CoronaVirus causing the world’s largest work from home experiment

The novel coronavirus outbreak, which began from Chinese city Wuhan in December, has now infected more than 67,000 people and killed over 1,500 in China alone. With the World Health Organization declaring it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, the virus has shut forced the Chinese economy on its knees with many analysts failing to predict the growth of the nation after this pandemic.

Offices across Asia are empty and phone lines are quiet, as the region is fighting the deadly virus. Major economic hubs across the Asian-subcontinent like Hong Kong and Singapore, shops are shut, public facilities at halt and almost every house locked, forcing the world’s biggest work-from-home experiment to take place.

The Chinese government, since January has put around 60mn people under full or partial lockdown in an attempt to contain the virus. But the pressure is more on the companies, who are facing an acute shortage of workforce and arising tensions of an economic slowdown. They’re even more under pressure with the Chinese President Xi Jinping warning that the country needs to stabilize its falling economy.

Companies in China in an attempt to limit social contact to slow the spread of the virus have asked their millions of employees in affected areas to currently work from home. Teachers are also conducting their classes digitally for weeks from their homes.

Talking to TIME media, Alvin Foo the Managing Director of Reprise Digital said, “It’s a good opportunity for us to test working from home at scale. Obviously, it’s not easy for a creative ad agency that brainstorms a lot in person. It’s going to mean a lot of video chats and phone calls.”

So far this unexpected experiment has been so well received that employers are thinking of adopting this as a permanent measure. For the people who advocate flexibility at the workplace, the past few weeks have marked a step towards widespread reform.

But the experiment has brought frustration for many. The outbreak hit heavy on the Chinese economy which was already facing growth issues due to the ongoing US-China trade war. It is estimated that the outbreak could cause China a loss of $62billion. This has sparked the fear of mass lay-offs, unemployment, and housing foreclosures. Many small-scale manufacturing companies who can’t operate on the work-from-home model are already on the brink of closing down as there is no manpower to sustain the factory unit. Employees who were already facing money shortage and were somehow coping up with the medication and grocery cost, have now been asked to take unpaid leaves for the rest of the period.

Hong Kong’s flagship air carrier Cathay Pacific, which also operates budget carrier Cathay Dragon, was already facing a drop in sales due to the anti-government Hong Kong protest. The company has now asked its 27,000 employees to take voluntary unpaid leave for three weeks anytime between March and June. The company citing the significant drop in flight demands due to the virus has decided to “preserve its cash reserve.” It has recently announced it was slashing flights to mainland China by 90% and making significant reductions elsewhere in its network over the next two months. Taken together, the total number of flights will be reduced by 30%.

“Preserving cash is the key to protecting our business. We have already been taking multiple measures to achieve this.” said the airline, which took similar measures during the global financial crisis and the 2003 outbreak of SARS. It added, “Today, we are appealing to all employees to participate in the special leave scheme, which will take effect from 1 March and last until 30 June. All employees will have the option to take three weeks of unpaid leave in this period.”

It’s not just Cathay Pacific which has been feeling the heat of the outbreak. Global airlines have also been hit hard by the deadly virus with many carriers suspending flights to mainland China. British Airways (ICAGY), Air Asia, Delta (DAL), United (UAL), American (AAL), Air India, Lufthansa (DLAKF) and Finnair are among the airlines that have slashed the number of flights to China or have stopped flying to the country entirely.

Although digitally-based industries may be better suited to work from home, the education sector has been facing a lot of frustration due to the ongoing workplace shift. Schools and colleges in China have been shut off completely with students having to take classes digitally via Google Hangouts or other video conferencing apps from their homes. Schools even require students to “check-in” digitally and do lesson tasks online with hourly deadlines, so if students skip a class, it leaves a digital record. This has brought a lot of problems for students as well as teachers. Teachers are facing difficulty in teaching their students with disabilities and special needs.

“The parents are also working from home, and are having to also be teachers — it’s almost an impossible situation,” said a teacher to News3 Channel on request of anonymity.

Big global corporations have also asked their employees to work-from-home to avoid public places that can catalyze the spread of the virus. Tech companies including Tencent, Alibaba and Microsoft have said that their staff will work from home for the next one to two weeks, citing health and safety concerns. Starbucks has closed its China operations temporarily after reducing footfall in the stores. Apple has also been facing problems in making the iPhone deliveries on time due to reduction in production.

Meanwhile, back home in India, several small and medium scale industries who deal with China and depend on it for their manufacturing and spare parts are feeling helpless. Their business has been taking a toll since the outbreak forcing a delay in deliveries and acute shortage of supplies. The Chinese government has recently asked companies to help stabilize the economy but has only allowed essential staff in just the required number and emergency service providers at the office.

While all this has surely been affecting business and things are not usual, the outbreak has forced the world to test its patience and look for other options of work where human interaction is reduced. This has suddenly increased the rise in activism towards the flexible work environment. For the longest time, the debate has been cornered but now the outbreak has compelled governments and organizations to rethink their business policy and allow for greater flexibility at the workplace. Weeks before the coronavirus outbreak, a study by the Ball State University had highlighted that a one percentage point increase in the employment rate correlates with increases in the number of influenza-related doctor visits by about 16%. So is it the right time to assume that work-from-home is the future of the workplace? Well if not for every industry, at least a few can adopt this policy for their organization.

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