Lessons from Asia: Returning to Work

Lessons from Asia: Returning to Work

Legal Week by Trent Sutton and Raoul Parekh - 12 May 2020

As the U.K's Coronavirus Job Retension Scheme went live, public debate shifted to when and how the lockdown could be eased. So far, the government has been keeping its counsel on this point - so employers are naturally looking to other countries further ahead of the curve for a clue about what's to come. The pandemic's initial origintaion in Asia provides an opportunity for western-based employers to preview what a return to work might look like.

Prepare for additional waves

Employers considering a return to work must therefore plan for the likelihood of additional waves of the virus. This means ensuring your business continuity plans are up to date, incorporate recent events, and are sufficiently adapted to address potential future lockdowns, aggressive social distancing, and/or other tactics.

Moreover, a return to work in phases will also help to hedge some of the risks associated with immediate increases in the virus. Employers should also communicate to employees the possibility of future furloughs or other modifications to the employment relationship, and consider establishing a contractual right to do so.

Companies are installing foot-operated doors, placing Plexiglas between work-stations, staggering start times, and taking other steps to reduce the possible spread of contagion.

Also, social distancing is here to stay - at least for a while. In Asia, companies have been creative in addressing and adapting social distancing principles to their own workplace.

In China, one manufacturer is requiring employees to eat in designated spots, to face the same direction when eating, and to use seperate tables from one another. Some Korean employers prohibit eating lunch across from one another and maintain video conferencing to reduce face-to-face interactions.

Is WFH here to stay?

Given the numerous lockdowns, global employers were forced to adopt working from home strategies (where possible) to maintain business continuity. Companies grappled with the practical administration of such a program, including ensuring appropriate cases, equipment, and security.

A cautious and staged approach to re-opening the worksite has the advantage of allowing employers to test social distancing strategies in advance of full staffing to ensure their compatibility and effectiveness. 

The return to work will continue to require employers to manage ahead for reduced cash-flow, supply chain impediments, diminished business opportunities, and other risks.

Watch the bottom line

The economic impact of COVID-19 is uncertain and some industries have seen extensive impact while others have not. That pattern is likely to continue through the recovery, particularly as later waves have an unpredictable effect.

In any case, the return to work will continue to require employers to manage ahead for reduced cash-flow, supply chain impediments, diminished business opportunities, and other risks. In Asia, as in the West, employers are and continue to assess and revise compensation structures, headcount, and benefits. Making these changes rapidly and in response to international challenges will keep HR and other people professionals busy for months to come.

Asia's experience with the virus has provided some helpful tips for what many western companies may see as they now begin to emerge from government-enforced lockdowns.

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