ViacomCBS Employees in Asia on Fostering Creativity in Quarantine

What employees have learned about staying connected to each other and their work.
May 22, 2020 11:30 AM ET

Originally published by ViacomCBS

By Stuart Winchester

ViacomCBS’ employees in Asia may have some helpful perspective for their peers around the world.  

In a virtual panel hosted by ViacomCBS International Networks (VCNI) President and CEO David Lynn, employees shared some of the lessons they’ve learned throughout the lockdown period. Employees from the Beijing office, some with masks still dangling from their ears, spoke about returning to the office, while their still-sheltering colleagues in Singapore talked about the creative measures they’ve adopted to stay connected. 

Many agreed they had grown closer to their colleagues in quarantine, even as they acknowledged the challenges of social isolation. 

“I hope this all gives us hope that there’s life after coronavirus,” Lynn said.

Creating Sustainable Work Environments

In Singapore, the lockdown coincided with the Lunar New Year break, an important holiday period in parts of Asia. This meant that many employees were away from the office and unable to retrieve essential tools.

Ragi Singh, a VP of human resources in Singapore, said that in addition to ensuring everyone had the necessary equipment, the local team also helped people optimize their physical space. “We realized that not everybody has a home office that’s sustainable over a long period of time,” said Singh. “We looked into the ergonomics and the seating arrangements that people have at home.”

Deploying new software also smoothed the transition to remote work. “The Microsoft Teams app that we started using in late January when we first experienced lockdown changed our lives,” said Pierre Cheung, SVP and general manager of Asia. It alleviated concerns over connecting to shared digital storage drives, as well as offered a solution for text and video chats.

In the absence of in-person informal contact, organizing new communications channels to help employees stay connected to the business became vital. Charmaine Huet, VP of corporate communication in Asia, organized a set of initiatives to help, including BYOB happy hours and biweekly group check-ins with regional offices. Colleagues also began ordering surprises like ice cream or bubble tea to be delivered to one another.

For some employees, establishing boundaries within the day was key. “I need to separate my time,” said Charmaine Huet, a VP of corporate communications in Singapore whose son is home with her. “This is when I’m doing my work. This is when I’m doing his school work. This is when I’m going to sort out the groceries.”

Some factors remained beyond control, however. Reliable internet became a problem in China, for example, as the sheer volume of people working from home destabilized networks.

Translating Circumstances Into Creativity

One positive outcome of the extended lockdowns: an explosion of creativity. As employees spent time under quarantine creating personal videos and images to share across social media, as well as just becoming more comfortable with digital tools, they parlayed the experience into their day-to-day work.  

“Everyone now is a producer … Everyone’s creating content from their balcony,” said Cheung. “The landscape has changed to a positive, resilient way to find opportunities.” VCNI harnessed this spontaneous energy to create a short-form user-generated-content series called Balcony Stories with Fremantle that will air on ViacomCBS networks across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

“While people clearly miss going into the office, it’s striking that colleagues are being very creative about maintaining that sense of camaraderie and that interaction,” said Lynn. “I think people are becoming closer because of this whole crisis.”

Savoring a Staggered Return

Each ViacomCBS office around the world will be re-opening on varying schedules based on what’s best for protecting the health and safety of workers. 

In Asia, employees in China began returning to their offices earlier this month. Hong Kong employees returned to work on Monday, April 20. Workplaces in Japan and the Philippines will be closed at least through the end of April, while Singapore is enduring its second shutdown and its offices will remain closed at least until May 4. 

The reopenings in China have been staggered, with no more than half of employees in any given location permitted back in the office at any one time. Within the office, only one person is allowed in the pantry. Group lunches, a staple of the Beijing work day, are no longer allowed. “The sense of sitting together and having a meal is important in Asia,” said Singh.

Employees who have returned to the office recalled life under lockdown and drew a picture of the unfamiliar world they emerged into. Crystal Wang, legal counsel for Greater China, spent the lockdown with her family outside of Beijing and had to quarantine for 14 days upon return. She then had to scan a QR code indicating that she hadn’t left the city for two weeks, and a “community committee” issued her a certificate that allowed her to leave her apartment. Limited stores and restaurants are open in Beijing, she said, but large events like concerts and events at stadium sports have yet to resume.

With uncertainty still prevalent, employees are allowed to work remotely at any time if they feel like it.

“There is a sense of concern that this is not over yet,” said Singh. “We’ve given flexibility to our colleagues to say that, look, you know, if you’re living with young kids or elderly folks who are more vulnerable, or if you are sharing an apartment with someone that’s traveled from overseas, or from another province, we are happy with the flexibility of them staying and working from home.”

Most ViacomCBS employees around the world will continue to work from home for the foreseeable future. 

“I know we all want our regular work world to return, complete with open buildings,” said ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish at a recent company-wide virtual town hall event. “But due to the severity of the threat, our work-from-home and travel policies will remain in effect until it’s safe to make changes.”