COVID-19: The view from Poland
By 30 March there were more than 750,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus globally with the main centre of infection shifting since late 2019 from China to Europe and now to the US.
In Poland, more than 2,000 cases have been confirmed in a country of 38 million people, according to the World Health Organization. The country’s borders have been closed until 13 April and, as in many other European countries, restrictions are in place on citizens’ movements.
Two management accountants working in the country amid the crisis are Magdalena Wereda-Kolasińska FCMA, CGMA, finance director at Warsaw-based health insurance company PZU Health, and Anna Trojanowska, ACMA, CGMA, who works as a senior financial controller at IBM in Wroclaw in the west of Poland.
In this Q&A, which has been edited, they describe how the coronavirus spread is affecting their company, sectors, and teams, and how finance is leading the deployment of new products and services.
(Editor’s note: Wereda-Kolasińska starts a new role in Poland’s fast-moving consumer goods sector on 1 April.)
What broad challenges is your business currently facing? And how is your sector affected?
Magdalena Wereda-Kolasińska: Medical operators and especially PZU Health are at the epicentre of COVID-19. Every day, physicians and nurses are on the frontline, giving help to patients. In fact, they take some risks in helping the people who need their assistance. PZU Health provides ambulatory services for patients from Poland’s National Health Fund and for those for whom subscriptions are paid by their employers. As one of the first of its type in Poland, we started a call centre for not only our patients but for everyone who has questions on the new coronavirus and needs care. The biggest challenge for us today is to continue to deliver medical services for patients and at the same time make sure that both patients and medical staff are protected from COVID-19. We feel responsible for not only our patients but also for our society.
Anna Trojanowska: The IT sector is not affected by the crisis so far, but we need to consider the impact on our customers and suppliers. Customers do ask to make late payments as has happened, for example, in Italy. It is important to bear in mind that some clients will have difficulty with liquidity, suppliers might have challenges with delivering some services, and some of our business partners will need to make difficult decisions, for example, regarding layoffs.
What steps have you taken so far within finance to meet those challenges?
Wereda-Kolasińska: Our response to the needs of our patients and their fear of physical visits to our clinics has been to enhance telemedicine instead of real visits. We have always believed in this channel for taking care of patients, so it was not something new for us. The difference is that we achieved a much higher scale of this operation in an extremely short time. As a result, we had to verify the financial process to make it more flexible and convenient to the clients. Patients should not feel that telemedicine is a different or worse service but a way of obtaining what they need most — medical support, e-prescriptions, or e-sickness notes.
Trojanowska: It is important to react quickly. There are regular reviews taking place. Changes are happening quickly, so we need to adapt accordingly. It is important to maintain clear, consistent, transparent communications with all stakeholders, including employees, clients, and customers. The situation is very dynamic.
The majority of the workforce where possible are working remotely. If the offices completely close, it will be important to have the proper infrastructure in place to enable remote working and support our customers.
What is the impact so far on your team or company workforce?
Wereda-Kolasińska: We have started home office working for back-office staff, especially now that all schools and kindergartens are closed in Poland, so children are at home with parents. So far, we have used remote work rarely, but now we cannot imagine another way of cooperating. We have many processes online. My team is working well in the new circumstances. They help each other. They take care of them as they are like family members. COVID-19 recovered solidarity among people, and I am sure that this is the positive side of this situation.
Trojanowska: The priority is to keep employees safe and healthy, so the majority of our workforce is working remotely. In finance 100% of the operation is working remotely. It brings another challenge. People are suddenly forced to work from home — some of them have children or family members who they must take care of. In some countries like China some employees have been working from home for two months. There is an adjustment to working schedules and tasks.
In such a situation it is important to provide support for employees as much as possible to show empathy and to make sure they know that their safety and that of their close ones come first. We have informal meetings where they can discuss everyday life over coffee and sweets. It keeps them motivated and is an opportunity to share experience on how to deal with this unusual situation. This social interaction allows team members to talk about how they feel and the challenges they have faced — and even sharing pictures from the weekend can keep people closer.
Are you looking to deliver new products or services as a result of the crisis?
Wereda-Kolasińska: Telemedicine after a few days started to be our priority to meet our patients’ health needs. The crisis has already begun, so in my opinion we will listen to our patients carefully and with patience, and we will do our best so that they feel confident about their health.
Trojanowska: All big companies are trying to support local organisations and the government to deal with the crisis. IBM Poland together with Cisco are making available free of charge Cisco Webex to help remote education for schools and universities. There are also volunteers that will present to teachers on how to use the system.
In addition, the Polish Ministry of Health together with IBM Poland has created a virtual assistant, which will help answer enquiries regarding coronavirus. This product was created in a few days only thanks to enormous voluntary work of IBM employees. It uses IBM Cloud and IBM Watson Assistant.
What have you learned so far from the crisis that would be useful to other management accountants?
Wereda-Kolasińska: Paradoxically, we learned that we can implement new solutions faster than we could have ever dreamed, thanks to fast mobilisation and team spirit — especially in back-office processes. We realise that it is only beginning and we need strength to overcome future problems, but we are sure that patients are most important for us and we will not give up in providing medical care for them. It is our mission.
Trojanowska: The general advice is to expect the unexpected — be ready as the current situation can change rapidly and quick decisions will be necessary. There will not be time for in-depth analysis. We also need to think long term beyond the current situation. For example, if a customer is losing revenue due to the crisis, we are analysing how to minimise the negative impact on income by decreasing costs. The simplest solution seems to be to reduce the workforce. However, we need to remember that in the longer term, customer operations will go back to normal, so the right thing to do now is to secure employees’ work and search for other costs optimisation. Crucially, in communications with stakeholders be transparent and honest about the situation and what might be affected. Now, reporting needs to be tailored to a high-level view. We need to respond very quickly without having all the necessary information.
For more news and reporting on the coronavirus and how management accountants can handle challenges related to the outbreak, visit FM’s coronavirus resources page.
— Oliver Rowe (Oliver.Rowe@aicpa-cima.com) is an FM magazine senior editor.