more flexible with their schedules and can spend more time with their families.

From a client coverage perspective, we've found that we can often achieve more through remote meetings. This doesn't mean that face-to- face meetings will become obsolete. On the contrary, they remain crucially important in a number of cases. However, this situation has enabled us to see that there is likely a strong case to be made going forward for a better balance between virtual and in-person engagement and interaction.

Lastly, and I agree with Christine about this, the situation we're in is probably the single largest driver of digitization, both in our bank as well as in the world economy, as a society we have yet seen. As we adapt, we are rapidly finding new ways of engaging with our clients digitally and I am certain that acceleration will likely continue once the pandemic has passed.

In my view, there lies the brightest silver lining and greatest opportunity: if we address the challenges we are facing now urgently and efficiently, as an organization we will emerge stronger, more competitive and even more efficient and energized than we were before

4. What has been the most surprising thing you have learned from this experience?

Christine: Despite all of the challenges, Citi China has stood together as one team as we lived through the pandemic. The unity and team spirit shown has inspired us as we all worked to overcome the individual and collective challenges we faced during the crisis. Clear communications played a key role in our success as they enabled us to connect and uplift our colleagues. We stepped up communications internally to show our appreciation for everyone's hard work by sharing exemplary actions they have carried out for our clients. Those messages have been positively received and they have kept our teams connected and up-to- date on Citi's response to COVID-19.

Tibor: Managing and communicating remotely with our teams required a significant change in behavior. Video get-togethers replacing after-works drinks? That would have been unimaginable just six months ago. Now we find those remote connections invaluable to maintaining a degree of authentic connectivity. Regular outreach, establishing clear expectations and direction, and driving information sharing- not only top-down but also bottom-up and horizontally- are some examples of best practices we have taken away from this experience.

5. What is your hope for the new normal that will emerge?

Christine: I'm hopeful that we will all feel pride in how we responded to this crisis when we look back at this period many years from now. On April 8, Wuhan ended its lockdown, marking a significant milestone in China's COVID-19 fight. Life in Shanghai, where I am located, has returned to a good degree of normalcy, with the most extreme of social distancing norms relaxed for the time being. But the pervasive wearing of masks is a constant reminder that COVID-19 is not behind us, and it is important to remain vigilant and maintain good hygiene protocols.

I do believe that the world will change post COVID-19. The crisis has taught all of us not to take anything for granted in our personal or professional lives. The future of work will look and feel different. I do not have a view yet if those change will be transitional or transformational.

Tibor: The "new normal" post COVID-19 will be very different from what we are used to. A key feature of this "new normal" will be increased focus on operational resilience.

Operational risk and resilience are not new concepts, but we've had to quickly adjust our approach in response to this unprecedented pandemic. Typically our crisis management scenarios focused on singular, idiosyncratic events. While the possibility of a health crisis has long been part of our planning scenarios, the realities of COVID-19 have required us to think more broadly about how to best respond to multiple scenarios that are simultaneously impacting not only the entire organization, but also our clients, our employees, our third party suppliers and the countries in which we operate.

Our level of preparedness and the robustness of our continuity of business plans became an important factor for our clients as they began crafting their own responses to the pandemic. They looked to us for guidance, and we were able to share best practices and lessons learned from managing through the crisis, whether it be enabling our infrastructure to support a work from home environment for our nearly 200,000 employees around the globe or the digital capabilities needed to continue serving our clients. The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that client's trust is going to be much more dependent on operational resilience in the future.

6. How has your country team been giving back during this time?

Christine: We are proud to see that our employees have volunteered in their local communities to help those impacted. Besides our corporate donations, it is heartwarming to see our colleagues being generous in giving donations. We raised a donation of around USD 238,000, including Citi China matching, to support COVID-19 relief efforts in China. We are grateful and thankful of the support from our colleagues around the world, especially colleagues in Hong Kong and UAE who put in place special promotion for this effort. A number of our colleagues in volunteered at the community relief centers in Wuhan in the middle of the pandemic, demonstrating tremendous courage and commitment.

Tibor: I am incredibly proud of how my Citi Thailand family has come together to help those less in need. I've heard numerous stories of acts of kindness, including creating a group in Facebook to donate money to buy food/lunches for doctors and supporters at the hospital, raising funds via social media among friends to purchasing medical equipment for hospitals. Besides these acts of kindness, Citi Thailand also arranged fund-raising among staff to help those severely impacted by the pandemic.

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