The coronavirus outbreak, or Covid-19 as it has now officially been named, continues to cause a great deal of concern and anxiety. This is a challenging time for us all. The rapid spread of the disease from its epicentre Wuhan to forcing a lockdown in Hubei Province and many cities across China has tested the Mainland’s healthcare system, businesses’ confidence and resilience.
The Mainland is doing everything that it can to prevent the spread of the virus, but infections have been reported in cities around the world, from Asia to the Middle East, Europe and North America.
The Director General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said: “With 99% of cases in China, this remains very much an emergency for that country, but one that holds a very grave threat for the rest of the world.”
At the time of writing, the situation in the Mainland was stabilizing, mainly due to everyone taking exceptional prevention measures. Here in Hong Kong, organizations, including your Chamber, are implementing measures to minimize the risk of transmission and are following the Government’s guidelines.
Not least of these is making arrangements for staff to work from home or flexible working arrangements to minimize the risk of contamination. Consequently, we have had to cancel many of our events as a precaution to prevent possible infection. In the next few months we will be concentrating on short-term measures to help our members, and working with the Government and the community on coming through this outbreak.
Hong Kong has weathered the SARS epidemic. Memories of those dreadful months made sure we did not take the initial reports of the outbreak lightly. Consequently, Hong Kong will weather this storm, but we need to make sure we don’t become complacent and let down our guard.
As everyone is doing their best to cope with the unusual and trying conditions that Hong Kong is going through, there are understandably questions on how businesses can minimize the impact and continue as far as possible business as usual.
In this issue, we have compiled several useful articles and tables from our members who are eager to help fellow members by sharing their expertise. We hope these will help readers better understand how they can effectively implement a home-office, meet virtually with staff and clients, get financial assistance, or know what are the legal obligations regarding staff during these exceptional circumstances.
“We have also set up a Coronavirus Business Help Corner on our website to help guide members as many SMEs said they were at a loss as to where to find such information. Many of our professional services and consultant members stepped up to contribute their information free of charge to help guide members through these very challenging times,” said Chamber CEO Shirley Yuen.
The outbreak has led to what has been called the biggest work-from-home experiment in history.
“We have been encouraging our staff to work from home whenever possible to minimize the risk of possible infection,” said Yuen. “We know this is not as convenient as working in the office, but I’m sure we are all learning many lessons and new ways of doing things from this chapter, and I am sure we will be able to benefit from these when the current crisis is over.”
“Although many of us have been working remotely, working together has never been more important,” Yuen said.
Connie Lam, Chairman of the Chamber’s Manpower Committee, said that business continuity is the biggest challenge for companies in the current circumstances.
“Businesses need to maintain operations and customer services, while at the same time providing a safe work environment and flexible work arrangements to reduce the risk of infection,” she said. “In practice, this means ensuring the company has the network capability to support large numbers of people working online and holding remote meetings.”
Lam noted that organizing remote access is particularly important for the many workers who usually cross the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong every day.
For those businesses that depend on workers being physically present, there are ways to protect staff while keeping the company running.
“To help employees that are critical to operations, companies can strengthen cleaning procedures, carry out health checks for employees and customers before entering offices and shops, and also shorten shops’ operating hours.”
Whether or not staff are working remotely, it is important to keep in regular contact. “Companies can continue to engage employees by issuing circulars, hosting weekly online team meetings, and using other social channels, such as Whatsapp, to keep in touch,” Lam said.
Jennifer Tan, Chairman of the Chamber’s DIT Committee, noted the importance of technology in remote working. Tan is CEO at Alipay HK, which already has the necessary systems in place. However, she said, many Hong Kong companies have found that they are not fully prepared for a work-from-home scenario.
“For example, pre-existing security safeguards may prevent staff from remotely accessing a part of – or even all of – the company’s systems, which makes it difficult for staff to work efficiently from home. Additionally, the servers of some companies do not have the capacity to handle a surge in online activity.”
The good news is that the technology solutions already exist, Tan said, and the current situation will likely escalate the adoption of more up-to-date workplace technology.
She also said that adopting better technology can improve businesses in general, particularly those that have not kept up with the trend towards digital. In the longer term, customers will drift away to competitors that offer a better user experience.
“Hence, adopting new technology is no longer just a slogan or a cost-saving measure, but a mode of survival in an increasingly technologically driven market.”
Tan added that the need for remote working and online services right now may open up more opportunities for Hong Kong’s technology sector in the longer term.
“Many companies in Hong Kong need to catch up and I foresee they will increase their investment in remote working resources and online business models. We will see more competition, and in turn, technological advancement, which will benefit customers and further the development of the technology sector.”