In major hubs such as Hong Kong and Singapore, shops are closed, public facilities are closed and there are few people who roam the usually crowded financial districts.
Instead, millions of people are locked up in their apartments, in what could be the largest home-based work experiment in the world.
In an attempt to limit social contacts 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, such as teachers who have taught digitally for weeks, working from home can be a nightmare.
But in other areas, this unexpected experiment has been received so well that employers are considering adopting it as a more permanent measure. For those who support more flexible job options, the past few weeks mark a possible step towards widespread and long-awaited reform.
Frustration and unexpected benefits
In China, the epidemic had an impact on the second largest economy in the world, which had already been struggling due to the U.S. trade war and a slump in domestic demand. Now, the companies have been closed for weeks, raise fears
mass layoffs, unemployment and foreclosures.
An estimate warned that the epidemic could cost China $ 62 billion in loss of growth.
With authorities calling on businesses to reopen, employees in China are starting to work from home. More than half of workers in the capital Beijing plan to do it instead of going to the office, according to state newspaper China Daily.
Technology companies including Tencent, Alibaba and Microsoft have told CNN that their staff will be working from home for the next two weeks, citing health and safety concerns.
The governments of Singapore, Hong Kong and Macao have ordered civil servants to work from home and have asked private employers to do so where possible, with only essential personnel or emergency service providers still in the office.
Officials in Hong Kong
I have been working at home for weeks, since the lunar New Year holidays ended in late January. A Hong Kong government statement said it “appealed to other employers to make flexible employment arrangements for employees to reduce contact between people.”
Schools in many of these places have been suspended, so teachers are taking lessons through digital learning tools, such as Google Hangouts and other video conferencing software. A Hong Kong school requires students to “check in” digitally and to conduct online lesson activities on an hourly basis, so if students skip a lesson, leave a digital record.
But bringing the classroom online has been frustrating for some educators, especially those who work with children with special learning needs or disabilities.
“We use a lot of practical learning, so it was really difficult to try to make our online learning meaningful for children when we are not in a classroom environment,” said Karen, a special education teacher in Hong Kong, who requested a pseudonym to avoid identifying the school.
Like other schools, Karen and her colleagues have relied on digital tools such as video calls and Google Docs, but the challenges are made more difficult because her students need a lot of support from adults.
“Parents also work from home and must also be teachers – it’s almost an impossible situation,” he said.
Students with special needs often rely on the structure, routine and human interaction provided by the school, which means that remote learning can be disturbing or frustrating.
But for other digital-based industries, working from home has been surprisingly effective, say employers in the field.
“It’s a test that we haven’t chosen to implement, but we’re quite happy with it,” said Brice Lamarque, sales and accounting director of a web and branding agency in Hong Kong. Most of the agency’s employees have worked from home this month and will continue until the Hong Kong government advises it.
“Before (the epidemic) happened, we weren’t really excited to let our team work from home because we appreciate the collaboration,” said Lamarque. “But this experience actually showed us that the whole team works well enough even if they are not in the same room, so we are trying to add it to the benefits of our employees … maybe two or three weeks a year.”
However, he admitted that much of the success of working from home is due to the digital nature of their company and sector: employees only require a connection to computers and the Internet, which means they can work anywhere.
Joe Hasberry, a Hong Kong employee of an asset management company, also worked from home, but unlike Lamarque, he and other colleagues will return to the office next week. The company needs to meet customers and visitors, which means that it is difficult to continue working from home for a few weeks.
“Some guys in my office have more (in) investor relations – it’s a lot more people-centered, so some of the work couldn’t be done from home,” he said.
Meanwhile, some people are facing social pressure from employers to go to the office despite government guidelines to work from home. Employees in customer service industries or front-of-house roles often don’t have the ability to work remotely.
In China, factory workers also don’t have this choice – instead, those who are able to return must face stringent health and safety measures every day, such as having body temperature checked and disinfecting their hands before entering the workplace. , second media run by the Xinhua state.
Hong Kong employees told CNN they were frustrated that the deal could put them at greater risk of infection, heightened by memories of the acute respiratory syndrome epidemic (2003) that devastated the city.
Is this the future of work?
Although digital-based industries may be better suited to work from home, advocates have been pushing for years
make work more flexible, claiming that it can be done with the right infrastructure, for the benefit of both employees and employers.
The last decade has seen expanding distance job opportunities and increasing distance job offers – e this shift is largely due
to new technologies and to changing family demographics.
The movement has been embraced by many parents who claim that the ability to work from home facilitates dexterity in childcare and careers. Many families who cannot afford nannies or nurseries have to make a difficult decision when they have a child, with one of the parents – often the woman – who must sacrifice career advancement
take care of your child.
The option to work from home not only empowers women, but also makes it easier for working fathers to take on that role, in a step towards gender equality for the benefit of all parties.
Technological advances have also made work from home more accessible in all areas.
“Nowadays, compared to 10 years ago, it is much easier to access e-mail remotely, cloud-based archiving, dial-in for calls and remote videoconferencing,” said Marie Swarbreck, founder of FLEXImums, a Hong Kong company that connects candidates to remote or flexible job opportunities. “Technology and software are available to allow people to work remotely.”
He acknowledged that the current working situation from home in Hong Kong has produced “extra challenges that are beyond our control” – for example, working parents must take care of children whose classes have been suspended. The empty, silent and perfect houses for working remotely on a typical day are now full of people and distractions.
But these are extraordinary circumstances – not the norm, he said. The current challenges do not mean that working from home is ineffective or that it should not be implemented more widely beyond the epidemic.
“Being able to create a workplace that welcomes and encourages working from home, remotely, in a flexible way, is certainly, in my opinion, the way in which regular daily life will become more and more”.