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Coronavirus crisis experiences from the Hubs

We asked our WU Alumni Hub managers from all corners of the world to share with us how they have experienced the coronavirus pandemic. An excerpt of the statements was published in the WU Alumni magazine forward 02/2020.

Taiwan / Taipei

Taiwan / Taipei Christian Fuchssteiner:

Taiwan is THE success story of the COVID-19 pandemic. The spread of the virus was successfully prevented on this high-tech island; there have been no new local infections for about two months and the economy didn’t suffer any lockdown. As you might expect, the general mood in the country is good, especially as all restrictions such as compulsory facemasks in public places, fever checks at building entrances, restrictions on events, etc. are now being gradually lifted. Restaurants are suddenly overcrowded (also resort hotels outside the cities) so that today you have to reserve seats beforehand – or wait in the queue.

What can we learn from Taiwan? I guess the government’s stringent pandemic prevention, the great discipline of the local population… and the ‘smart’ solutions of this very tech-savvy island!

Italy / Florence

Italy / FlorenceChristian Frass

I have been running a country house, called La Gioiella, in north-east Tuscany for almost five years. Here we organize workshops and seminars.

Tuscany was less affected by the pandemic than other Italian provinces. The situation was more or less like in Austria (in fact, Tuscany is about half the size of Austria).

La Gioiella is situated off the beaten track in a very quiet and highly agricultural part of Tuscany. Nevertheless, as in the whole of Italy, the local people had to obey strict hygiene regulations and contact restrictions.

My daily life was not all that different: from January to March/April I’m mainly occupied with the garden and projects around the house. We had pleasant spring weather almost every day, so I spent a lot of time on our extensive plot of land. Before the lockdown, I had already bought a sufficient stock of food to keep us going. Every 2 weeks I went to my little Alimentari to buy some additional groceries. This distribution network of small bars and/or grocery shops works really well in Italy.

When my wife and I decided to buy this country house 5 years ago, I was already sure that such a location would become increasingly important over time, because today people are seeking peace, inspiration and a closer connection to the land. Built in 1881, La Gioiella was for many years a farmhouse occupied by a large family. There was no running water, electricity or any of the usual mod cons. Today we benefit from this exceptional location and are well supplied with electricity, water, heating and an internet connection. I think such places are a true luxury. The nearest neighbor is a few hundred meters away. Every morning you are treated to a chorus of birdsong while gazing onto a stunning landscape surrounded by coniferous woodland, olive groves, chestnut trees and medieval stone villages, whose inhabitants are always ready to improvise and help one another. Maybe this pandemic will highlight people’s need for a slower pace of life, and we will be able to make La Gioiella and our concept more widely known.

Italy / Milan-Turin

Italy / Milan-TurinAndrea Sasso

As everyone knows, Italy was hit early and hard by the coronavirus. Accordingly, the government had to make many decisions without being able to draw on the experience of other countries.

The biggest upset in my life was the closure of schools and kindergartens. Like many other parents, I was particularly frustrated by the way in which they were closed and remained shut, while the search for solutions was and is completely inadequate.

As in many other countries, the prime responsibility for childcare usually fell to the mothers, with all the short and long-term negative repercussions on their jobs and careers.

In the light of a recent study conducted in Germany which found that mothers earn 40 percent less than women with no children, we have to ask: How much progress have we actually made towards equality?

It seems that most companies don’t yet recognize the value of diversity, especially in management positions, and have certainly not exhausted its potential.

As a society, we have to think about how in future we can prevent young women from choosing a career over having children. Here it’s vital to remember that economic growth is all the more difficult to achieve with a declining population.

 

USA / New York City

USA / New York CityBarbara Badelt-Ford

The lockdown in the USA came both suddenly and at the same time too late to prevent the worst from happening. We had just set up home in New York and were looking forward to our first guest from Vienna only a few days later. From one day to the next the borders were closed and the visit had to be cancelled.

We were in Miami on the day that New York “shut down”. As it turned out, we would stay there for quite some time. And so we spent more than two months of our quarantine in Florida – with a suitcase full of clothes packed just for a long weekend. The trip to the supermarket became (as it probably was for all of us) the highlight of our week. My first workday in my new job was spent in home office. I’ll probably not get to meet my new colleagues in person until the end of September.

We recently made it back to New York after a three-day road trip. It is still very quiet here and the deserted streets of Manhattan make it feel like the set of a science-fiction movie. But a unique spirit has developed in the otherwise anonymous skyscrapers: every evening thousands of people appear on their balconies to applaud the ‘essential workers’. While it will take some time to return to ‘business as usual’, I’m actually happy that things have slowed down a bit.

It is not an easy time to live in the USA. The political gulf is huge and tangible. But there are many positive things that make the United States so special. For example, the friendliness and helpfulness of the people as well as their ability to look problems straight in the eye. New Yorkers are tough – “New York tough” – as they say here. Or as the Viennese put it: “It’ll all turn out right in the end”. And in this case, I think they’re both right. New York will bounce back!

Thailand / Bangkok

Thailand / Bangkok Julia Thallinger

At the beginning of March, I was still on holiday back home in Austria without any idea that this would be the last visit for some months. If I had left just one week later, I would have been prevented from entering Thailand. In Bangkok many companies also decided to let their employees work from home during the pandemic – my husband and I did this for a total of 9 weeks before the situation slowly improved again from mid-May. The biggest challenge for me in home office was the lack of direct communication with local colleagues. Information that you normally pick up through the office grapevine kept getting lost. On the other hand, of course, you are more flexible: you can take care of household chores or have a quick yoga session during the lunch break. Usually I got through the first emails on my balcony, enjoying the morning sunshine with a cup of coffee – such moments were certainly a positive side effect of home office.

For a long time, a state of emergency has been imposed in Thailand and there was a night-time curfew until mid-June. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, protective masks have an essential item when you’re out and about – without a mask, you are generally banned from entering buildings or shops and you’re not allowed to use public transport. Everywhere in the city, the authorities are constantly checking people for fever, sometimes with bizarre results – such as a body temperature of 33 degrees. For some time, your movements have been monitored when entering and leaving shops, restaurants and malls by means of a barcode – yet there are no exact details about data protection or how the authorities make use of this track & trace system.

For me it’s a bit depressing not to know exactly when I’ll be able to travel to Austria next time and see family and friends again. You can also see many Thais who have suffered and are still suffering from the dire economic impact of the pandemic. For this reason, you have to remember and appreciate how well you are doing despite the minor personal restrictions.

 

Hungary / Budapest

Hungary / BudapestPaul Binder

From mid-March, my wife, our son and I were all at home. But as our home office has only one workplace, we faced challenging times when both of us had important tasks to do against the clock and without grandma or the kindergarten for support. Our son really missed having other kids around. So it was all the more important for us to spend time with him. This was a kind of ‘multilevel multi-tasking’, quickly switching back and forth between family and professional topics; listening and talking to each other, trying to make the best out of the situation. Smiles and humor were certainly helpful.

Our professional environment reacted calmly and attentively. When recruiting new staff, it was important for candidates to be able to assess the long-term stability of an employer, and their salary requirements were flexible.

‘We don’t know what will happen when things get going again, but we are ready for it’ was the unspoken motto in my private and professional world. Resilience and entrepreneurial spirit are the basis and inspiration for any new start. Fresh opportunities are sure to arise for agile people and companies. It’s more important than ever to have the courage to ‘reinvent oneself’ as well as to maintain social contacts. In our international consulting network, we are looking to capture new markets in a changing world. Our focus is on finding out ‘which sectors and companies will be the winners, which talents will they need globally and locally, who will let talented staff go due to the crisis and which HR services will be in greater demand’.

In general, the shutdown due to the coronavirus has ushered in some long-term changes:

  • There is wide acceptance of informal clothing (where previously agreed upon) and short interruptions (children, pets, delivery service, etc.) during online meetings in home office. Dress codes at business meetings are more relaxed post-lockdown.
  • There is greater appreciation and awareness of the benefits of face-to-face discussion; at the same time, more topics are dealt with in online meetings.
  • Flexibility and improvisation are appreciated as core elements of agility.
  • The idea that ‘we are all in the same boat and must help each other’ has become more important.
Belgium / Brussels

Belgium / BrusselsChristian Macek

I had a feeling of déjà vu at the beginning of the lockdown in Brussels, as we had already experienced similar lockdowns in November 2015 following the terrorist attacks in Paris and in March 2016 after the bombings. Only this time it was much longer and you never knew exactly if and when the strict rules would be relaxed. Belgium was certainly not overly quick to impose a lockdown and the death figures per 1,000 inhabitants were at times the highest in Europe, in part because all deaths in old people’s homes were attributed to COVID-19 ‘just to be sure’.

Personally, I found it extremely challenging to work in home office while at the same time assuming the roles of teacher, cleaner and cook. On the positive side, I enjoyed the peace and quiet as well as a new awareness and enjoyment of family life. We also had the opportunity to take a closer look at the fauna and flora on the outskirts of the city during our daily lunchtime walk. So now we are all familiar with water turtles, mallards, moorhens and the like, something for which we would never have found the time under ‘normal circumstances’.

Australia / Sydney

Australia / Sydney Michael Altenburger

I was on a skiing trip to Japan when my airline sent disconcerting text messages at the beginning of February announcing that the Australian government had imposed entry restrictions and special rules on travelers who had been in China since February 1st.

The long queues at the airport on my return to Sydney seemed to confirm this; however, these were not caused by laborious health checks but rather 2 non-functioning e-passport readers.

In the 2-3 weeks after our return, the lockdown was imposed and only essential journeys permitted. This meant that our particular home office was shared by 2 working parents and 3 students. The Internet truly became our lifeline.

Unexpectedly, the sudden and enforced period of close contact did not cause any (additional) emotional conflicts. The fears about the behavior of our ex-teenage kids (who had just got through puberty unscathed) were thankfully unfounded. The usual tensions around shared dinners were quickly resolved by a weekly menu plan and the appointment of a chef, sous-chef and clean-up crew.

At least in our case, no one became stir crazy through the enforced slowdown (it was still permitted for a maximum of two people to jog on the beach).

 

Austria / Upper Austria

Austria / Upper AustriaWolfgang Dilly

Our generation has never experienced anything comparable to the coronavirus crisis. At the onset, this was a truly unprecedented situation, but one that I got used to very quickly and from which I was able to gain something positive – a slowdown in the pace of life and also a return to basics. The usual hubbub was to some extent curtailed by the cancellation of face-to-face meetings and events. I also have a vivid memory of my regular walk home from work, enjoying the sunshine along the main road in Kirchdorf an der Krems, and how unusual it felt because of the mere trickle of cars – I was very conscious that this was how life must have been like back in the 1950s. Due to the rampant pandemic, which was omnipresent in the media, we were confronted much more directly with the question of our own mortality, a fact which is often lost in the hustle and bustle of everyday life but which is central to our existence.

England / London

England / London Armin Forstner

‘Positive action’ after realistically assessing a situation – that’s one of the key principles we teach leaders in our Positive Leadership Programmes. This ‘positive action’ can, of course, only be applied to things which you can influence. At the height of the crisis, I had to remind myself of this, namely that most negative influences cannot be controlled but only reacted to. 

We work a lot with UN agencies. Although the United Nations is a very bureaucratic organization, it is a master in emergency response. Also during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen how programmes that are up and running can be changed quickly and with a minimum of fuss in order to provide people with prompt assistance.

The main lessons I have drawn from the crisis are: digital training programmes only work in short sessions and with a lot of preparation; meditation is and remains a foundation from which we can gain new perspectives; and ways of working will change fundamentally, forcing us to rethink our behavior.

Stay healthy!

Ireland / Dublin

Ireland / Dublin Reinhard Dutter

Ireland’s lockdown began on March 12 with the announcement that schools would be temporarily closed. This triggered a certain panic reaction, mainly in the form of a run on toilet paper in the supermarket. While the situation quickly calmed down, the restrictions were gradually stepped up so that by the end of March the local population were confined to their homes, only allowed to go outside in exceptional circumstances, i.e. for walks within a 2 km-radius or for visits to the doctor and supermarkets.

This of course was devastating for the economy and social life: here in Ireland people love to go to the pub to meet friends and colleagues or just to see who’s there (there are no strangers in Ireland, just friends you haven’t met yet!) That’s why the measures have been so keenly felt by the locals.

Some of the restrictions were very tough. Day-care centers were closed, for example, presenting parents with nearly insurmountable problems, especially those who work in the health sector.

But in the meantime, the number of cases has fallen and the daily capacity for testing greatly increased, allowing a gradual re-opening of the economy and the return of social activities. The shops and malls are now open, restaurants and hairdressers will reopen at the end of June, and the pubs will finally welcome guests in July.

Personally, my daily life has changed a bit. I now always work from home, which actually functions pretty well thanks to modern technology. On March 12 I was out of the country in Sweden/Finland on a college trip – but I flew home somewhat earlier than planned. There were a few cases of coronavirus in my travel group, and that certainly makes the whole thing more tangible than feels comfortable.

Home office will certainly persist in Ireland for some time, as the government guidelines specify quite strict distancing regulations regarding the workplace. So far I’m happy with the situation, and it also allows me to spend more time with my daughter.

Germany - North Rhine-Westphalia - Bonn, Düsseldorf, Cologne

Germany - North Rhine-Westphalia - Bonn, Düsseldorf, Cologne Thomas Planinschetz

While the Corona crisis has pushed us all to our limits in very different areas of life, at the same time it has shown what is possible and thus encouraged creativity, innovation and flexibility. Personally, I am fortunate to have already used home office in various forms in the past. For this reason, I found the abrupt shift to working from home fairly easy; furthermore, I have a well-equipped study. But I am aware that not all of my colleagues or team members can draw on this experience or have similar facilities at home. This caused some initial challenges in virtual collaboration. As a manager, I thought it essential that my team should stick to our usual routines such as having regular breaks and a virtual get-together after work for drinks. Here it’s a particular challenge to trust in the (professional) discipline of employees.

In my private life, my wife’s paternity leave and then my own in April meant that we were able to take very good care of our children (aged 6 months and 4 years) during the peak phase of the lockdown. In the other weeks of home office, I enjoyed spending my lunch break with the family or having my daughter bring me fruit or sweets in the study. Sometimes she was allowed to take part in video conferences with my team, which helped create a positive atmosphere.

We have all learned a lot for the future, both positive and negative. In my opinion, it will be particularly exciting to observe an ever-closer integration of the professional and private worlds (workplace, working hours, collaboration, childcare, ...). This is where families, companies and also the state will all have their part to play.

Switzerland / Zürich

Switzerland / ZürichAladar Tepelea

I am active in the field of innovation. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has brought many innovation projects to a complete halt. At the same time, some start-ups have gotten ahead of the game; in our case, we joined an accelerator programme. So the crisis has brought both setbacks and fresh opportunities. I see the whole thing pragmatically. Complaining doesn’t help. Instead, you have to actually do something to make progress in such difficult times.

Some alumni contacted me proactively, leading to some interesting conversations. I’m looking forward to seeing what the future brings.