Teamwork in Shanghai: Working in times of the Corona pandemic

23.04.2020 I Vera Schmies

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus imposed massive restrictions on our daily life. Countries around the globe are struggling with overwhelmed healthcare systems and in many places, life came to a halt. While the world was looking anxiously at China, observing the developments in the country, others already faced the pandemic. One of them was Thorsten Heidack, CEO of our plant technology business in China.

He reacted quickly when confronted with keeping his team safe during the outbreak.
How did he experience the COVID-19 outbreak as a business leader and how did his team meet the challenges imposed by the novel virus?

An unpreceded situation

Heidack was in Shanghai during the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic. “To be honest, this situation was completely new to us. It was challenging because it’s such a novel and severe virus which spreads so fast,” the CEO recalls.

As the local kindergarten is closed for more than three months, the outbreak not only affected his professional but also his private life: “I needed to take care of my little son to keep him busy busy in a structured way in this special time. But on the other side, it was also a very nice and memorable experience to stay with my family 24/7 over a long period of time and we adapted quickly to the ‘new life’,“ Heidack remembers.

Thorsten Heidack and his family decided to stay in China despite the outbreak of the Corona pandemic.

Thorsten Heidack and his family decided to stay in China despite the outbreak of the Corona pandemic.

When the virus was in quick spread across China in early March, Heidack experienced home quarantine for 14 days as his neighbors were in a flight with one infected person. “Constrained to stay at home is really a strange feeling, especially when it happened right over my birthday – celebrating virtually with family and friends,” says Heidack. “Nevertheless, I was still pleased because we could take the quarantine at home and with my wife and my son, instead of being quarantined somewhere else – and we were healthy.”

Staying calm in light of a global pandemic

While the virus had not yet spread across the globe, Thorsten Heidack received many calls and messages from his friends and relatives back in Germany, who were worried about his safety. “My family and I received a lot of questions from my friends: How are you guys? Do you feel safe? What is the situation like?“ he tells us.

In contrast, the people in Shanghai, stayed fairly calm after it became clear, how the virus could affect people and they knew what was needed in order to control the spread. “We saw that the measures from the Chinese government payed off and the situation became more and more stable and controllable,” remembers Heidack.

The family discussed daily whether they should fly out to Germany or stay in China. However, they decided to stay. “We gradually accepted the situation, and I think the most important thing is that we were staying positive and accepted that it was the safest we could do.”, Heidack recalls. “We had food delivered and the guards that took care of our neighborhood were very friendly and polite. We felt safe here, and that’s why we decided to stay.” says Heidack.

Looking back the CEO is certain, “It was the right decision! I’d like to say “thank you” to all the people who supported us in this special situation!“

Safety and teamwork in times of corona

But of course, the outbreak did not only impact his personal life. As CEO of the Chinese plant technology business, Thorsten Heidack and his team were responsible for the health of their 160 employees in the greater Shanghai and Beijing area.

At this time, the most important measures in combating coronavirus were masks and protective gear. “The virus was new to all in an early stage. People were not aware how severe it is and how fast it spreads, and I just got the feeling that we need to buy enough masks to protect our employees,” says Heidack. “When I was in Beijing on January 22nd, I wrote an email to my OSH manager to buy enough masks for our Beijing and Shanghai offices“. A swift and forward-looking decision that paid off as masks were sold out in the markets only one day later. “I’m so happy that I took the decision – before the situation became severe,” Heidack says.

Within a very short time, the plant engineering experts evacuated their office in Shanghai.

Within a very short time, the plant engineering experts evacuated their office in Shanghai.

Talking about special moments, Heidack remembers worrying about his team right before the Chinese New Year. “I was quite worried when we had two colleagues with symptoms, especially when we had our annual dinners a week before and all colleagues celebrated together,” the CEO says. That’s why Heidack and his staff immediately evacuated the offices within two hours to minimize the risk of contamination. “The most important thing for us was that all colleagues remained healthy,” says Heidack. Luckily, both colleagues were later tested negative.

Until now, there has not been a single case of COVID-19 among the plant technology experts in China, reports the CEO, “I can say we jointly made a good job as a management team – now we all want to pass this pandemic healthy and ensure continuous business operation as good as possible!”

Ramping up again – work after COVID-19

After work resumption, the team already started ramping up most of their sites under the premise of strict travel and safety precautions.

On the other hand, Heidack also organized his team to work from home remotely and flexibly. Heidack is content with how quickly his organization adapted to the new ways of working: “We adopted quite quickly. According to the feedback of our employees, our communication even improved, because more people could be invited to our virtual meetings and colleagues could contribute their ideas and add different perspectives to our projects.”

Under strict health and hygiene measures, the employees returned to work and to their customer projects

Under strict health and hygiene measures, the employees returned to work and to their customer projects

Open communication and close collaboration with customers

However, in the face of the temporary halt on production, also the plant technology business expects delays for some of their projects – depending on where the project is realized. “In some provinces, the situation was better and we could start work earlier,” explains Heidack. “But in some provinces, we’re still analyzing the situation and confronting the difficulties.”

In this difficult time, the business works even closer with their customers. “We are trying our best to support them and get through this together. It’s important to us to be as close to our customers as possible, to talk to them and to convey the message, that we are there to support them in the best possible way,” Heidack explains.

thyssenkrupp’s plant technology business is a leading partner for the design, construction and servicing of industrial plants and systems.

thyssenkrupp’s plant technology business is a leading partner for the design, construction and servicing of industrial plants and systems.

Lessons learned: The pandemic in retrospect

Reflecting on the past weeks, the CEO appreciates the measures that the group and the local government took. “The situation was new to all of us and also to me as a business leader,” says Thorsten Heidack.

While the situation in Shanghai and Beijing seems to be under control, the CEO suggests his international colleagues to take social distancing measures seriously and continue to comply with them: “It’s better to stay at home and away from people when necessary, wear masks and wash hands frequently, and most of all, stay positive with a good spirit. This really supported us to get the virus under control in China.”

Looking ahead into the post-corona future, Thorsten Heidack is certain that we can learn from the pandemic and the agility that companies across the globe displayed over the past weeks.

“We’ve learned a lot that we will continue in the future. For example, the new ways of working and the manner of collaboration with online tools, which I really like.”In his eyes, it will always be necessary to meet in person, but distance is not the limit of communication, “we see: the new ways do work!” In addition, “I assume there will be less business trips in future – which also supports the company’s emission reduction strategy. Last but not least, I do hope everybody keeps safe and healthy, and comes back stronger after this pandemic – as a team!” Heidack says.