The new normal: WFHF or working from home forever

May 27, 2020 09:43
If more Hong Kong companies adopt work from home arrangement, the city’s Central may soon lose its ranking as having the world’s most expensive office space. Photo: Reuters

Home is where the work is.

Once more, office workers wearing masks crowd the MTR and other public transport during rush hours, but many of their colleagues are still in their jammies and shorts, working from home.

Sure, reports of new infections come few and far between, if at all, but we seem to have grown used to the way things have become over the past four months of the coronavirus outbreak.

A recent survey indicates that 45 percent of employees have returned to work in Hong Kong, easily surpassing the averages in other international financial centers such as New York and London where COVID-19 is still raging.

The fact remains, however, that many workers have opted to work from home, either because their fear of the virus persists or their bosses don’t mind if they are not physically present in the office.

Or perhaps because they don’t want to worry when weather warnings are raised or they have gotten used to taking a siesta after lunch.

It’s not that they enjoy working from home -- what with all the distraction and inconveniences of the set-up -- but the situation is fast becoming the new normal. It may be here to stay.

James Gorman, the big boss of Morgan Stanley, noted that 90 percent of the bank’s 80,000 global staff have been working from home during the pandemic. Now that nations are easing lockdown and social distancing rules, he expects only half of the staff to get back to the office by year end.

Twitter says it will allow staff to work from home permanently. Facebook projects that more than 50 percent of its personnel are likely to be working from home in the next 10 years, while Shopify says it will keep its office closed until 2021 and most of its staff will be working remotely.

Locally, social media platform 9GAG last week gave up its well-appointed 7,000-square-foot office in Tsuen Wan and gave away office furniture to staff as they will no longer be required to work in the office. The move has saved the company HK$200,000 a month in rent.

So goodbye, office! Everyone will be working from home.

If more Hong Kong companies adopt this arrangement, the city’s Central may soon lose its ranking as having the world’s most expensive office space.

Property developers may also have to rethink their strategies going forward. Micro flats attract many young professionals amid soaring home prices, but a young couple may find it hard to move around a 400-square-foot unit if both of them are working from home, not to mention if they have kids.

Not many homes in Hong Kong are stand-alone structures with their own basement and garden like in western countries. Probably this is why no successful business in the city started from a garage: parking space here costs millions.

I am neither a sociologist nor a psychologist, but I am wondering about the impact of the work-from-home arrangement on family life in Hong Kong. Sure, staying together at home strengthens familial bonds, but seeing each other 24/7 in a tiny space may not be the best of all possible worlds.

A couple who manage to avoid bickering or doing something worse to each other while staying at home for three months deserve a special subsidy from Uncle Li Ka-shing, who always comes up with a creative relief program for the disadvantaged.

Let’s face it: most homes are not designed for work. Clicking away on your laptop while sitting up in bed or at the dining table, which is what I do, is not really an ideal situation. You may build a home office – basically, a desk with a laptop and some shelves -- at a bedroom nook, but still it’s hard to focus with all the noise and distractions.

Productivity suffers when the telly or stereo is on, and when you hear your neighbor doing a zumba upstairs. The temptation of taking another break or nap is ever-present, even after you have gulped mugs of coffee.

Somehow, in my seven years of working from home as a freelancer, I have been able to get things done as I strictly follow a self-imposed schedule.

But some things won’t be the same again. When the Observatory raises the amber rain warning or a typhoon approaches, you’ll miss that feeling of apprehension or expectation because a weather disturbance won’t make much difference at all. It will be just another day of WFH.

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EJ Insight writer

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