27th April 2020

Return: Coronavirus lessons from Asia

One month on from the coronavirus lockdown and we are starting to scenario-plan for our future return to operations.

While we don’t yet know the government or social context for the re-start of catering and guest services, we can look to places that are further ahead of the coronavirus wave for lessons and ideas on what makes for a ‘good’ return.

Asia (and particularly China) offers the best case study from across the world today. China is 8 weeks ahead of the Ireland’s coronavirus cycle and has made more significant steps towards normalisation than any other country. In speaking with our Compass friends in China and other partners in the region, we have picked up five key lessons (the first two of which are particularly important):

  1. Clear and visible signals that we are in control of health and safety are critical to building consumer trust
  2. Supporting the team – through reassurance, frequent communications and great training – is also critical
  3. We need to be prepared for ongoing volume variability and stop-start operations
  4. Having the right technology in place can encourage consumers to return
  5. Consumers like to be given the means to protect their own safety – providing the right guidance and tools is reassuring and important

What are our goals, as we return to hospitality operations?

In starting a return to operations, we have set ourselves the following aims:

  • Keep our customers safe.  Minimise the risk of coronavirus spread
  • Support and protect our teams on site
  • Encourage our customers to eat with us – everybody wins if our customers choose to eat at and purchase food from the lowest-risk, healthiest food option.

What do we think corona-return will look like?

  • While we don’t know what the context will be for a return to operations, here are some of the things that our colleagues in China have experienced:
  • Mandated limits on the proportion of people who can return to work (20% initially, then 50%, 70%, 100%)
  • Workplaces using different strategies to meet the rules (e.g., morning and afternoon shifts, allowing everyone into the office for half of each day).
  • Slow steady increases in volumes, c.3-5% increase each week over a period of 8 weeks.  Now, 8 weeks after starting to exit lockdown, 95% of businesses are open at c.80% of volume overall
  • Operations may be reintroduced in stages:
    1. Click and collect only
    2. Takeaway; pay in store
    3. Limited covers: one chair per table
    4. Limited covers: 2 chairs per table
  • ‘Circuit breaker’ actions that reimpose temporary lockdown elements when the virus flares up again. We should expect further short pauses to operations over several months
  • White collar working from home is one of the last lockdown elements to be relaxed because it is a relatively low-impact way of limiting infection spread
  • Bars, restaurants and visitor venues operate with universal adoption of masks.  8 weeks after lockdown, cinemas are still not in use
  • 8 weeks after lockdown, schools remain closed.  This exacerbates staffing challenges.

And here are some of the ways that customers in China have responded to the slow return to day to day life:

  • Customer mindsets are split:  Half are keen to get back to normality and celebrating being out and about again.  The other half remain cautious of any interaction.
  • Customers are nervous about trusting anyone other than themselves with their health.  Lots of customers brought food from home on their return to the workplace
  • Many people don’t want to sit with, opposite or next to each other to eat

Asia’s lessons for a successful return

Our colleagues in Asia have managed a positive return to operations so far. Here are the things that they have encouraged us to focus on, as we plan our own return:

1. Put in place clear and visible signals that we are in control of health and safety

“The perception of being in control is critical”: Compass China’s ‘Eat Assured’ programme provides customers with meaningful and visible signals that the team on site are following the very safest food standards:

  • Daily temperature records for all staff – taken and displayed.  Mandatory return home for any signs of unwellness
  • Appropriate service styles – most food is wrapped grab-and-go.  Self-service is not used
  • Appropriate PPE worn by all staff at all times.  Particularly in the kitchen where social distancing is not possible, PPE – including masks, gloves and goggles – demonstrates safety
  • Frequent and regular in-service cleaning for front- and back-of-house
  • Rigorous temperature probe procedures for all hot food
  • Handwash and personal hygiene mandated with regular timetabled hygiene moments (handwashing; mask changing, etc.)
  • Team members instructed not to congregate: demonstrate and role-model social distancing
  • Signs and posters advertising safety actions – providing reassurance and building trust:  “Clients and customers told us these visuals helped them stay calm and make them feel we are in control”
  • Checklists are used extensively to ensure that safety processes are adhered to by every team member

2. Support the team through frequent reassurance, communication and great training:

“Going back to work can be scary. Nervousness reduces drastically with good communication. It’s ok to over-communicate at times like this and good to provide repeated positive messages going out daily”

  • Team members are very nervous about returning to work.  Partly through health concerns and partly after a long break from normal working patterns.
  • Proper pandemic-control training and new coronavirus health and safety training are critical for all staff members
  • Reassurance, training and frequent check-ins are all critical: “We were told by our staff that the daily update we sent every morning since early February (and we are still sending it today) is the reason why they stayed calmed.  This action shows we are in control rather than allowing our staff’s imagination to run wild”.
  • Daily communication and updates with teams provide a valued and regular pattern
  • Must provide one source of the truth (Compass HSE) on health & safety – reliable and highly available advice.  Steer teams away from other, unverified sources of information.
  • Our Chinese colleagues found a direct link between teams’ mental health and the provision of clear, accurate health and safety guidance – while simultaneously blocking the spread of any social media or unverified health advice.

3. Be ready for ongoing volume variability and stop-start operations:

While the return to ‘normal’ has been largely slow and steady, customer numbers can vary day by day according to new working patterns. In addition, short ‘circuit breaker’ actions – such as local site lockdowns – may happen, temporarily suspending service. Pre-emptive actions to manage this include:

  • Small batch cooking
  • Simplified menus
  • Plans in place for queue management when volumes spike
  • Rapid mobilisation/demobilisation procedure in place for every outlet
  • Flexible staffing
  • Bias towards longer-life ingredients that will better survive a temporary pause

4. Introduce the right technology to encourage customers to return:

  • Click and collect has become popular on the high street
  • Removing cash is a positive signal of a healthy environment
  • Phone-based payment apps reduce the amount of non-personal kit that consumers need to touch

5. Give customers the guidance and tools they need to protect their own safety:

“100% transparency to customers is the key”:


  • Most successful returns-to-work were in sites where the client clearly communicated behaviour and process expectations to staff and visitors – e.g., social distance expectations, personal hygiene requirements; health verification requirements; hours or days on site.
  • Display very clear, simple ‘1,2,3…’ instructions for customers so they know how to use the restaurant in this new environment
  • Provide temperature checks at the entrance
  • Provide hand sanitiser, masks, gloves
  • Employ day-of-the-week wristbands to prove split-team working
  • Press lift buttons and open doors for customers, and/or provide no-touch entrances and exits
  • Chinese units have supervisors at all times ensuring that consumer behaviour guidelines are being followed arch) shows just how remarkably rapidly this is happening already

Wen Huang, our Compass Managing Director in China, has been a huge support in sharing his lessons and insights with us – and we have taken heart from his guidance to us in conversation this week:

“Wen, what would you do differently over the last month, if you had this time again?…”

“…We kept it simple, we delivered instructions clearly and most importantly we stayed calm. I would do everything the same. “