By Simon Loong
WeLab Founder and Group CEO Simon Loong provides valuable insights on the company’s responses to COVID-19, how the pandemic has affected their business and the growing importance of digital readiness at this time.
The highly contagious coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has certainly proven to be very challenging for everyone. Having said that, we see some opportunities created for participants of the so-called “new economy” amid this pandemic.
A marked shift towards digital
We have witnessed a shift in consumer behaviour. Social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders have facilitated the growth of and increased demand for e-commerce and other online businesses.
As we operate fully online businesses in Hong Kong, mainland China and Indonesia, this shift has brought a positive impact to our business. Our online lending platform WeLend, which has been operating in Hong Kong since 2013, has seen approximately 36% increase in loan application volume in March 2020 compared to March 2019. Younger customers under 30 years old accounted for 51% of that growth.
We have seen an uptake in the adoption and acceptance of digital services. Some first-time customers have given us feedback that they are more willing to try online financial services because of brand recognition and convenience of access while they are spending more time at home.
The growing necessity of digital readiness
Another emerging trend that we are seeing is the heightened urgency to reassess digital readiness among traditional organisations that primarily depend on a brick-and-mortar model. On our B2B business side, we are seeing some traditional financial institutions accelerating their digital transformation plans.
These institutions have the goal of building an end-to-end process that can be operated fully online and, most importantly, enable them to provide an uninterrupted, enjoyable customer experience. As such, it is imperative that organisations have built and designed the technical infrastructure to support this fully online end-to-end process over a sustained period, rather than consider it as a quick fix or a temporary solution. It is also highly important to plan around and think holistically about the customer journey, to make it as enjoyable as possible.
In the loan application process, this means going beyond filling out forms online. The process also includes whether or not the middle and back office functions – such as approvals, disbursement and portfolio management – can be performed remotely and securely.
Making work from home work
The safety and well-being of our employees is our top priority, which is why we had to shift our entire operations to a “work from home” mode. Our staff have been working from home for most of February and the early part of April when there was a second wave of infections. Fortunately, all our customer-facing operations are fully online, so from a customer perspective, all services continue to be accessible whilst practicing social distancing.
Technologically, we are well-equipped and prepared for this transition. Our laptop penetration is at over 100%, as some of our staff have more than one laptop. We also leverage technology and work tools efficiently to help our staff remain productive while working remotely.
Our China office also began working from home after the Chinese New Year holiday. WeLab has 700 employees in China alone and, at the time, everyone expected to go back to the office like normal after the holidays. We foresaw the urgency to implement a work from home policy in our China office, so we started planning in the middle of the holiday. We got all the teams to start setting up home workstations, we couriered laptops to their homes and tested all virtual private network (VPN) connections. We achieved 70-80% efficiency on the first day of working from home and 95% by the third day.
In the banking industry, traditional banks are facing challenges working from home. Some of the major factors for the effectiveness for running a bank during this period is laptop penetration and the average age of staff. I have a bank executive who complained to me that their laptop penetration is at only 20%. No matter how hard they try, that is probably the cap of their productivity working from home. The tech readiness of the bank and the tech savvy of the employees determine the effectiveness of working from home. Physical infrastructure aside, it is very important for everyone to change the mindset to adapt to this new norm.
Simon Loong is the Founder and Group CEO of Hong Kong-based fintech company WeLab.