By Brett Taylor*
As early as late January, preventive measures were being implemented, gradually becoming more restrictive in the following months, and culminating in the introduction of strict social distancing measures in April. Throughout this ordeal, actions were swift and communication from authorities was clear and transparent, with health and wellbeing of Vietnamese citizens and foreign residents of highest importance.
Undoubtedly, a strong economy cannot exist without a healthy population, and Việt Nam is doing all it can to deliver the latter, in order to return to the former sooner rather than later. There has now been 21 consecutive days without community transmission at the time of writing, and recent easing of social distancing requirements indicate we are well ahead of most other countries in the world.
Nevertheless, the immediate financial impact is significant for most businesses big and small. For example, a recent survey conducted with 348 businesses by the Việt Nam Young Entrepreneurs Association found that 35 per cent of small and medium sized businesses could fold if COVID-19 persists beyond three months. Many of my colleagues have shared stories of friends who are experiencing economic hardship and even loss of employment. Whilst the immediate priority is to protect the health of everyone against the spread of this virus, these measures also have the potential to create new health and wellbeing challenges with heightened anxiety and impact to livelihoods in the foreseeable future.
I’m fortunate to work for a company who recognise this, and who have been equally measured, pragmatic and compassionate during this challenging time. PMI recently committed to employees across the globe that employment and financial stability will be secured throughout this period. This provides much needed peace of mind and certainty for our employees at a time when so much else remains uncertain. It also helps as our employees adjust to new ways of working. Our work from home (WFH) approach began rolling out globally in mid-March. And during this time my colleagues in Việt Nam have proven yet again to be agile, resilient, determined and entrepreneurial.
But there are challenges.
My colleagues (including me) have been falling into the trap of working longer and harder in order to make the most of our WFH time. To some extent, this can be attributed to the need for social connection with colleagues; but the lines between work and home have become increasingly blurred. For those with children at home, who are also adapting to online learning due to school closures, the challenges of juggling the new ways of working, together with the needs of children makes it even harder. For this to work, there is equal onus on every individual employee and my leadership team. It’s important that each employee blocks their schedule with ‘me’ time, and has the discipline to stick to it. It’s equally important for us as leaders to be acutely aware and understanding of the challenges our team members are facing at home, and remain supportive and flexible. Frequent and open two-way communication has always been important, but even more so now.
I’m thankful that I have a leadership team comprising of authentic, empathetic and compassionate human beings. Each member has been doing their utmost to compensate for the social isolation their team members may be experiencing as a result of social distancing rules and the new WFH set-up. Daily calls to employees just to ask “R U OK?” are now part of the routine of every Supervisor. Fortnightly organisation wide ‘virtual’ Town Halls have become the new normal, providing opportunity to update everyone on the fluid situation, as well as providing opportunity for Q&A. Compassionate leadership is no less important as we embark upon the inevitable journey to the new-normal. Employees will likely be at different stages of readiness to begin this journey.
Through this period, Technology has been the enabler in maintaining connections and keeping the business moving forward. Technology has allowed our sales force to stay connected with our wholesale and retail partners who continue to operate through lock-down, albeit in very difficult conditions. Through our digital engagement platform we are able to provide the level of support and continuity of supply our trade partners desperately need during these challenging times.
I’m also proud to work for a company that is contributing to the fight against COVID-19, including here in Việt Nam. We have partnered with Việt Nam Red Cross to support the Tropical and Blood Transfusion Hematology Hospitals, as well as a quarantine facility in Hà Nội with funding for protective clothing and hand sanitiser amongst other things. Our sales team has also put together packages consisting of masks and hand sanitiser for our trade partners who continue to operate during the lock-down period. Some of our employees have also taken it upon themselves to assist community members and their families who may be particularly vulnerable at this time. Despite the recent lifting of the lock-down, the support won’t end there as we continue to seek out opportunities, big and small, to contribute to the fight.
The global pandemic is unprecedented and fluid. The future may be uncertain, but I can be confident that Việt Nam will continue to exercise the leadership required to uphold the health and wellbeing of its people, and this great country will rebound. Ironically, despite social distancing and working from home, I feel that we as an organisation are infinitely more connected than ever before. Will we return to ‘normal’ ways of working? I highly doubt it. But for now, I’m confident that my colleagues in Việt Nam have the spirit, determination and resilience to get through this, and we will come out the other end infinitely stronger. They continue to inspire me every day.
* Brett Taylor, MD of Vinataba-Philip Morris, leader of PMI's joint venture with Vinataba.