In offices all throughout Asia, desks are empty, lights are off, and phones are quiet. In major business hubs around the region, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, shops are shuttered, public facilities are closed, and scant few people are wandering the usually crowded financial districts.
The outbreak of the novel Wuhan coronavirus (now officially known as COVID-19) that first appeared in December of 2019 has grown to such an extent that it has left bustling urban areas temporarily abandoned. Instead, millions of people are holed up at home in what may be the world’s largest work-from-home experiment.
Approximately 60 million people in China were put under full or partial lockdown in January as the Chinese government tried to contain the virus. In order to prevent the spread of the virus, other areas within China and other countries both have been implementing restrictions such as ordering staff to stay home and avoid crowded places. However, there is pressure for companies to get back to work, with Chinese President Xi Jinping warning that the country needed to stabilise its economy.
As previously stated, millions of employees in China are currently working from home. For some like teaches who have had to conduct classes digitally for weeks, working from home can be an unpleasant experience.
But for other business sectors, this unexpected experiment has been so well received that employers are considering adopting it as a more permanent measure. For advocates of a better work-life balance and more flexible working options, the past few weeks mark a possible step toward widespread and long-awaited reform.
China was already feeling the sting from the US-China trade war as well as a slump in domestic demand. The fact that COVID-19 has resulted in businesses being closed for weeks hassled to rising fears of mass lay-offs, unemployment, and housing foreclosures.
With authorities urging businesses to reopen, employees across China are beginning to work from home. More than half of workers in the capital Beijing plan to do so instead of going into the office, according to state-run newspaper China Daily.
Citing health and safety concerns, tech companies such as Tencent, Alibaba, and Microsoft have told CNN that their staff will work from home for several weeks. The governments of Singapore, Hong Kong, and Macao have ordered civil servants to work from home and asked private employers to do so where possible, with only essential staff or emergency service providers still at the office.
Civil servants in Hong Kong have been working from home since the Lunar New Year holiday ended in late January. A Hong Kong government statement said it “appealed to other employers to make flexible work arrangements for employees in order to reduce contacts among people.”
Schools in many places have also been suspended, with classrooms going online using tools such as Google Hangouts. Unfortunately, this has not been as popular or efficient compared to office workers; especially for those who work with children with special needs or disabilities.
“We use a lot of hands-on learning, so it’s been really challenging trying to make our online learning meaningful for the kids when we’re not in a classroom environment,” said Karen, a special education teacher in Hong Kong, who requested a pseudonym to avoid identifying the school.
For digital-based sectors, working from home has proven surprisingly effective.
“It’s a test run that we didn’t really choose to implement, but we’re quite happy with it,” said Brice Lamarque, sales and accounts director at a web and branding agency in Hong Kong.
“Before (the epidemic) happened, we were not really keen on letting our team work from home because we value collaboration,” said Lamarque. “But this experience actually showed us that the whole team collaborates quite well even if they’re not in the same room, so we’re looking at adding that into our employee benefits … maybe two to three weeks a year.”
Some employees in Hong Kong are choosing to return to the office to work after the mandatory quarantine, mostly because their work requires them to meet face-to-face with clients and visitors. Other workers who are people centric also find it harder to work from home.
Although digitally-based industries may be better suited to work from home, advocates have been pushing for years to make work more flexible, arguing that it can be done with the right infrastructure, to the benefit of both employees and employers.
The past decade has seen expanding opportunities for remote working and increasing remote job listings, and this shift is largely due to new technologies and changing family demographics.
The movement has been embraced by many parents who say the ability to work from home makes it easier to juggle childcare and a career.
It is still too early to say that this type of system is the future of work. However, if anything else, it gives employers and employees both something to consider.