Flexible working can ease the pressure of shrinking labor force

July 29, 2019 10:37
Non-rigid hours, job-sharing and working remotely are some of the flexible working arrangements. Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong's workforce will fall from 3.64 million in 2017 to 3.57 million by 2027, while staffing requirements are projected to increase to 3.74 million.

This means the city will need an extra 169,700 workers under the “base-case” scenario – or in the worst case, 254,200 additional workers – to sustain its competitiveness in the global economy. With continued low birth rate, aging population and complexities related to importing foreign workers, Hong Kong must seek ways to expand its local labor force.

At the same time, there is a broad, diverse group struggling to find employment. Engaging with, and encouraging, marginalized groups back into the workplace is key, and one proven way to do this is by encouraging flexible working practices. Here, we take a look at four types of employees who can be supported by access to flexible options: older workers, people with disabilities, single parents and those with caring responsibilities.

Older workers

Hong Kong has a significantly lower elderly employment rate than most developed countries. While most foreign countries have on average 20 percent to 50 percent of people aged 65 or above in the workforce, the number for Hong Kong is only 11 percent. Research shows that older workers can also struggle to find or maintain a job, mainly due to factors such as poor health, discrimination and lack of training. As discussions to raise the retirement age in Hong Kong heighten, it is important to find solutions to increase quality of life for workers who are in employment into their later years.

Flexible working can’t solve all of these problems, but it can make working possible for older employees struggling with health issues, caring responsibilities or limited mobility. Flexible workspace can help make alternate arrangements a reality for many older workers who don’t want to work from home but can’t commit long distances, or need access to technology they may not have in their home or for those with health needs that require being able to work near medical care.

People with disabilities

In Hong Kong, only 52 percent of people with disabilities are employed . Similar to elderly workers, they are faced with health and mobility considerations as well as discrimination in the job market. For people with medical and mobility considerations, flexible workspace can alleviate day-to-day challenges such as scheduling around medical appointments or matching hours to the employee’s peak productivity time, thus increasing their ability to find and maintain employment.

Single parents

Parents, and particularly single parents, face a number of challenges when looking to find or return to employment. In 2016, only 75.6 percent of single fathers and 65.2 percent of single mothers in Hong Kong were employed, with 12.9 percent of single fathers and 24 percent of single mothers working for less than 35 hours a week .

Accommodating childcare pickups and drop-offs around traditional working hours and a commute can gravely hinder single parents from taking certain roles. This may mean they are forced to take a job with more schedule or shift flexibility but less employment protection and fewer advancement opportunities. Often, a ‘sick child can mean a lost job’ for single parents.

Working nearer to home or school means more options for childcare, and can eliminate commuting-based worries like traffic or a delayed train. These considerations can be the difference between employment and unemployment for many single parents looking to return to work.


Carers are people who constantly look after a relative who needs extra support due to aging, illness or disability. They often juggle between a job and their other responsibilities. In Hong Kong, there are currently around 230,000 carers, with over 61,000 people taking on caring responsibilities for more than 60 hours a week.

Flexible working arrangements, such as agile hours, job-sharing and working remotely are initiatives that can help carers keep up with the competing responsibilities without dropping out of work. Flexible workspace complements these arrangements by allowing a carer to stay close enough to the care receiver to pick up a direct caring duty while working remotely outside the distractions of the home. With agile hours and locations, leaving a career to care for a loved one can become a choice rather than a necessity.

Equal access to work

The reasons an individual may face hurdles in entering the job market are as unique as the person themselves. The results, however, are usually negative for all – and government, companies and communities share a responsibility to alleviate these problems. Flexible working arrangements certainly have a key role to play in offering options and support to people from across the working population.

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Country Head, IWG Hong Kong