The spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 around the world has had a significant impact on TLScontact, as it has on many other global organisations. Our core visa processing activity is closely linked to international travel, which is of course at a virtual standstill right now across much of the world. However, the insights of our Chinese team, who have been dealing with this crisis since January, have proved invaluable in helping us to respond effectively to the development of the virus elsewhere. The experience of our colleagues in China will also be hugely important when we start coming out of the crisis in the West and ramping up our visa processing operations once again.
The scale of the COVID-19 crisis in China became apparent just before the Chinese New Year festivities, which had both advantages and drawbacks. On the one hand, much of China – including our visa centres – was already preparing to slow down for the holiday period. On the other hand, as many of our staff had already left to travel home to their families elsewhere in the country, it was challenging to track each of them down to make sure that they were safe and well.
A rapid response to ensure staff safety
The first step in our response to the emerging health crisis was therefore to set up an emergency team, made up of operations staff and HR, to collect contact details for each staff member and information on where they were. We then set up dedicated communications channels to keep in touch with our teams, many of whom were not connected to our systems during this period. E-mail and WeChat groups were created for employees at each of our 15 Chinese locations, plus our corporate team, to update them regularly on developments. Work at home was implemented immediately for all corporate staff, with our local IT teams providing support to ensure that everyone had the necessary equipment and software to access our systems securely from their homes.
Clear customer communications
One of the big challenges was to ensure clear communications with our visa customers during this period. In China, we handle significant volumes of visa applications to France, The Netherlands, Cyprus and Israel. While January is typically the ‘low season’ for international travel, many applications were ongoing when we were unable to reopen the VACs on January 29th as planned after the Chinese New Year holiday. There were therefore many concerned visa customers needing advice and support. We provided this through our local websites and WeChat account, with our call centre staff working in rotation to handle customer enquiries. Our teams also spent a lot of time contacting applicants either to help them to reschedule their appointments or, for those people whose visas were ready, to discuss passport collection options.
A zero-risk approach after reopening
While the situation in Wuhan and Hubei Province remained critical, we were able to start reopening our other visa centres from the second week in February. This posed new challenges, as we sought to take every measure possible to ensure the health and safety of our staff and visa applicants.
All employees were equipped with the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): masks, glasses and gloves.
Staff rotation was put into place, with employees working alternate days to limit their exposure.
Temperature checks were introduced for all applicants coming into our centres and all were required to wear masks.
We introduced regular disinfection of all our centres throughout the day.
Social distancing measures were strictly enforced inside our centres with, for example, applicants and staff not sitting directly opposite each other at our documentation counters to ensure adequate space between them.
Thanks to the measures we took both at the beginning of the crisis and once we reopened our centres, not a single case of COVID-19 has been identified among our employees in China. As China now slowly returns to normal, the rest of the TLScontact organisation has benefited from the experience of our Chinese teams. One of the key takeaways was the importance of reacting quickly and decisively to the outbreak of the virus. This meant that as COVID-19 spread beyond China, our centres around the world moved quickly to install equipment such as hand sanitisers and to start informing applicants of basic measures to limit the risks of catching and spreading COVID-19.
Right now, visa processing is suspended in almost all the 90 countries where we operate. However, as the crisis abates and we start reopening locations, the lessons we have learnt managing COVID-19 in China will be applied across our operations. Our purpose as an organisation is to make international travel safe and easy for both governments and citizens. This starts with ensuring the safety of visa applicants and TLScontact staff at our centres, now more than ever.
Article by Wei LI,Country Manager – China