With physical stores closed and 90% of its sales derived offline, one Chinese fashion retailer knew it had to find a way to drive digital sales. So it took an unusual step—incentivizing its store managers to tap into their social networks, providing them with specific digital codes to collect commissions for online sales coming from their contacts. Remarkably, within a week, the company was generating upwards of $140,000 a day in sales, keeping its business afloat and avoiding the mass layoffs that hit other retailers.

The world has been watching China, as the origin country of the COVID-19 pandemic, eyeing the pace of its economic progress from the start. This week, the country reported a strong rebound in its GDP, up 3.2% in the second quarter after a 6.8% fall in the quarter before. “Companies have had to respond quickly, in some cases having to rethink their entire operating models to stay competitive,” says Michael Distefano, Korn Ferry’s Asia Pacific region president. “In doing so, they have built in agile structures and collaborative ecosystems that will better prepare them for future disruptions.”

According to a new paper, in which Korn Ferry looks at several trends that have emerged in how Chinese organizations have responded, firms with a strong, purpose-based culture have been able to align their leadership, employees, and customers behind it. Examples include pharmaceutical companies shifting production lines to make masks, retailers offering special discounts to frontline workers, distribution companies delivering medical supplies for free, and hotel chains sharing workers with supermarkets.

“These kinds of actions, undertaken without considering any commercial value, creates a meaningful and enduring relationship among organizations, their employees, and customers,” says Gladdy He, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and a member of the firm’s Global Life Sciences Markets and NGO practices.

A previous Korn Ferry survey of 300 China-based enterprises found 90% believed COVID-19 would have a negative impact on revenue in 2020, and more than half expected revenue to decline by 15% or more compared with forecasts. Still, while many Chinese companies—as well as other companies throughout the world—have been forced to furlough or lay off employees due to the financial damage inflicted by the pandemic, organizations with the strategic foresight and monetary wherewithal have continued to opportunistically hire talent core to their business strategy. To be sure, Norman Zhou, a managing director in Korn Ferry’s Professional Search and RPO practice in China, says the acceleration of digital adoption resulting from the pandemic has heightened the urgency among organizations to attract more digital talent.

“Building capabilities on the digital front has really accelerated in China since the pandemic, and we’re seeing the digital function mobilize to be a major, if not the only, growth engine for organizations,” says Zhou.

In China, as in other regions around the world, the pandemic has accelerated the need to transform. And as the recovery takes shape, the moves organizations undertake now can help set up stronger foundations for the future. “There is no doubt this has been a time of experimentation for many businesses, fueled by a sense of urgency,” says Distefano. “Organizations that can successfully navigate COVID-19 can embed learned behaviors to cultivate a culture that can respond and adapt better to future crises.”

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