Coronavirus unleashes the world's largest home-working experiment

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In major centers, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, stores are closed, public facilities are closed, and few people are wandering around the generally busy financial districts.

Instead, millions of people are hiding in their apartments, which could be the biggest home-working experiment in the world.

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In an attempt to limit social contact to slow the spread of the virus, officially known as Covid-19, millions of employees in China and other affected areas are currently working from home.

For some employees, like teachers who take classes digitally for weeks, working from home can be a nightmare.

But in other sectors, this unexpected experiment has been so well received that employers are considering adopting it as a more permanent measure. For those who advocate more flexible work options, the past few weeks mark a possible step towards a comprehensive – and long-awaited – reform.

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Unexpected frustrations and benefits

In China, the outbreak affected the world's second largest economy, which was already struggling due to the US trade war and falling domestic demand. Now, companies have been closed for weeks, raising fears mass layoffs, unemployment and foreclosures on housing.
An estimate warned that the outbreak could cost China $ 62 billion in lost growth.
With officials calling for companies to reopen, employees across China are starting to work from home. More than half of workers in the capital, Beijing, plan to do so, instead of entering the office, according to state daily China Daily.

Technology companies like Tencent, Alibaba and Microsoft told CNN that their team will work from home for the next 1-2 weeks, citing health and safety concerns.

Working from home, temperature checks and quarantines: how China's companies are trying to get back to business

The governments of Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau ordered employees to work from home and asked private employers to do so whenever possible, with only essential employees or emergency service providers still in the office.

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Public officials in Hong Kong have been working from home for weeks, since the Lunar New Year holiday ended in late January. A Hong Kong government statement said it "called on other employers to provide flexible work arrangements for employees in order to reduce contacts between people".

Schools in many of these places have been suspended. As such, teachers are conducting classes using digital learning tools, such as Google Hangouts and other video conferencing software. A Hong Kong school requires students to check-in digitally and perform online tasks with hourly deadlines; therefore, if students skip a class, this will leave a digital record.

But putting the classroom online has proved frustrating for some educators – especially those who work with children who have special learning needs or disabilities.

"We use a lot of hands-on learning, so it has been very challenging to try to make our online learning meaningful for children when we are not in the classroom," said Karen, a Hong Kong special education teacher, who asked for a pseudonym to avoid school identification.

Like other schools, Karen and her colleagues have relied on digital tools like video calls and Google Docs – but the challenges are more difficult because their students need a lot of adult support.

"Parents are also working from home and also need to be teachers – it's an almost impossible situation," she said.

Students with special needs also often rely on the structure, routine and human interaction provided by the school – which means that remote learning can be disruptive or frustrating.

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But for other digital-based sectors, working from home has been surprisingly effective, say employers in the field.

"It's a test run that we really didn't choose to implement, but we are very pleased with that," said Brice Lamarque, director of sales and accounts at a brand and web agency in Hong Kong. Almost all of the agency's employees are working from home this month – and will continue as long as the Hong Kong government advises, he said.

"Before the epidemic, we were not really interested in letting our team work at home because we value collaboration," said Lamarque. "But this experience has really shown us that the whole team collaborates very well, even if they are not in the same room, so we are trying to add that to the benefits of our employees … maybe two to three weeks a year."

However, he admitted that much of the success of working at home is due to the digital nature of his company and industry – employees only require a computer and internet connection, which means that they can work from anywhere.

Joe Hasberry, a Hong Kong employee at an asset management company, also works from home – but, unlike Lamarque, he and other co-workers will return to the office next week. The company needs to meet with customers and visitors, which means that it is difficult to continue working from home beyond a few weeks.

China is struggling to get back to work after coronavirus blockade

"Some employees in my office are more (in) investor relations – they are much more people-centered, so that part of the work cannot be done at home," he said.

Meanwhile, some people face social pressure from employers to enter the office, despite government guidelines for working from home. Employees in the customer service sectors or front-of-house functions generally do not have the option of working remotely.

In China, factory workers don't have that option either – instead, those who can return face stringent health and safety measures every day, such as checking their body temperature and disinfecting their hands before entering the workplace, according Xinhua state media.

Some Hong Kong officials told CNN they were frustrated that the deal could put them at greater risk of infection, heightened by memories of the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak that devastated the city.

Is this the future of work?

While digital-based industries may be more suited to working from home, lawyers have been pushing for years make work more flexible, arguing that it can be done with the right infrastructure, for the benefit of employees and employers.
The past decade has seen the expansion of remote work opportunities and the expansion of remote job listings – and this change is largely due to new technologies and demographic changes in the family.
The move has been adopted by many parents who claim that the ability to work from home facilitates day care and a career. Many families who cannot afford babysitters or childcare facilities face a difficult decision when they have a baby, with one parent – usually the woman – having to sacrifice career progression to take care of your child.

The option of working from home not only empowers women – it makes it easier for parents who work in this role, in a step towards gender equality that benefits all parties.

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Technological advances have also made work at home more accessible in all sectors.

"Today, compared to 10 years ago, it is much easier to access email remotely, cloud-based archiving, call dialing and video conferencing remotely," said Marie Swarbreck, founder of FLEXImums, a Hong Kong company that connects candidates to remote or flexible job opportunities. "The technology and software are available for people to work remotely."

She acknowledged that the current situation of working at home in Hong Kong has produced "extra challenges that are beyond our control" – for example, working parents have to look after children whose classes have been suspended. Empty, quiet houses perfect for remote work on a typical day are now full of people and distractions.

But these are extraordinary circumstances – it is not the norm, she said. The current challenges do not mean that working from home is ineffective or that it should not be implemented more widely beyond the outbreak.

"Being able to create a workplace that embraces and encourages working at home, remotely, flexibly, is certainly, in my opinion, the way that regular daily life will become more and more."

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