21 April 2020
Singapore’s «circuit breaker» – a curb of all non-essential businesses and activities, and heightened social distancing – has dramatically changed the daily routine for professionals in the financial services sector, many of whom are now working from home (WFH). This series takes a look at how they are coping during the city’s lockdown. Singapore’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic stepped into high gear about two weeks ago, with a partial lockdown and mandatory wearing of masks in public, to curb the spread of the disease. Yet, infection numbers have continued to reach new highs, with 1,426 cases reported on Monday, making it the Southeast Asian country with the highest number of infections. Currently, workplaces have been forced to shut until May 4 in the earliest scenario, and nonessential businesses have had to either cease operations or do what they can to function virtually.
As work-from-home rules are implemented on a wide-scale, the implications of this period are going to be profound, with organizations forced into new ways of working, new tools, and different ways of interacting together, Alex Manson, global head, SC Ventures at Standard Chartered, tells finews.asia in an interview. The business unit within Standard Chartered enables innovation, invests in disruptive financial technology and explores alternative business models. Set up in 2018, it has been a key driver in promoting a culture of innovation within the bank, as well as developing and delivering digital solutions for both the bank and its clients. Alex Manson, Singapore has been at the forefront of Covid-19 prevention. Is the current lockdown a setback of its containment efforts so far?
I don’t see it this way, Singapore did a stellar job of managing the «early outbreak» but could not prevent re-importing the virus as the pandemic became global and other nations were slow to react and manage the situation, while people continued to travel freely with little awareness or precautions.
I find the answer in Singapore has been balanced through the crisis, meaning avoiding extreme pendulum swings and taking measures as a function of the information available at any point in time. This includes the fact that information evolves rapidly in a crisis, and I have in fact seen an element of refreshing humility in leadership with the ability to change your mind once you have new facts.
What are the biggest obstacles you are facing in your work these days?
Some aspects of our work continue almost undisrupted, working from home and using various digital tools, which we were advocating in the first place. Other aspects are really difficult: for example how do 12 people build a prototype around a table and a whiteboard? Well, there are tools for that too but yes it is just a lot more cumbersome.
Personally, I like to walk around, grab somebody for a chat – include another, improvise a quick meeting to solve a problem: that’s a lot harder too. And the most difficult part is to keep a good sense for how everybody is coping, how individuals feel in the current context – I can see anxiety building around the world, our teams are probably no exception and there will be an even more acute need to focus on people’s overall wellness in this environment.
How are you communicate with your clients now?
Remotely! That part is actually almost easy and I expect that in the future people may insist on a lot on face-to-face meetings as all are getting used to working at a distance.
Perhaps a helpful tip is the use of phone or video chat, etc., as opposed to e-mail: e-mail was never a great means of communication (it is good for passing on information, but certainly not for debating things or asking someone for a favor). I used to say when in doubt, pick up the phone. More so today actually.
How long can you ride out such a situation?
As it relates to ways of working, we’ll have to work this way for as long as it takes… I enjoy endurance sports and this situation reminds me of the reflexes of a long-distance effort: find a sustainable pace, don’t waste energy, think of «after» rather than «tomorrow» and importantly, just get used to the fact that it will be uncomfortable!
I am more worried about the long term impact of the crisis for a number of clients in our ecosystem: the longer this goes the more stretched they will be and we can see the first signs of distress with SMEs in particular – they typically represent 60 percent of any nation’s GDP.
Do you think Singapore as a financial center will lose its attractiveness over the Covid-19 crisis?
Quite the contrary actually. Singapore’s crisis management skills have been both effective and noted internationally, especially in comparison to some of the Western markets. I think Singapore may well gain rather than lose on a relative basis.