In the midst of a pandemic, there can be some comfort in knowing there is light at the end of the tunnel. This may be hard to believe, particularly given the lockdowns and the growing number of afflicted across much of the world today.

In China, where the epidemic began in December, life appears to be returning to a degree of normalcy, albeit slowly. Sam Li, managing director of SAP China, talks about how the company is currently dealing with the fallout from COVID-19 in Mainland China and how it is preparing itself for economic recovery.

Q: How are you doing? And how is the spirit among SAP China employees at the moment?

A: I believe the most difficult time for China has now passed. Our employees are in good shape, and although there are still many restrictions on business travel, which limits face-to-face contact with each other and with customers, we are managing to work productively together. For this reason, my confidence grows daily that we will master this crisis.

So far, no SAP employee in China has tested positive for coronavirus. What measures did you take to keep employees safe and productive?

We took swift action. On January 27, as we saw the epidemic rapidly expanding in Hubei province and beyond, we immediately established a task force with representatives from all areas of our business. Together, we established sweeping guidelines to help protect employees from infection and provide any support they might need. By January 28, we had launched a mobile app that allowed us to track employees and get updates on their status and health.

In early February we established a hotline service for employees who needed any type of support, whether physical or emotional. Since employees were widely distributed and confined to their homes, we decided to create a video that brought us together virtually with the objective to fight the feeling of isolation and boost morale after weeks of confinement. I asked our creative colleague Rick Yu, Presales Innovation team manager, to make a video combining the different experiences, which resulted in a lot of positive feedback.

We also provided training courses for various collaboration and communication tools that support working remotely and even offered them to our partners and customers. These tools have increased our productivity and helped us maintain a close relationship with customers.

Are you all working from home or at the office?

Our offices opened February 17 per government guidelines and we’re sterilizing daily to keep employees safe. Conditions in China have improved to the point where we can now let employees decide whether or not they want to commute to the office. About four out of every five colleagues are currently working from home because they prefer not to take mass transit.

One of the biggest challenges we currently face is the travel restrictions between cities, which makes it very difficult to hold onsite meetings with customers. We expect this to last until the mid-year, so remote and onsite modes of working will exist side-by-side for the foreseeable future.

To help us reach customers remotely, we recently started a digital marketing campaign using online workshops.  Based on the challenges posed by COVID-19 in various industries, we offer different suggestions and solutions. For example, we show customers how SAP SuccessFactors software can provide real-time monitoring of employees’ health and adapt employee goals to the current situation.

What positive things have you experienced during the crisis?

There were lot of inspiring acts among colleagues. Right after the outbreak, our managers realized we needed an effective way to find out how employees are doing and offer them suggestions on how to protect themselves. Wang Nan from our Analytics Presales team immediately set to work to develop a cloud application that every employee could access. Within eight hours, the app was launched and in the hands of our employees. Each could enter their location, temperature, and other vital statistics. The app, developed on SAP Cloud Platform, was eventually expanded to the entire China sales team of 600 colleagues.

How are you helping businesses get back on their feet?

To show our support for small and medium-sized businesses, which have been the hardest hit by the crisis, we have launched two social responsibility campaigns in China. First, we are donating software products and supporting services valued at more than RMB15 million (US$2.1 million) to help SMEs in Wuhan and Hubei to establish digital systems and achieve post-disaster reconstruction. SAP has also donated RMB6 million (US$843,000) to the Hubei Charity Federation to support five hospitals of the Hubei Epidemic Center, bringing total cash donations in the Hubei region to more than RMB20 million.

In line with SAP worldwide, China is opening SAP Ariba Discovery to all of China’s enterprises for 90 days free of charge. The solution can help China’s SMEs maintain the reliability and transparency of their supply chains, which have been disrupted by COVID-19 and ensure that critical materials reach the places they are needed.

What challenges are you currently facing in serving customers?

Strict regulation on travel between cities makes it difficult for us to provide onsite support. And many customers are not allowing visitors to their factories and offices in order to protect their employees from infection. We are doing our best to serve customers remotely.

Has COVID-19 forced you to change your focus and strategy for the year?

Our overall strategy won’t change much, but we are adapting our execution tactics to the situation. For example, we’ve put on hold addressing industries that have been impacted most by the outbreak because they first need to focus on survival and recovery before investing in digitalization. These include restaurants, wineries, retail with brick-and-mortar stores, and labor-intensive manufacturing.

We expect industries such as medical, biotech, pharmaceuticals, and logistics to increase investments in digitalization sooner because the impact on them was not as large. Supply chain management, smart manufacturing and Industry 4.0, as well as and employee safety and health management are also areas of increased focus.

Where are the biggest opportunities you see this year for SAP in China? How are you addressing them?

To counter the negative impact on the economy from the coronavirus outbreak, in early March the Chinese government announced a new round of infrastructure investments, totaling US$4.8 trillion. These extend beyond areas such as travel and transport to include technology investments for data centers, artificial intelligence, smart manufacturing, and 5G networks. Such investments will provide us with a new growth engine for our business. We are currently adapting our operations to take full advantage of this opportunity for a new round of growth.

Do you think the crisis is helping tout the advantages of digitalization and the Intelligent Enterprise?

There was an immediate impact on production because workers were not able to return to the factories and lines were to shut down. A lot of customers are looking at the technology they will need to help them prepare for the next epidemic. We are actively using our technologies and solutions to help customers resume their production. Since the outbreak, more and more customers have shown interest in digital supply chain management and cloud computing solutions to help them predict bottlenecks and make their operations more resilient.

You are in the middle of expanding offices to additional cities in Mainland China. Is this plan moving forward?

We plan to continue our expansion, but we may have to adapt our time plan depending on the speed of recovery in 2020.

What messages do you have for the other companies facing the same situation you did in January and February?

Employee health and safety should always be the top priority, whether at home, at the office or travelling. Since the impact of COVID-19 will continue on for a while, we need to ensure employee mental health and well-being while helping them to maintain stability and normalcy in their lives.

I believe we will win. The past two months were a very difficult for us, but today things are getting better and better in China. The rest of the world should know that things will also get better for them too.

Many thanks to Tina Chen, chief of staff in the office of the SAP China MD, and Helen Tian from Internal Communications for SAP China for their support.