Coronavirus: how to manage and cope in the workplace (Hong Kong's perspective)

by Chris Tang in Blog

DatePosted on March 11, 2020 at 12:37 PM
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As the Coronavirus (or Covid-19 as it's more commonly known) begins to take hold around the world, this blog is intended to go out to HR teams, senior managers and business owners who live and work outside Hong Kong, particularly those outside Asia. I thought I'd share some experiences of how businesses in Hong Kong (including mine) have coped with the coronavirus outbreak, as we've been subjected to it much earlier. 

Please note: I am sharing the experiences below simply so you can see how businesses in Hong Kong as 'early adopters' have had to cope with Covid-19. It will not be the same in every location, you have to adapt to your own city's circumstances. If anyone else who reads this is also in Hong Kong and can share their experiences, if different, I'd appreciate their thoughts in the comments below.

Queens Road Central is starting to show a semblance of normal life.Hong Kong - what happened:

Whilst there were signs of the virus in early January, the Coronavirus outbreak really took hold in China and then Hong Kong over the Chinese New Year public holiday in late January 2020. In Hong Kong, the public holiday ran from 25-28 January 2020, whilst in China, it ran from 24-30 January. Factories and businesses were ground to a halt throughout February. That has had a knock-on effect in Hong Kong as much of the city's business is China-facing.

Note, Hong Kong has had recent experience of dealing with a viral outbreak, with SARS in 2003. That has prepared the city well, so the public are all acting in unison and maintaining proper hygiene standards.

The experience of SARS in 2003 has prepared the people of Hong Kong well against Covid-19. Personal hygiene and speed are key to combating this outbreak. 

As soon as news broke of Covid-19, the Hong Kong government announced that all 173,700 government employees would be 'working from home', the courts would be shut down, as would all schools. Shortly after, many professional services firms have followed suit and allowed their staff to work from home. For the first few weeks of February, most office districts have been like ghost towns.

The effectiveness of Hong Kong containing the Coronavirus

From late January to today (11 March), there have been 120 cases of reported infections and 3 deaths in Hong Kong, which puts it 20th of all territories worldwide with the most number of infections and deaths. Remarkable, given how close the city is to the epicentre of the virus outbreak.

Places like the Korea, the US, France, Italy, Germany, Iran and Japan have been worst hit in a much shorter space of time. Other countries and their governments have been ill-prepared compared with Hong Kong. 

What companies in Hong Kong are doing:

  • Many employees in the professional services sector have been allowed to work from home
  • In larger international law firms where their offices span across two or more office locations, the IT and other critical teams have split into two locations to minimise cross-infections - if one half goes down with the infection, the other half can at least continue to operate
  • Some firms offer 1-2 free surgical masks daily to those employees who come to work in the office
  • Having a back-up plan in the event that someone in your company/office being diagnosed with having caught the coronavirus.


Since early March 2020:

  • back office support staff in firms have began to return to the office, some on rota
  • most firms have encouraged their staff to return to work at the office in line with the government employees returning to work
  • law firms and professional service firms have been hit badly - Hong Kong is well known for being one of the leading cities in the world for listings of companies on the stock exchange, and most of those companies are China-based businesses
  • professionals who live in or near Central/Admiralty have tended to go to the office anyway even when the government first announced its employees would be working from home, whilst those living further afield in the New Territories (an hour's commute) have generally stayed at home
  • Some firms are staggering the working hours of employees so as to avoid rush hour/peak time traffic


It's a fine balancing act of looking after the health of your staff and making sure that business continues as 'normal' as possible, and not getting freaked out by the media hysteria.

What's been seen generally across the city:

CIVIL SERVICE: 

It was announced only recently from the Hong Kong SAR government that as from Monday 2 March 2020, government employees would return to the office.

Wearing a mask has become the norm for the majority of the Hong Kong publicCOMMODITIES:

  • Wild rumours were spread that the factories in China producing toilet tissue had stopped (despite assurances from manufacturers and retailers that there would be enough stock to last for many months), cue a run on the supermarkets where toilet tissues, sanitisers, disinfectants and bleach products went out of stock for over a month as people were hoarding them
  • Since early March, however, they returned to normal stock levels in Hong Kong supermarkets
  • Masks have been in low supply, the cost of buying masks that are available have shot up 


It's worth noting that the hysteria in hoarding toilet paper and other food stuffs have spread to other countries, Australia, Italy, the UK, and US, of note, even though each of these countries produce their own toilet paper, and factories have not shut down en masse.


COURTS:

  • Dispute resolution lawyers have somewhat been in limbo as a result of the coronavirus outbreak
  • Since the Chinese New Year public holiday in late January, the courts at all levels, the related registries and administrative offices have been closed 
  • Hearings and petitions, save for high priority/urgent cases, have been suspended until further notice 
  • Criticism has been leveled at the courts' inability (or refusal) to adopt new technology that would enable it to cope with situations like the current outbreak rather than be paralysed in its current state, and eye brows have been raised of news that the courts experienced its first hearing by telephone at the end of February
  • There is some ray of light, with the Court of Final Appeal and High Court Registries respectively reopening on 12 March and the District Court Registry reopening on 13 March to enable petitions and applications to be filed, with the courts expected to resume business on 23 March, almost 2 months after it closed
  • A phased reopening of other court facilities, such as the libary and complaints office will be put in effect throughout March


SCHOOLS:

  • Hong Kong has a very large expat community and a thriving international / private paying schools industry
  • Since the Chinese New Year period there has been a city-wide shut down of all schools and universities
  • Universities, as well as international (and some local) schools have attempted to offer some online learning - still, many school children's parents have expressed displeasure and frustration as they complain of effectively taking on teaching duties (and for many, whilst holding down full time jobs)
  • The constant discussions on facebook parent groups is what to do with the ongoing school fees, as the schools haven't offered any discount or ceded to such demands (they still have ongoing staff, property and rental costs to incur) - that may also happen in your city, so if your employees put their kids through paid school and have heavy fees to pay, that's one issue to consider
  • Schools are slated to open by late April at the very earliest which would mean all children having no schooling for more than 3 whole months since the closures began (and even this is subject to change, with some teachers unions wanting this date to be put back to mid May). My son, for example, commenced pre-nursery on the 1 November 2019 and has barely had 6 weeks of schooling to date, taking into account the suspension of schools when the street protests became increasingly more violent, followed by the Christmas public holiday, and then the Chinese New Year break.


RETAIL & RESTAURANTS:

  • Both retail and food and beverage industries have been catastrophically hit, and many businesses have shut down, some temporarily, some permanently, unable to pay the high rental and other costs (famed Chinese water-restaurant, Jumbo, recently shut down indefinitely for example) 
  • Whilst the government has promised handouts, many businesses have resorted to asking their landlords to reduce their rent during the toughest of months, others have simply shut down with the drastic drop in footfall and custom


REDUNDANCIES & REDUCED WORKING HOURS:

  • Hong Kong has had a tough year economically, having come off 6 months of heavy civil unrest with the pro-democracy street protests and being hard hit with the US-China trade war
  • After brief respite from the protests, and signs that business was returning, businesses across most industries were then hit with the Covid-19 outbreak
  • We've started to see redundancies in some organisations (Expedia and Hong Kong Airlines being two of the most notable lays off), with some organisations putting staff on reduced (unpaid) leave to cope with the major downturn in business, including Hong Kong's flagship carrier, Cathay Pacific. Not surprisingly, the airline's profits have been hit substantially in the second half of 2019 and in this quarter


What we have learned/adopted

Here in Hong Kong, we are well over two months ahead of most of the world in terms of handling the Coronavirus, so here are a few things, by trial and error, that we have learned along the way. 


KEEP CALM:

Take the media hype with a humongous pinch of salt. Check out this excellent data-graphic of covid-19, the visualisation has an instantly calming effect as you go through each data set.

That sense of calm and rational thinking needs to instilled throughout your organisation 


SPEED:

  • Have a discussion early between your in-house legal team and other key stakeholders in the business (internal and external) on what you plan to do in the event that the outbreak worsens in your country/city, understand the full legal ramifications at play, prepare in advance — update your Business Continuity Plan (and most BCPs are unlikely to deal specifically with a virus outbreak like we are experiencing now)
  • As well HR policies and labour laws, think about your insurance coverage and talk to your insurance provider (health and safety, as well as medical)
  • If your organisation doesn't have an in-house counsel, speak with your organisation's law firm service provider, particularly their Employment team or (if none exists) their dispute resolution/commercial litigation team to help you formulate proper guidelines and policies on how to work in the current climate, and on risk management in general 


KISS (KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID):

  • Put out guidelines on basic hygiene, and how to wash hands (a little sprinkle just will not cut it, make it absolutely clear this will not be tolerated)
  • Put posters and signs up in toilets, in the pantry, and other strategic points around the office on hygiene, educate people, make it obvious
  • Create a separate channel on whatsapp or other collaboration tool for all Coronavirus-related discussions, alerts, news and announcements 

Did you know there's a technique to putting on a surgical mask? I admit to being guilty of not knowing at first, but fortunately with health centre visits for my newborn son early on, I managed to get the hang of it. This video below explains it well.


MINIMISE CONTACT:

  • Keep any contact in the office to a minimum, if you have space, spread out, split staff into those who work in the office and those who work from home, operate a rota system
  • Don't invite guests into the office
  • Minimise non-urgent meetings and avoid attending events with lots of people (no birthday parties, weddings, etc — in fact, two weddings I know of personally have been postponed to later this year)
  • When your city is on lockdown, keep contact with third parties via calls/video calls
  • Regularly clean and disinfect the office (wiping down surfaces with wet towel soaked in disinfectant and using disinfectant sprays)


INCREASE COMMUNICATIONS & COLLABORATION:

The plethora of collaboration and video conferencing tools available (Zoom, whatsapp, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Webex, goto, Trello, google docs) means that businesses are appreciating that employees collectively working from home is a viable work solution as a means to minimising the risks of infection from covid-19 in the work place.

Working from home doesn't mean being incommunicado and taking 3 hours to respond to messages. Every person must make the effort to maintain a level of visibility and keeping everyone else up to date on work-in-progress, utilisation rates, bottlenecks and other issues, as well as championing work successes. In order to instil trust and confidence Given the seemingly mass adoption of this practice, this will change the way we work even when the coronavirus ceases to being a major ongoing threat.


IT SYSTEMS:

Make sure staff have access to your systems if they're working from home (and make sure employment contracts deal sufficiently with data protection and confidentiality).

  • For smaller businesses, if your staff do not have company-issued laptops, upgrade your office desktops to Windows Pro (not home edition) and set up a VPN from your office - that way staff can get free remote desktop access to their home computer
  • There are other methods like Citrix or Apache Guacamole
  • Unlike Citrix, etc, using Windows Pro doesn't require an ongoing cost, just initial cost of set up. Take it from me as a small business owner, this is SO worth doing.


PERSONAL HYGIENE:

Everyone has to be as CLEAN as a whistle constantly:

  • Put anti-bacterial soap liquid in the toilets and the pantry
  • Ensure reasonable stock levels of (but don't hoard) toilet tissue, napkins, disinfectant, bleach
  • At a prominent place at the entry to your work place (e.g. reception) place hand-sanitisers, anti-bacterial packets of wet napkins, and a temperature gun
  • Encourage staff to wash their hands thoroughly each time they enter the office from outside (get them to sing the happy birthday song twice, or 20 seconds whilst washing their hands with soap and water!)
  • Whatever your views on masks - most people where masks in Hong Kong, and we have one of the lowest rates of infections of any territory, despite being one of two closest cities (with Macau) outside mainland China!
  • build up your immune system: take vitamins D and C as well as zinc daily, and ensure healthy nutrition generally in your food intake


PROVIDE A SAFE HAVEN:

  • Provide confidential channels in which staff can discuss concerns and report unusual (unhygienic) behaviour
  • Give assurances and de-stigmatise any concerns staff have if they suspect themselves of being infected


BE AS ONE:

As a leader in your organisation (be it in HR or management), your business needs a monumental shift in working culture and work systems, aided by frequent top-down and sideways communications, a total buy-in from all staff, and regular consultations with key stakeholders and professional advisors (legal, risk, finance). If all staff can adhere to the most basic of requirements, your organisation will be in a good position to ensure a safe working environment for all. 

Finally, good luck to you all, stay safe, and listen to Italian grandma! 

Main photo credit: Nathan Dumlao, unsplash
About the Author

Chris Tang

Chris is a co-Managing Director of Star Anise and a former practising corporate lawyer. He is a regular post contributor on LinkedIn and you can connect with him here: 

https://www.linkedin.com/in/tangchris/

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