Working from home: Answer the phone or you’re fired

July 15, 2020 08:37
Hong Kong Television Network CEO Ricky Wong Wai-kay Photo: Hong Kong Television Network

A set of guidelines issued by Hong Kong Television Network for its employees who are working from home in view of the coronavirus pandemic raised a lot of snickers from netizens who find them ridiculous for being too strict.

In the memorandum, the company of business maverick Ricky Wong Wai-kay asked staff to sign a declaration that they will be “completely home-bound” during working hours, which means they can't even go out to have lunch or meet friends, according to reports.

One particularly stringent edict is that an employee must pick up a phone call from office within three rings to prove that they are indeed working, and not taking a nap or watching the telly.

The rules were apparently concocted by the bright men and women of the firm's Human Resources Department, who are understandably always desk-bound except when going to the washroom or attending a meeting.

But many were surprised that such guidelines would come from a company that is known for its creativity and flexibility. It's also a company of mostly post-90s staff who are not particularly happy with set rules.

The three-ring rule is particularly severe because I myself seldom pick up a phone call within that period, especially when I am focused on what I am writing on my computer.

Even Mr Wong probably doesn't pick up a call within 10 seconds, especially if it's from someone he doesn't want to talk to, or simply because he doesn't want to talk at the moment. Or perhaps because he has another call. There are a dozen reasons why you can't pick up a call right away.

I remember a friend, who was then the head of a firm's public relations department. She missed a call from a leading wire agency which was trying to fact-check some information regarding the firm as she was then in the washroom.

Next thing she knew she was listening to an angry lecture from her boss, who had read the wire story and was blaming her for not being available for comment. It was a particularly low point in her career.

Of course, employers have every right to make sure that they're getting their money's worth from their staff, and that they're not paying them to do stuff that isn't work-related.

According to the HKTV guidelines, HR staff would do random checks on employees to make sure they're really working from home. Staff should also turn on their computer cameras during calls.

Penalty for violation of the rules could range from reprimand to dismissal.

It's not that employers don't trust their employees who are working from home. Well... they don't.

You would recall that in February, six management trainees at Hang Seng Bank went hiking when they were supposed to be working from home. Their mistake was that they posted pictures of their little escapade on Facebook, which led to the whole world, including their boss, knowing about it.

Fortunately, the young men were able to escape punishment, except for a strongly worded warning from management. But their caper became the talk of the town, and Hang Seng Bank for a while became known among netizens as "Hiking Bank."

The incident must have offered an object lesson for many employers, who can't help but feel uneasy and worried when they can't find personnel hard at work in their respective office cubicles.

But the rules must be tempered with a sense of mutual trust, and must not cross the line of privacy and personal freedom.

The work-from-home arrangement is making a comeback in Hong Kong after more than 180 new COVID-19 cases were reported in the city in the past week.

The government has revived sweeping social distancing measures such as dine-in restrictions and penalty for not wearing masks on public transport.

Authorities, however, are reluctant to allow civil servants to work from home again as they want to restart the economy as soon as possible despite the surge in new COVID-19 cases.

The truth is, working from home has become the new normal in these days of the pandemic.

And many people have started to like the new arrangement as it has its advantages, such as not having to go through the rush-hour traffic.

Still, the home is never meant to be the office. How could one find a place to work in a 500 square foot unit with all the noise and distraction coming from other family members and neighbors?

But those things now seem minor inconveniences. We have to work by whatever means. Otherwise, how will we be able to live?

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EJ Insight writer