China struggles to return to work after the coronavirus lockdown

Hong Kong (CNN Business)In offices across Asia, desks are empty and the phones are quiet, as the region grapples with a deadly virus.

In major hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore, shops are shuttered, public facilities are closed, and there are few people wandering the usually-bustling financial districts.
Instead, millions of people are holed up in their apartments, in what may be the world’s biggest work-from-home experiment.

    The novel coronavirus outbreak, which began in Wuhan, China, in December, has now infected more than 67,000 people and killed over 1,500, the vast majority in mainland China.
    Around 60 million people in China were put under full or partial lockdown in January as the government tried to contain the virus. Restrictions have been implemented in many other places too — but there is also pressure for companies to get back to work, with Chinese President Xi Jinping warning this week that the country needed to stabilize its economy.

    In an attempt to limit social contact to slow the spread of the virus, known officially as Covid-19, millions of employees in China and other affected areas are currently working from home.
    For some employees, like teachers who have conducted classes digitally for weeks, working from home can be a nightmare.
    But in other sectors, this unexpected experiment has been so well received that employers are considering adopting it as a more permanent measure. For those who advocate more flexible working options, the past few weeks mark a possible step toward widespread — and long-awaited — reform.

    Authorities watch as the Westerdam cruise ship approaches a port in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, on Thursday, February 13. Despite having no confirmed cases of coronavirus on board, the Westerdam was refused port by four other Asian countries before being allowed to dock in Cambodia.

    A worker has his temperature checked on a shuttered commercial street in Beijing on Wednesday, February 12.

    Beds are made in the Wuhan Sports Center, which has been converted into a temporary hospital in Wuhan, China.

    A child rides a scooter past a police officer wearing protective gear outside the Hong Mei House in Hong Kong on Tuesday, February 11. More than 100 people evacuated the housing block after four residents in two different apartments tested positive for the coronavirus.

    Relatives of quarantined passengers wave at the Diamond Princess cruise ship as it leaves a port in Yokohama, Japan, to dump wastewater and generate potable water. Dozens of people on the ship <a href="" target="_blank">are infected with coronavirus.</a>

    The Deneway branch of the County Oak Medical Centre is closed amid coronavirus fears in Brighton, England, on February 11. Several locations in and around Brighton were quarantined after <a href="" target="_blank">a man linked to several coronavirus cases in the United Kingdom</a> came into contact with health-care workers and members of the public.

    A police officer, left, wears protective gear as he guards a cordon at the Hong Mei House in Hong Kong on February 11.

    A worker wears a protective suit as he waits to screen people entering an office building in Beijing on Monday, February 10. China's workforce is <a href="" target="_blank">slowly coming back to work</a> after the coronavirus outbreak forced many parts of the country to extend the Lunar New Year holiday by more than a week.

    Chinese President Xi Jinping has his temperature checked during an appearance in Beijing on February 10.

    Photojournalists wearing face masks take photos of a bus carrying passengers after they disembarked from the World Dream cruise ship in Hong Kong on Sunday, February 9. <a href="" target="_blank">More than 5,300 people were quarantined on two cruise ships</a> off Hong Kong and Japan.

    People participating in a Lunar New Year Parade in New York City hold signs reading, "Wuhan stay strong!" on February 9.

    A shopper walks past empty shelves at a grocery store in Hong Kong on February 9. China's Ministry of Commerce <a href="" target="_blank">encouraged supermarkets and grocery stores</a> to resume operations as the country's voluntary or mandatory quarantines began to take an economic toll.

    A worker wearing a protective suit uses a machine to disinfect a business establishment in Shanghai, China, on February 9.

    Workers in protective gear walk near the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Yokohama on Friday, February 7.

    People in Hong Kong attend a vigil February 7 for <a href="" target="_blank">whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang. </a>Li, 34, died in Wuhan after contracting the virus while treating a patient.

    A woman grieves while paying tribute to Li at Li's hospital in Wuhan on February 7.

    The Anthem of the Seas cruise ship is seen docked at the Cape Liberty Cruise Port in Bayonne, New Jersey, on February 7. Passengers were to be screened for coronavirus as a precaution, an official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told CNN.

    A light installation is displayed by striking members of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance and other activists at the Hospital Authority building in Hong Kong on February 7.

    Passengers are seen on the deck of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked at the Yokohama Port on February 7.

    Flight attendants wearing face masks make their way through Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok, Thailand, on February 7.

    Workers check sterile medical gloves at a latex-product manufacturer in Nanjing, China, on Thursday, February 6.

    A woman wears a protective mask as she shops in a Beijing market on February 6.

    This aerial photo shows the Leishenshan Hospital that is being built in Wuhan, China, to handle coronavirus patients.

    A passenger shows a note from the World Dream cruise ship docked at the Kai Tak cruise terminal in Hong Kong on Friday, February 5.

    A mask is seen on a statue in Beijing on February 5.

    An ambulance stops at a traffic light in front of the Grand Lisboa Hotel in Macao. The virus turned China's gambling mecca <a href="" target="_blank">into a ghost town.</a>

    A dog in Beijing wears a makeshift mask constructed from a paper cup.

    Striking hospital workers in Hong Kong demand the closure of the border with mainland China on Thursday, February 4.

    The Diamond Princess cruise ship sits anchored in quarantine off the port of Yokohama, Japan, on February 4. It arrived a day earlier with passengers feeling ill.

    A medical worker wearing protective gear waits to take the temperature of people entering Princess Margaret Hospital in Hong Kong on February 4.

    Medical workers in protective suits help transfer patients to a newly completed field hospital in Wuhan.

    People wearing protective overalls talk outside a Wuhan hotel housing people in isolation on Monday, February 3.

    A man stands in front of TV screens broadcasting a speech by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on February 3. Lam said the city would shut almost all border-control points to the mainland.

    A colleague sprays disinfectant on a doctor in Wuhan on February 3.

    Commuters in Tokyo walk past an electric board displaying dismal stock prices on February 3, the first business day after the Chinese New Year. Asia's markets recorded their <a href="" target="_blank">worst day in years</a> as investors finally got a chance to react to the worsening coronavirus outbreak.

    Medical workers move a coronavirus patient into an isolation ward at the Second People's Hospital in Fuyang, China, on Saturday, February 1.

    Children wear plastic bottles as makeshift masks while waiting to check in to a flight at the Beijing Capital Airport on Thursday, January 30.

    Passengers in Hong Kong wear protective masks as they wait to board a train at Lo Wu Station, near the mainland border, on January 30.

    A volunteer wearing protective clothing disinfects a street in Qingdao, China, on Wednesday, January 29.

    Nanning residents line up to buy face masks from a medical appliance store on January 29.

    Lyu Jun, left, a member of a medical team leaving for Wuhan, says goodbye to a loved one in Urumqi, China, on Tuesday, January 28.

    A charter flight from Wuhan arrives at an airport in Anchorage, Alaska, on January 28. The US government chartered the plane to bring home US citizens and diplomats from the American consulate in Wuhan.

    South Korean President Moon Jae-in wears a mask to inspect the National Medical Center in Seoul on January 28.

    Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, center, attends a news conference in Hong Kong on January 28. Lam said China will stop individual travelers to Hong Kong while closing some border checkpoints and restricting flights and train services from the mainland.

    Workers at an airport in Novosibirsk, Russia, check the temperatures of passengers who arrived from Beijing on January 28.

    Alex Azar, the US Secretary of Health and Human Services, speaks during a news conference about the American public-health response.

    Two residents walk in an empty park in Wuhan on Monday, January 27. The city remained on lockdown for a fourth day.

    A person wears a protective mask, goggles and coat as he stands in a nearly empty street in Beijing on Sunday, January 26.

    Medical staff members bring a patient to the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital on Saturday, January 25.

    People wear protective masks as they walk under Lunar New Year decorations in Beijing on January 25.

    Construction workers in Wuhan begin to work on a special hospital to deal with the outbreak on Friday, January 24.

    Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks to reporters on January 24 about <a href="" target="_blank">a patient in Chicago</a> who had been diagnosed with the coronavirus. The patient was the second in the United States to be diagnosed with the illness.

    A couple kisses goodbye as they travel for the Lunar New Year holiday in Beijing on January 24.

    Workers manufacture protective face masks at a factory in China's Hubei Province on Thursday, January 23.

    Shoppers wear masks in a Wuhan market on January 23.

    Passengers are checked by a thermography device at an airport in Osaka, Japan, on January 23.

    People wear masks while shopping for vegetables in Wuhan on January 23.

    A militia member checks the body temperature of a driver in Wuhan on January 23.

    Passengers wear masks as they arrive at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, Philippines, on January 23.

    A customer holds boxes of particulate respirators at a pharmacy in Hong Kong on January 23.

    Passengers wear masks at the high-speed train station in Hong Kong on January 23.

    A woman rides an electric bicycle in Wuhan on Wednesday, January 22.

    People in Guangzhou, China, wear protective masks on January 22.

    People go through a checkpoint in Guangzhou on January 22.

    Medical staff of Wuhan's Union Hospital attend a gathering on January 22.

    Health officials hold a news conference in Beijing on January 22.

    Frustrations and unexpected benefits

    In China, the outbreak has taken a toll on the world’s second biggest economy, which had already been struggling due to the US trade war and a slump in domestic demand. Now, businesses have been closed for weeks, raising fears of mass lay-offs, unemployment, and housing foreclosures.
    One estimate warned that the outbreak could cost China $62 billion in lost growth.
    With authorities urging businesses to reopen, employees across China are beginning to work from home. More than half of workers in the capital Beijing plan to do so instead of going into the office, according to state-run newspaper China Daily.
    Tech companies including Tencent, Alibaba and Microsoft have told CNN their staff will work from home for the next one to two weeks, citing health and safety concerns.
    Working from home, temperature checks and quarantines: How China's companies are trying to get back to business
    The governments of Singapore, Hong Kong, and Macao have ordered civil servants to work from home and asked private employers to do so where possible, with only essential staff or emergency service providers still at the office.
    Civil servants in Hong Kong have been working from home for weeks, since the Lunar New Year holiday ended in late January. A Hong Kong government statement said it “appealed to other employers to make flexible work arrangements for employees in order to reduce contacts among people.”
    Schools in many of these places have been suspended — so teachers are instead conducting classes through digital learning tools, such as Google Hangouts and other video conferencing software. One Hong Kong school requires students to “check in” digitally and do lesson tasks online with hourly deadlines, so if students skip a class, it leaves a digital record.
    But bringing the classroom online has proved frustrating for some educators — especially those who work with children who have special learning needs or disabilities.
    “We use a lot of hands-on learning, so it’s been really challenging trying to make our online learning meaningful for the kids when we’re not in a classroom environment,” said Karen, a special education teacher in Hong Kong, who requested a pseudonym to avoid identifying the school.
    Like other schools, Karen and her colleagues have relied on digital tools such as video calls and Google Docs — but challenges are made harder because her students need a lot of adult support.
    “The parents are also working from home, and are having to also be teachers — it’s almost an impossible situation,” she said.
    Special needs students also often rely on the structure, routine, and human interaction provided by school — which means remote learning can be unsettling or frustrating. is hiring 20,000 people who can't work because of the coronavirus
    But for other digital-based sectors, working from home has instead been surprisingly effective, say employers in the field.
    “It’s a test run that we didn’t really choose to implement, but we’re quite happy with it,” said Brice Lamarque, sales and accounts director at a web and branding agency in Hong Kong. Nearly all the agency’s employees have been working from home this month — and will continue for as long as the Hong Kong government advises, he said.
    “Before (the epidemic) happened, we were not really keen on letting our team work from home because we value collaboration,” said Lamarque. “But this experience actually showed us that the whole team collaborates quite well even if they’re not in the same room, so we’re looking at adding that into our employee benefits … maybe two to three weeks a year.”
    However, he admitted that a big part of the work-from-home success owed to the digital nature of their company and industry — employees only require a computer and internet connection, meaning they can work from anywhere.
    Joe Hasberry, a Hong Kong employee at an asset management firm, has also been working from home — but unlike Lamarque, he and other coworkers will be returning to the office next week. The company needs to meet with clients and visitors, meaning it’s hard to keep working from home beyond a few weeks.
    China is struggling to get back to work after the coronavirus lockdown
    “Some guys at my office are more (in) investor relations — it’s much more people-centric, so that part of the job wouldn’t be able to be done from home,” he said.
    Meanwhile, some people face social pressure from employers to go into the office despite government guidance to work from home. Employees in customer service industries or front-of-house roles often don’t have the option to work remotely.
    In China, factory workers also don’t have this choice — instead, those able to return will face stringent health and safety measures each day, like having their body temperatures checked and hands disinfected before entering the workplace, according to state-run media Xinhua.
    Some employees in Hong Kong told CNN that they were frustrated that the arrangement could put them at a higher risk of infection, heightened by memories of the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak that devastated the city.

    Is this the future of work?

    Although digitally-based industries may be better suited to work from home, advocates have been pushing for years to make work more flexible, arguing that it can be done with the right infrastructure, to the benefit of both employees and employers.
    The past decade has seen expanding opportunities for remote working and increasing remote job listings — and this shift is largely due to new technologies and changing family demographics.
    The movement has been embraced by many parents who say the ability to work from home makes it easier to juggle childcare and a career. Many families who can’t afford nannies or day care face a difficult decision when they have a baby, with one of the parents — often the woman — having to sacrifice career advancement to care for their child.
    The option to work from home doesn’t just empower women — it makes it easier for working fathers to step into that role too, in a step toward gender equality that benefits all parties.
    These employers don't care when or where you work
    Technological advancements have also made working from home more accessible across all sectors.
    “Nowadays, compared to 10 years ago, it is a lot easier to access emails remotely, cloud-based filing, dial-in to calls and video conferencing remotely,” said Marie Swarbreck, founder of FLEXImums, a company in Hong Kong that connects job applicants to remote or flexible work opportunities. “The technology and software is available for people to work remotely.”
    She acknowledged that the current work-from-home situation in Hong Kong has produced “extra challenges which are out of our control” — for instance, working parents have to care for children whose classes have been suspended. Homes that are empty, quiet, and perfect for remote working on a typical day are now filled with people and distractions.

      But these are extraordinary circumstances — not the norm, she said. Current challenges don’t mean that working from home is ineffective, or that it shouldn’t be implemented more widely beyond the outbreak.
      “Being able to create a workplace that welcomes and encourages working from home, remotely, flexibly, is certainly, in my opinion, the way regular daily life will become more and more.”
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