When COVID-19 hit, supply chains were severely disrupted globally. A significant proportion of our stock comes from China and our Chinese team found themselves suddenly having to mitigate things like port closures and a lack of truck drivers, while also dealing with the personal challenges of going into lockdown. Having just come out of a second lockdown, we spoke to Brenda, our China production lead, and Leon, our shipping and supply chain planner, about their experiences being at the sharp end of the pandemic.
Tell us a little bit about your background and your role at Talking Tables.
Leon: I’m the shipping and supply chain planner. I manage all Chinese and ROW shipping container movements and support on general supply chain management in China. I’ve worked in buying and trading for over 15 years. Before I came to Talking Tables I worked in the Sainsbury’s buying office in Shanghai.
Brenda: My role is China production lead, handling all Far East production. I step in after the final artwork and specification and ensure the product is made correctly and shipped on time. I also lead meetings with our suppliers, keep the UK team aware of any blockers and support on audit, third party inspection and technical. I was working in a US buying office which specialised in hardware and homeware for 10 years, before I joined Talking Tables in 2017.
What was your experience of the first lockdown?
Leon: The lockdown started suddenly, and people weren’t prepared. We lacked food at the beginning, but that was solved quickly with produce from other provinces sent to Shanghai. I must have got food delivered to my home more than 20 times. Lots of people volunteered and helped out others in emergencies. It was during that time we started to get to know our neighbours. We came together to help each other out and share supplies. It was like the old Chinese saying, a neighbour is better than a distant relative.
Brenda: My community wasn’t in a high risk area, therefore I had less lockdown time than Leon. It was around two months. Thanks to my habit of storing food, I wasn’t worried about it running out. What I did find challenging was the work/life balance. It’s hard to switch off from work when you can’t leave the house.
How did it impact the way you work?
Leon: We had to work at home without a VPN, which meant the internet was incredibly slow. It would take up to several minutes to open a website or system. Luckily Teams and Zoom weren’t affected, and we could communicate frequently with the UK office.
However, the most challenging thing for me was the shipping aspect. Suppliers were unable to send cargo to Shanghai. We moved most of the shipments to Ningbo, Shenzhen and some to Qingdao. Ningbo port became so congested after Shanghai was locked down. The situation has been pretty tough since the outbreak of COVID-19. Sea freight costs have gone up by almost 10 times. There are port congestions all over the world, a lack of containers and truck drivers. It’s a lot to be up against.
Brenda: Due to the slow internet speed at home compared with the office, I had to prioritise the most urgent tasks. I also couldn’t send or receive samples, so I had to improvise by taking pictures and videos.
What was it like being in lockdown for a second time?
Leon: The second time round was actually much easier compared with the first. We’ve adapted since the first lockdown and have sought alternative systems and routes to enable us to get our work done.
Brenda: We weren’t as flustered as we were the first time round because back then we knew nothing about COVID-19. However, Omicron spread much faster than COVID-19, so we were given very little time to prepare. Due to the huge number of cases the government provided free food, waivered rent on stores and distributed free PCR tests. People are being extra vigilant now as no one wants to go into another lockdown.
What have you found the most challenging both professionally and personally?
Leon: The most challenging for me professionally was definitely the issues with shipping. Personally, it had to be the lack of movement during lockdown. I could only walk from my bedroom to the kitchen and balcony.
Now you’re out of lockdown, is there anything you miss about it?
Leon: I miss the free food and the volunteers. I want to say thank you to them.
Brenda: The communication with my neighbours. I would like to keep that.