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Numerous Hongkongers in both the public and private sectors have been working at home since the Lunar New Year holiday. Photo: Shutterstock

Coronavirus: Working from home a new, occasionally frustrating, experience for Hongkongers used to rhythms of office life

  • One civil servant is learning how to get the job done at the dining room table – when his kids aren’t commandeering the computer
  • Working remotely, flexible schedules already a reality at growing number of Hong Kong businesses

At 9 and 7 years of age, Mr Wong’s children can be forgiven for not quite grasping that their civil servant father is actually working on the laptop they see open on the dining room table these days.

The 46-year-old executive, who normally works at Hong Kong government headquarters in Admiralty, has grown used to the occasional distraction of tiny hands since becoming one of 176,000 civil servants asked to work from home amid safety concerns around the Wuhan coronavirus.

Originally asking employees to stay out of the office between January 29 and February 2, the government has since extended the arrangement to February 9. Numerous private sector employers have followed suit.

Speaking candidly – and anonymously, Wong, who has little experience working from home, admitted it was a somewhat less productive environment.

Hong Kong’s government offices in Admiralty have been largely empty since the Lunar New Year holiday after employees were asked to stay home through February 9. Photo: KY Cheng

“Many documents are confidential, and I won’t have any access to them outside the office. So my work is restricted to non-confidential work at home,” he said. “And I have to watch out for the little fingers of my children, who do not know I am working and try to close the document files I am working on for their favourite YouTube and Netflix films.”

The coronavirus, which is believed to have originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, escalated over the Lunar New Year holiday. There are now 14,551 confirmed infections and a death toll of more than 304 globally as of Sunday. In Hong Kong, the number of confirmed cases rose to 14 as of Saturday night.

To prevent the disease from spreading, companies have put a variety of measures in place, including the adoption of flexible working plans. Employees who have travelled to the mainland over the past two weeks, or had contact with anyone who has travelled there, meanwhile, have been told to stay at home for 14 days.

Cherry Wan Suk-yee, brand communications director of United States-based office solutions provider Steelcase Asia Pacific, was required to self-quarantine at home until Friday after returning to Hong Kong from a business trip to Beijing on January 17.

During the past two weeks, aside from the Lunar New Year holiday, she was working from her home in Sai Wan Ho.

I have to watch out for the little fingers of my children, who do not know I am working and try to close the document files I am working on for their favourite YouTube and Netflix films
Mr. Wong, a civil servant

“A home office is not new to me, [but it] requires discipline,” Wan, in her 40s, said. “Digital advancement has played a big role in this arrangement, because all data and work documents are stored in a remote server and all I need is a tablet or a laptop.”

She said she has conducted numerous conference calls with colleagues in Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and even the US from the comfort of home.

Of course, even at home, certain protocols need to be maintained.

“There are funny moments, for example, once during a conference call, we heard someone snore, but could not figure out who fell asleep during the discussion of a business matter,” Wan said. “Whether it is productive or not, depends on how you make good use of your time and technology and whether you are disciplined or not.”

Some employers in Hong Kong including Hang Seng Bank – one of the city’s largest – say they are fully supportive of the mobile working arrangement.

Lunch hour in Central is a lonely place after numerous companies began having employees work from home. Photo: Winson Wong

Elaine Wang Yee-ning, the bank’s head of human resources, said the company encouraged its 8,500 staff except those who provide essential services, to stay home and work until February 8.

She said working from home was part of the bank’s broader flexible working framework, which has been in place for about two years. Aside from working from home, employee hours can also vary, though the goal is still to deliver expected results.

“We don’t worry about how many hours a staff member spends in the office, because their performance is judged by their outcome,” Wang said. “Half of our staff are aged below 37, [and they] need options or control over how they work and are encouraged by the flexibility we offer.”

The work from home arrangement is taking place at smaller firms as well.

Peggy Cheng Pik-ki, 36, a procurement officer for the 25-person Hong Kong branch of Netherlands-based Midocean, a premium gift supplier, worked from home for the first time this week.

“I am among half of the staff who tested the arrangement of working from home,” she said. “It is not as convenient as working in the office, but it is safer to stay home and work at this critical time.”

Hong Kong Productivity Council Chief Digital Officer Edmond Lai Shiao-bun said he believed it was a growing trend thanks to advances in technology that allow people to stay connected.

“Working from home is easier than ever,” he said, adding that while “there are clearly benefits to work-from-home arrangements,” including improved productivity and a healthier work-life balance, companies needed strong cybersecurity solutions to allow for those flexible arrangements.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Working from home a new experience for many