Coping with SARS: Telecommuting and Herbal Tea

Rosa Huang doesn't go out much these days. The 33-year-old director of corporate business development for Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO ) in Hong Kong, who is expecting her first child in June, is worried about the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). So she stays away from Cisco's office in the crowded Wanchai section of town. No problem. Now she is working from her home among the green hills of Saikung -- an enclave in Hong Kong's rural New Territories. Cisco has given her, and all employees, broadband Internet access and a wireless local-area network. Some 25% of them work off-site. And Huang has barely missed a beat: "It's really seamless if you're at home," she says.

SARS is causing economic havoc across Asia, threatening countless small businesses with bankruptcy and large ones with big losses. But some companies long ago set up contingency plans in response to September 11, anthrax attacks, and other disasters that they are now getting a chance to test out -- and adapt to meet a new kind of threat.

"Divide to survive" is the essence of all these strategies. FedEx Corp. (FDX ), which has a major operation in Hong Kong, broke its call center staff into two teams and located them on different floors. If SARS closes down one call center, FedEx has another with 40 operators at the ready. "We are also taking critical work groups and splitting them into isolated cells, so if there is a case of SARS, we can continue with the others," explains David L. Cunningham, president of FedEx' Asia Pacific operations.

Credit Suisse First Boston LLC (CSR ), which has offices in two separate skyscrapers in Hong Kong's financial district, also has been splitting staff into discrete teams -- and making sure they have no contact with each other. Rather than cross from one building to the other to meet face to face, they are conducting their meetings via videoconferencing. Other investment banks have gone so far as to discourage workers from even having lunch with colleagues from other teams. And many companies, like Cisco, are encouraging employees to work from home. How long will all this last? "If necessary, indefinitely," says Martie Driessen, head of operational risk management and compliance at ING Asia/Pacific.

With people afraid to travel, companies are also changing the way they communicate. After September 11, Hong Kong-based Li & Fung Ltd. set up a videoconferencing studio in New York. Customers are using it to hold meetings with suppliers in China. At J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (JPM ), bankers in early April conducted a virtual road show to sell global depository receipts to investors in Hong Kong and Singapore for Kumgang Korea Chemical Co. The company raised $28 million, 40% of it from Asia. The emergency sales pitch had some advantages, says Rupert Fane, head of the Asia Pacific equity team at the bank: "Normally you have a 40-minute presentation, jump into a car, and rush to the next meeting," he says. In a virtual road show, "you can let the questions and answers run on a bit longer."

A Taiwanese electronics company, Lite-on Technology Corp., which has 30,000 employees in Guangdong province, is using conference calls. And, says spokesman John Chen, the company is giving herbal tea to its employees. "It can strengthen the body of workers so they can avoid the infection," he says.

Companies aren't the only ones turning to technology to cope with SARS. On Apr. 14, classes resumed at City University of Hong Kong after a two-week hiatus. But many overseas students had already left Hong Kong, unlikely to return until the outbreak subsides. To make sure these absentee students can finish the semester, the university's teachers have been putting their lessons on the Internet, even administering exams online. "Without digital connections, this would have been a nightmare," says Bryan Bachner, a law professor. Using technology "has made this thing manageable."

Of course, there are limits to what technology can do. Cisco's Huang will be out of the office indefinitely and plans to have her baby in Europe, where her family lives. But sooner or later, she and others will have to start seeing colleagues and clients face to face again. When doing a deal in China, "you need to be able to see the company," she says. "You have to actually see and talk to the people." But until the SARS scare lifts, virtual meetings will have to suffice.

By Bruce Einhorn in Hong Kong

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