‘Forget about making money’: Asia’s CEOs share lessons on reopening and the post-pandemic business landscape

Their businesses were among the first to feel the effects of COVID-19. Now the CEOs of some of Asia’s leading companies are providing a roadmap for what businesses around the world can expect as they reopen.

The top executives of Alibaba Group, Yum China, Grab, and Rakuten met virtually with members of Fortune’s CEO Initiative on Tuesday, to discuss how they are slowly transitioning their business operations and their employees out of quarantine. Their advice ranged from practical workplace considerations to thoughts about the lasting shifts in customer behavior and corporate social responsibility that all top executives and leaders should anticipate, as cities and regions slowly reopen around the world.

Below are three top lessons from these CEOs’ efforts to reopen and recover from the global pandemic:

Reopenings will be slow and cautious – for a long time. The CEOs say they are balancing the benefits of reopening with the continued wariness of both customers and employees. Pizza Hut and KFC operator Yum China, for example, is seeing more in-person business pick up at restaurants with wide open spaces—and less at those in shopping mails, train stations and airports. Until internal and international travel recovers, “those business will continue to struggle a little bit,” says Joey Wat, CEO of Yum China.

For these CEOs’ employees, meanwhile, slow reopenings have pros and cons.. “Working from home is very, very efficient” but also makes some employees feel “isolated and lonely,” says Hiroshi Mikitani, founder and CEO of Rakuten. The Japanese ecommerce company hopes to eventually get to a mix of roughly 70% of people working from the office, with another 30% working from home; but right now, Mikitani says, “we are making a baby step.”

Technology will permanently replace some offline operations, even as the non-virtual world rebounds. The pandemic-caused surge in video meetings, online shopping, and digital payments is here to stay, these CEOs predict. “COVID has accelerated cashless adoption,” says Anthony Tan, CEO and co-founder of Grab. The Singapore-based ride-sharing company, which operates throughout Southeast Asia, has now made all of its ride-sharing payments cashless in the Philippines, even though “cash is still very much king here,” Tan says.  

Meanwhile, Alibaba Group has seen a quarantine-related boost not only in the online shopping that helped the company become an ecommerce giant, but also in internal and external usage of its video and workplace collaboration tools. “We do see a very efficient collaboration online, which I believe will fundamentally change the model of working collaboration in the future,” says Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang.

“Forget about making money for now this year.” That’s the bottom line from Yum China’s Wat, whose company instituted some expensive new programs for employees and customers during the pandemic. Yum China expanded health insurance coverage to the spouses and parents of its store managers, and served free food to over 1,450 hospitals and community health centers across China. This sense of social responsibility is paramount for all companies, she argues: “This year is to build a brand; it’s not about making money. Hopefully we can build a brand that can help shareholders make money for the next 100 years.”

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