Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home, at least some of time, has become the norm for many Institute members. It can sound like a dream: no commute, no suits, no meetings, and extra time with the children. But how does it work out in reality? Four Institute members tell Liana Cafolla their work-from-home stories and how they think the experience could impact the future of work
Photography by Anthony Tung
Parco Wu, Founder and Managing Director of PW CPA & Co., at home with his son and daughter.
Since Chinese New Year, Parco Wu has spent a few days working from home. With a three-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter, it’s been a mixed experience. “Honestly, it’s been half-enjoyable and half difficult,” says Wu, Founder and Managing Director of PW CPA & Co. “Though most of the time it was my wife looking after the children when we were at home, they were very eager to have me to play with them,” he says. “I explained to my son that ‘Daddy is not on holiday at home. Daddy is physically at home, but working.’”
Wu is one of many Hongkongers working from home amid COVID-19 concerns. In fact, up to 60 percent of Hong Kong employees have been asked to work from home as a result of the coronavirus, according to a survey conducted by accounting firm FastLane Group. Though the survey found that employees benefitted from the flexible arrangements such as fewer or less time commuting, it also found that most companies lacked the internal resources to support such arrangements.
When working at home, Wu breaks up his day to make time for the children. “I take breaks to play with them, talk to them and also watch cartoons with them.”
He has weighed up the benefits of working in his bedroom, where theoretically he can have more privacy, or working at the dining room table. “I want to be visible to my children so I usually work in the dining room,” he explains. “If I work in the bedroom, they may come more frequently to ask what I’m doing.”
However, he does lock himself in the bedroom to take part in video conference calls with clients. But invariably, the children quickly notice his absence and make their presence heard. “When others are speaking, I mute my phone, but sometimes when I’m speaking, my son and daughter are screaming, or laughing, or crying in the background,” Wu says. “Sometimes clients laugh and ask if I’m at home, and usually they understand.”
Other times, he can hear the clients stifling a laugh without commenting. “That’s actually more embarrassing, because I know they can hear,” says Wu.
Wu’s strategy has been to make full use of the quiet hours of early morning while the children are still sleeping. He gets up around 6:00 a.m. and has the benefit of the time saved from commuting and dressing for the office. “Basically, I can just switch on my computer and start working straightaway,” he says.
He has no doubt he prefers working in the office. “It’s better for efficiency and effectiveness, and better communication because we’re face-to-face and can talk together,” he says. Although video conferencing allows participants to see each other, share files and even give presentations, it lacks human contact and that’s bad for business, he says. “It would not negatively affect the relationship, but it also wouldn’t improve the connection. The feeling is different – we can’t shake hands or express ourselves using body language.” He says personal contact is particularly important for small firms like his. “When clients lose that personal touch from you, it becomes easy for them to choose any other firm,” he explains. To make up for the lack of a physical connection, he has used Zoom and FaceTime to connect more closely with clients and help maintain the relationship. “We also sometimes had a phone call, even just a quick one, so that our messages can be passed directly and clearly to clients,” he adds.
The work-from-home experience has given him new insights into his children. “When I work in the office, I never know what they are doing at home – how they play or get along with each other,” he says. “Working from home, I can observe them. I feel I know more about my children. I’m still surprised when my son comes to hug me or climb on my shoulder when I’m working on the laptop, and when my daughter wants to play too. At the time, I asked them to let me work, but looking back now, I realize that they were just being affectionate. It’s quite moving.”
“Sometimes when I’m speaking, my son and daughter are screaming, or laughing, or crying in the background.”
Gloria Yuen has been working from home since the end of January and her nine-year-old son has been off school since Chinese New Year.
The biggest impediment to getting her work done is her son’s expectations. With Yuen at home and her husband also working from home occasionally, to her son, it feels like the weekend. “He expects us to be his companions while we are at home,” explains Yuen, Finance Director of Merlin Entertainments. “While I have Skype calls, he likes to irritate me or create noises in the background.” At times, he also interrupts her work calls to chat with her colleagues if he knows them.
Yuen says the nature of her job affords her the flexibility to work from anywhere. “Actually I don’t need to work in an office,” she explains. “My work is very flexible because most of my time would be spent on Skype calls talking to various colleagues from all over the world.” However, she likes to go to the office to work with her direct team members because she enjoys the social interaction with her colleagues and the ease of communicating on work issues. Although distance makes calls a must for connecting with clients abroad, it’s not her preferred means of contact. “I still find that face-to-face communication is the best way to interact with people,” she says.
To avoid the office, she now plans ahead in more detail. “Now, I need to reorganize my calendar and prioritize my work tasks so that I can avoid going to office,” she says. “This achieves the most efficient outcome and keeps me safe from COVID-19.”
Yuen notes that the advantages of working from home include time gained by not needing to put on make-up, dress up for work or travel to the office. For the last few months, she has enjoyed spending more time with her husband and son and being able to have lunch and dinner together. Although she and her son sometimes argue about his studies, the family time has been special. “I will miss the time I spend with my son, as it is unlikely I would have that situation that we both have to stay at home for such a long period of time, until I retire,” she says.
Family aside, she says the office environment is the more efficient option. “I see more disadvantages of working from home: non-stop working hours, less face-to-face interaction with people, less access to the external environment, no difference between ‘work life’ and ‘home life’ because there is no cut-off of ‘I’ve finished my work, time to go home.’”
“I still find that face-to-face communication is the best way to interact with people.”
In normal times, Webster Ng has more than enough to do in running his own firm. But in the last few months of working from home, he has had to cope with many more challenges.
Ng’s wife works part-time caring for the physically challenged in their homes, but with the onset of COVID-19, demand for her help has soared and she has been working full-time. Because of this, Ng has been taking care of their two sons aged 12 and eight since early February. As his elder son has been preparing for his primary six exams and his younger son needs a lot of supervision, Ng has had his hands full. On top of that, he still needs to run his business and supervise junior staff, and says he is constantly worried about his wife’s exposure to the virus as a frontline worker.
To foster concentration and also set an example, Ng has his sons use the dining table to work alongside him. “Most kids can’t concentrate for a long time, so I said, ‘let’s do it together,’” says Ng, Founder of Webster Ng & Co. “They do their homework and I do my work.”
Their timetable, though, poses a challenge. His children are used to having two classes and then a break. “But when I’m reviewing figures for an audit, I need to focus and see if there are any errors,” says Ng. “I only have small pockets of time to focus, so it makes the work longer. It’s very difficult.”
His phone is constantly buzzing too, with a mix of WeChat, WhatsApp, LinkedIn and other messages, and there is often no way of telling which ones are business calls and which can wait.
Another headache has been access to equipment. At home he has no photocopier or printer. “The school needs the boys to print out all their homework, so I have to print them at the office,” he says. “Luckily, it’s my office.” He has also been able to lend the boys notebook computers from his business.
Once teachers started organizing online classes and scheduled lessons, things got easier. But technology brought its own problems, and revelations. When the younger son has a class, he turns on the Zoom dialogue box and then plays a game in another window, explains Ng. But his parents are well aware of what he’s doing. “Of course I do not allow it,” he says.
Face-to-face time with staff is very important, he says, and some client-facing meetings are essential. “Some cases may be very difficult and require lengthy discussion. For example, one client was investigated by the Inland Revenue Department, so I needed to have a very detailed discussion with her.”
For Ng, working from home can be tough. In normal times, his clients contact him only during office hours, but now their expectations seem to have grown. “Many of my clients contact me at midnight and I’m still working,” he says. “But I can’t access some of the information at home because it’s in the office.”
Despite the pressures, there have been good times too. Ng enjoys having lunch with the boys and takes them out every day for some exercise. He also had time to teach his younger son to ride a bicycle. “It’s good because they can see their father all the time and ask me questions when facing difficulties in school subjects such as mathematics,” he says. “Most parents want to spend as much time as possible with their kids, so in this way, it’s been very good.”
To make a success of working from home with children, he says parents need to be on the same page. “You need to agree on a schedule, otherwise the kids will be affected and confused. They have no interaction with teachers or classmates, so they’re relying on their parents even more than usual.”
“Most kids can’t concentrate for a long time, so I said, ‘let’s do it together.’”
Irene Chu, Partner and Head of New Economy and Life Sciences, Hong Kong at KPMG China, with her sons taking a stroll near their home.
Same pace, different setting
Since February, Irene Chu has spent just over half her time working from home. Her husband still needs to go out to work, leaving Chu to supervise the schoolwork of their two sons, aged 11 and eight.
“In the beginning it was tough,” says Chu, Partner and Head of New Economy and Life Sciences, Hong Kong, KPMG China. “The older one can take care of his own homework, but the younger one does need more support and guidance.” Most of the time, Chu works undisturbed at the dining room table. If she has evening calls with clients, she goes to a quiet desk area beside her bedroom or she can step outside to her building’s shared garden.
Glitches still occur, though, she says. “I had an important evening call with clients in the United States, a pitch. The two boys were arguing and one of them just shouted, ‘shut up!’ and I had to apologize. The client was laughing, and said ‘don’t worry.’ I guess they understood.”
The circumstances may be new, but the schedule has not changed much for Chu. Her sons usually study or play games quietly while she works, but she and her husband still need to find the time to help with homework and check their understanding. “We try to catch up on the homework at the weekend and in the evenings too,” she says.
That’s no different from normal times, she adds, but working from home means she can help her younger son more effectively. “At least at home, I can see where he might struggle. I feel that I know better how to help, though sometimes I have to delay it.”
Chu says finding ways to make the situation work for everyone is a matter of trial and error, getting advice from others, and staying flexible. “We try something, and if it’s not working well, we try different strategies. I talk to colleagues and other parents working from home. There’s so much advice out there, but every family is different so is the nature of everyone’s work.”
Chu recommends using the same work strategies at home: planning, good communication, and keeping to schedules. “At work, you schedule with your team. At home, I have to plan with my husband and the kids,” she explains. “You need to communicate your plan and your expectations and you need a schedule.”
At home, she says there’s a big risk of working non-stop. “I had that for the first few weeks. But it can also happen in the office. The key is to be clear with your schedule.”
While Chu’s days remain packed, new pockets of time have emerged, particularly from the lack of a commute. “It takes me about an hour each way to get to the office. Now I can have a proper breakfast.” At lunchtime, she goes for a walk with the boys to give them some exercise. Physical activity is also crucial for mental health, she says. “We’re lucky in Hong Kong that we can go out and move around if we want to.”
She says she misses the space in the office and also the human interaction. “I miss chatting with people when you’re physically meeting, ice-breaking and socializing, and being able to take cues from people,” she says. “Social interaction is key to building communication and engaging relationships.”
While her preferred method for communication is picking up the phone, technology now plays a bigger part in her communications. “For CPAs, we need to make sure that the software we use is secure, that it’s not prone to hacking or to unauthorized access and that the data is encrypted,” she says. “We need to be mindful of security.”
Some changes from the work-from-home experience will probably last, she thinks. “We have managed to not travel and still be able to do our work. In future we may think more carefully about whether we need to fly or not for work.”
The structure of market-facing and thought leadership events may never return to what it was, she believes. “We used to have hundreds of people come to learn something new and network. Now we have webinars and smaller topics. Big events might not be feasible in the near future. Interaction is different and we have to adapt.”
She says working from home has strengthened her relationship with her sons. “Though we argue more, we also see each other more. We see how we can help each other. I need to learn how to see things from their perspective. It helps me to understand their emotions and hopefully build a stronger relationship with them.”
Best of all, Chu’s new schedule means she can have dinner with her kids. “I haven’t had that for a long time,” she says. “Now we can actually eat together. I have learned I need to be a better parent. I also hope to share that understanding with my team members who have kids.”
Up to 60 percent of Hong Kong employees have been asked to work from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a survey conducted by accounting firm FastLane Group.