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Striking a balance

HKIHRM forum focuses on urgent work-time issues

Three months ago, the government created the multi-sector Standard Working Hours (SWH) Committee that will eventually advise the chief executive on whether an SWH law should be introduced. Its recommendation, however, could take up to three years to reach. In the meantime, many employers will continue to equate long working hours with performance and productivity.

Against this background, the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management (HKIHRM) recently staged a forum where HR professionals from different industries joined various experts in taking an in-depth look at SWH from different angles.

One of the hot topics at the conference was how employees and HR professionals could persuade their bosses to put work-life balance and shorter working hours on the company agenda.

Fern Ngai, CEO of Community Business, says there is clear evidence that the benefits of work-life balance can be quantified and that this can be used to create a business case.

“Hong Kong’s culture of long working hours needs to be broken because of its detrimental effects,” Ngai said. “With Generation Y people coming up and talking about the issue, things will change. As a company, do you want to be one of the leaders in effecting the change, or do you want to be one of the laggards?”

Professor Randy Chiu, director of the Centre for HR Strategy and Development at Hong Kong Baptist University, suggested compiling statistics and putting them down on the table for bosses to see.

“Unless you are able to present a total picture – using numbers to describe the status quo in terms of productivity, employee engagement, employee satisfaction and talent retention – you won’t be able to convince your boss to change,” Chiu said.

Good data may not even be that hard to find, the forum heard, with easily downloadable evidence from all over the world forming a good starting point.

“There exists a whole lot of evidence from different studies in various countries that long working hours are not really productive and that shorter working hours actually increases productivity,” said Jon Messenger, senior research officer at the International Labour Organisation in Geneva.

Messenger presented trends and developments regarding hours of work from around the world. He also discussed the key elements of a working-time regime and related the experiences of selected countries.

“Sharing good practices is important,” he said “If you can get somebody from a company telling a peer in another company, ‘We implemented this policy and it worked really well,’ then, all of a sudden, the mind opens.”

Ngai agreed, adding that she didn’t think that advice applied only to large organisations.

“SMEs and small companies actually have a lot of flexibility,” she said. “Look at the practices of other companies. Don’t make the assumption that you can’t do it because it’s too hard or it costs too much. Look at some of the good practices and see how they could apply in your environment.”

Just this week, the Hong Kong Business Community Joint Conference, a coalition of 54 small and medium-sized trade associations representing 280,000 enterprises, aired their opposition to legislation concerning SWH amid fears that it will increase their operating costs.

Other countries with SWH have experienced a lot of resistance, and not just from employers but from employees as well.

This is apparently to be expected, Messenger said. “When you have any existing system, there’s going to be a certain level of attachment to that system. Therefore, communication, getting everybody involved, and being as transparent as possible would be the right approach.”

Messenger is a specialist in policy-focused research and technical assistance on working-time and work-organisation issues. He warns that “going through [the consultation] process is the right thing to do, even though it is time consuming. The more discussions the better, because it gets people engaged.”

Another important issue raised at the forum was how, with local employers already suffering manpower shortages, the labour market might get even tighter. The answer, according to Messenger, depends on the specific kind of SWH regime that will be implemented.

“One of the things other countries have done is specifically try to encourage people with family responsibilities to come into the labour force by offering them part-time opportunities,” he said. “While that may not fully solve your problem, it’s great for staffing certain kinds of shift patterns. Retail is one of the big industries that really makes use of part-time work in developed economies all over the world. You take the full-timers you’ve got, reduce their hours a bit, and then you plug part-timers in to fill the gap.”

Some people doubt whether SWH legislation will really bring about better work-life balance, given that employees tend to work longer if the overtime pay rate is higher. This is why Chiu prefers to have maximum working hours rather than SWH.

“Those working longer and getting overtime pay are not necessarily more productive,” he said. “In terms of HR jurisdiction, it is our job that workers’ productivity and performance are measured and monitored very closely, not in terms of how much time is put into a process, but by the accomplishment.”