Economics and finance, Trade and industry, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia, The World

27 May 2020

Never in the history of Hong Kong has working from home been normal, but COVID-19 has made it more important than ever before, Lina Vyas writes.

The COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world has rendered a large proportion of the workforce unable to commute to work due to measures designed to mitigate the spread of the virus. This has resulted in both employers and employees seeking alternative work arrangements, especially in a fast-paced metropolis like Hong Kong.

Most workers have found themselves attempting to work from home, and this has provided many workers unique insight into their own productivity and how well working from home works. This shift in mentality may play a vital role in future policy, which could reshape the current structure of working hours, possibly allowing for more flexibility and a better work-life balance in highly competitive East Asian workplaces.

Even for those few workers who have had prior experience of working from home, the increased frequency, regularity, and intensity of this new norm is still quite a new experience, and in this new reality, some remain clueless and ill-prepared. Some hope working from home could be the new norm forever, but others have struggled to get work done.

However they have been coping with this significant shift, all workers and employers should take a moment to reflect on the future of work, and how the option of working from home can be reimagined and utilised after the COVID-19 episode ends.

Regardless of differences in approach and preference, these reactions and attitudes have made one challenge, or opportunity, depending on perspective, increasingly clear: making working from home effective is now a major concern, and has become a high-stake priority for businesses and national productivity. This means that it doesn’t just deserve the attention of both employers and employees, but also policymakers.

More on this: China and the fight against COVID-19

Not only is effective work from home urgently relevant to coping with the pandemic itself, but the lessons learned from this experience will also be highly valuable for the post-COVID-19 working landscape.

Importantly, if solutions to issues working from home can be found, COVID-19 could usher in a huge shift towards flexible work arrangements that can, for both employers and employees, create a better work-life balance.

So, what can policymakers do to aid this process? Most prominently, they can introduce more family-friendly policies.

The downside to working from home for many is a lack of equipment and space conducive for work, especially keeping in mind small housing space usually available in Hong Kong. Unless conditions are set and subsidies are extended, there is an obvious absence of office furniture and equipment, something which prevents a productive work environment.

Further, parents with children and elderly relatives at home are pushed especially hard, as they must squeeze work in between caregiving duties, which now include their children’s’ online learning sessions as well.

The feeling of guilt for neglecting family over work and vice versa might create greater stress and burnout in people’s lives, and many people are psychologically conditioned that their home is for rest and relaxation and struggle to motivate themselves in their home spaces.

More on this: Learning from COVID-19

However, it is to be noted that some stresses apparent in the pandemic, such as children staying home from school, will not be present when working from home post-COVID-19. Also, the upsides of work from home should not be discounted. The ease of being able to shift from ‘home mode’ to ‘work mode’ and vice-versa by simply opening the door to a home office can be a considerable attraction.

Work from home cuts time spent commuting, giving people more personal time before and after work. It can also be more leisurely working from home while you can spend quality time with your family and attend to household issues requiring immediate attention between working tasks.

Should employers find productivity levels remain relatively unaffected, more leniency could be expected for workers in the future. A similar level in productivity would make an even stronger case for family-friendly policies to aid in a transition to a new norm for flexible working arrangements. This will not only benefit those with dependents such as children or the elderly but could also improve collective mental health by allowing more family time and free hours for workers.

This is a critical time. The coronavirus has drastically turned our lives upside down, and it did so very suddenly. The truth is, people were truly not prepared for the unexpected and unanticipated significant changes in their work lives, but policymakers and employers alike could make the best of an unusual situation if they take the right action.

Not surprisingly, different people have very different experiences of working from home. There are those who enjoy the freedom and flexibility that comes with working from home, and there are some who instead believe it blurs the line between work and home, or damages their productivity.

It is too early to tell if the work from home concept will be gone in a blip or will become the new norm after the pandemic.

Nonetheless, policymakers should acknowledge the fact that in order to optimise the working from home experience in such a critical moment, both employers and employees need to work together in good faith, and do what they can to aid this process.

This means they should provide sufficient support to employees, ranging from technical to emotional, while employees in return should maintain the discipline and motivation they need to carry on work at home.

Policymakers and employers, in turn, should provide sufficient support for those raising families, or struggling with their mental health, and the difficulties of working from home could be neutralised, while maintaining its many advantages. Indeed, hidden behind this global catastrophe may be a massive overhaul of working culture, almost certainly for the better, but it won’t be achieved without co-operation.

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