Lessons learned from working from Home

The COVID-19 pandemic has made work from home the norm for many employees in Hong Kong and around the world. This experience not only encourages them to reflect on working habits and wellbeing from a different perspective, but also allows organisations, and particularly human resources practitioners, to assess and review their policies and practice.


 “The key issue in adopting a working from home arrangement is to balance the advantages and disadvantages,” said Wendy Lai, Director of Human Resources at Lingnan University. “It promotes a better work-life balance, and improves staff retention and motivation as some may prefer the arrangement, especially in uncertain times such as the pandemic and social unrest.”


As a public organisation, Lingnan University follows set guidelines and procedures for operations and human resources practice, and as an employer with over 600 academic and non-academic staff from all over the world, it needs to provide a harmonious working environment to maintain staff morale, productivity, health and wellbeing.


During the pandemic, the HR Office regularly received phone calls and enquiries from colleagues and administrators seeking advice about working arrangements. Among many other queries, these included worries about a colleague who had just returned from overseas, a potential source of infection, sitting next to them; whether they should come to work as there was a case of COVID-19 in the building they live in; and whether they were allowed to stay overseas and not return to Hong Kong after accomplishing a task.


 “We care very much about colleagues’ health and wellbeing, and need to find a balance,” Lai noted. “We understand the concerns, but at the same time staff must meet their obligations, and our decisions are reached through related internal policies, legislation and best management practice. So we work hand-in-hand with the different departments to find the best solution in each case.”


Lai is very conscious that during this tough time, the University is able to maintain operations and accomplish assignments in a generous, can-do spirit. “We know not everyone can work from home, especially colleagues who are responsible for campus safety and maintenance. Thus the University gives department heads discretion in making appropriate special arrangements according to their team’s responsibilities, including the implementation of duty rosters, flexible or staggered working hours, and in consideration of the personal circumstances of individual colleagues. We are glad that everything is going smoothly.”


During the pandemic, Lai was in close touch with the senior management and HR directors of other universities in Hong Kong literally 24 hours a day, keeping abreast of the latest situation, and she worked with the University’s Health and Safety Committee and other departments to make sure that all risks for personnel were taken into consideration.


The office also set up guidelines for working from home, including how to ensure effective communications with the office and among team members, and how to protect information and data security while working remotely. “We help department members, committees and job candidates to use online meetings, and work closely with ITSC (Information and Technology Services Centre) to make sure staff are fully equipped with the hardware, software and knowledge required for a smooth and secure meeting,” Lai explained.


Lai added that virtual meetings have certain advantages over traditional ones: “Apart from the recording function, they offer more flexibility to both the interview panel and the interviewee, and make the arrangement for committee meetings more convenient. For instance, instead of waiting physically, the teleconferencing ‘waiting room’ allows them to work until the meeting starts. Voting is electronic and confidential. I think it’s a way, like online teaching, to improve work efficiency.”


 “Through technology, we are all learning to deal with our tasks in a new way, and to maintain effective and efficient support to students,” Jenny Ko, Director of the Student Services Centre, observed. “Most of our meetings have been switched from face-to-face to online meetings or quick discussions via social media platforms. But it is still not possible to replace all face-to-face communications with online alternatives.”


 “While working from home, SSC colleagues are also eager to explore ways to increase students’ engagement in online learning activities, such as the Online Career Fair, Live Integrated Learning Programme courses, Wellness for All programme, and tele-counselling support.”


In February, the Centre also set up a special support team for non-local students who could not return to Hong Kong, offering round-the-clock advice and assistance via online and social media platforms. “A series of information packs was also made available online to help students with academic matters, health advice and hostel arrangements. So basically we work even longer hours from home even though we do not need to travel to and from the University,” Ko added.


“To me, the work-from-home arrangement not only helps minimise the risk of infection in daily commuting and social contacts, but is also a good family-friendly practice, especially when my son needs to study at home because of the schools closing. I can have breakfast and lunch with him every day, and spend more quality time communicating with him,” said Serene Chu, Manager of the Office of the President. “Having said that, working from home requires exceptional self-discipline. For example, I have to lock myself in my room to focus on my own work, and only check my son’s online studies from time to time, otherwise he keeps talking to me. It is very challenging for parents like us who have to manage work and our children’s education at the same time. But working from home during the pandemic is a necessary measure to ease colleagues’ minds.”