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07

2020-04

Working from home - dismantling the work-life barriers

source:HK EDITION Share:

At the start of the Year of the Rat, Cheng Yuandie had what's probably her first-in-a-lifetime experience - her "office" is no more than 1 meter away from her bed. As the novel coronavirus outbreak rampages across China and the world, the 26-year-old with a Suzhou-based pharmaceutical firm, like tens of millions of her compatriots, finds herself working from a new office: her family home in Sichuan province.


Home-office experiment


In the first week after the Chinese New Year holiday, more than 300 million employers from over 18 million companies in the world's second-largest economy joined a nationwide work-from-home experiment, data from iResearch Consulting Group showed.

Initially, working from home might seem like a dream - no commute, no distracting colleagues and the possibility of cyberslacking without being caught off guard by the boss.


But, when the novelty wears off, things get real.



Nearly 35 percent of 2,124 workers surveyed said working from home has made them more productive, largely due to stricter management and a more rigid schedule, according to iResearch's findings. However, more than 62 percent of those claiming increased productivity have seen their average working hours extended on a daily basis. The hard fact is that their productivity per unit time has, in fact, been hurt.



"There's an awful lot of employees like me who had never worked from home before and now forced to have a taste of it," said Cheng. "For me, the biggest hurdle is, perhaps, the unprofessional environment. I have to cope with being constantly interrupted by my parents."


"Previously, in the white-collar world, the work-life balance is a buzz word. But when I adjust to working from home, work and life can be easily mixed together," she said.

The concept of "working from home", also known as flexible workplace practices, is not new to China. Although the practice has become popular in Western countries in the past decade, working from home remains largely an emergency measure but not the usual practice in the world's most populous country.


By 2017, nearly 24 percent of employees worldwide, especially tech firms, had adopted flexible workplace practices. In the United States, particularly, some 30 million workers could choose to work from home, with more than 80 percent of companies implementing remote working policies. In China, however, the number of employees with the option to work remotely hovered around 4.9 million by 2018, according to data from Shenzhen-based Forward Business and Intelligence.


"Even without the novel coronavirus outbreak, working from home should become a big trend that fundamentally changes the way people work, both at home and across the globe," said Pan Helin, executive director of the digital economy academy at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law.


Remote working has the virtues of convenience, cost reductions and flexibility without restriction of space and time. It also allows companies to keep track of employees' productivity under a set of well-established rules. "Despite some possible disadvantages, its advantages certainly far outweigh the drawbacks," Pan argued.


"Today, it may be an old-school mentality to think that you have to be in the office and that people only work within the office," said Tang Xiang, co-founder of a Chengdu-based creative company. "But, in such a nationwide work-from-home experiment, there's no shortage of companies being caught unprepared or ill-equipped to send their workers home."


Prior to the virus outbreak, 51 percent of businesses in China said they have a flexible workspace solution in place, while the corresponding figure for the US was 69 percent, according to the 2019 IWG Global Workspace Survey. Yet, flexibility is defined differently by different organizations. To some, it can mean simply the ability to control your hours or manage your own workload.


A hybrid solution


After the pandemic subsides, Tang believes that companies will be much more likely to stick with remote work - at least as a part-time option. But, he stressed he would not put all the work online just in order to save office rents. Instead, he relishes the idea of a hybrid solution that combines traditional office work with remote work.


"Still, as creative workers, we need to come up with new ideas at brainstorming meetings, which cannot go without human elements and interactions," said Tang. "Also, how to evaluate employees' performance and cement team cohesion remain issues to be tackled for our remote work solutions."


Worldwide, as tech giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook take the lead in ramping up remote working orders to cope with life during the pandemic, Tang believes the shift is well underway, with more employers taking a good look at the role of remote working in helping companies secure and keep their businesses running in different scenarios.


However, besides the technology and infrastructure that companies should invest in to make remote work possible, not everyone is a fan of remote working, culturally, not just technologically.


Yang Cuirong, who works at the investment arm of one of Japan's biggest telecom companies, was more than happy to see her company join a cluster of well-known enterprises located in Tokyo's Ginza district in advising staff to work from home. The next day, she was told she was the only one in her department who had failed to show up in the office.


"It has nothing to do with the hardware. The software - Japan's corporate slave culture - is the major obstacle to the popularity of remote work," Yang said with a smile.


sophia@chinadailyhk.com



 


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