While the issue of fixed working hours continues to provoke lively debate in Hong Kong, the concept of flexible hours is becoming more appealing to senior managers.
A recent global survey by global workplace office provider Regus revealed that 73 per cent of Hong Kong respondents – roughly in line with the global view – believe that flexible working can result in increased employee productivity. Almost three in four respondents also believe that flexible working arrangements foster creativity. Meanwhile, more than 60 per cent of Hong Kong respondents credit flexible working arrangements with improving the quality and speed of decision making.
Other benefits linked to flexible working hours, says John Henderson, chief finance officer at Regus Asia-Pacific, include a greater sense of responsibility and time management among staff. Of the Hong Kong respondents, 34 per cent indicated junior employees are likely to become more responsible through remote working. Henderson says flexible working means staff have greater freedom by avoiding commuting during busy periods.
However, despite the Hong Kong business community’s support for flexible working hours, research indicates that only 36 per cent of Hong Kong professionals currently spend half their working week either working from home or from places outside the office. This compares with 53 per cent on the mainland, 45 per cent in Singapore and 46 per cent in Taiwan.
While many Hong Kong employers acknowledge the benefits of flexible working hours, Henderson says the way in which working policies need to be implemented depend on individual company culture, the nature of the business and how employees engage with their clients. Companies may also need to invest in training their managers in ways to supervise staff remotely. The survey shows 58 per cent of Hong Kong respondents – compared with 59 per cent on mainland China and 71 per cent in Taiwan – believe effective management of remote workers is achievable with appropriate training. “There are many ways through the use of online tools that employers can check the commitment and productivity of their employees,” Henderson says.
Research by Community Business, which has championed the work-life balance issue in Hong Kong since 2003, also suggests many companies recognise the potential benefits of flexible working, but face challenges adapting to the way of working such a culture requires. “For traditional companies which have concerns about how flexible workers spend their time, it may require a leap of faith to adapt to a flexible working environment,” says Henderson, who believes that as firms move away from management by supervision to management by results, opportunities for flexible working will expand further.
For example, as computer-in-the-pocket devices change the way business professionals interact, Henderson says the case for flexible and remote working arrangements is more compelling. “Opportunities open up for employees to meet targets and work commitments, and achieve a better work-life balance at the same time,” he says.
Rather than flexible working being a benefit for employees and a cost to employers, Henderson says companies can find ways to better utilise expensive office space.
“While attitudes are changing slowly, the inescapable conclusion is that businesses, in fact, have little to lose, and potentially lots to gain, by enabling flexible working,” says Henderson.
The latest Regus survey was conducted across 95 countries and involved 20,000 respondents.
In his research, “Viewing Flexible Working Hours from Enterprises’ Perspective”, assistant professor Lubanski Lam of Shue Yan University, suggests that flexible working hours can help boost productivity and reduce operating costs and staff turnover rates. “Employees tend to be healthier physically and mentally, achieve more job satisfaction and less stressed,” says Lam, pointing out that staff satisfied with their work-life balance are more likely to be productive workers who are engaged with their job and their bosses and less likely to seek employment elsewhere.
Recruitment firms say companies which offer flexible work boost their chances of being seen as employers of choice. They are also more likely to retain top performers. But employers which insist on long or rigid hours may find top performers prone to leave.
One example is the investment banking sector, where departments have reduced headcounts and increased workloads. “Investment banking professionals keep telling me they would rather work fewer or more flexible hours, including taking a pay cut, to spend more time with their families,” says Philip Quinn, banking and finance consultant with Kelly Services.