This article is written by Simon Gallagher, Director at Integrated Design Limited & WIB Regional Lead for Hong Kong, China.
As the UK slowly navigates its way through the Covid-19 pandemic, here in Hong Kong we are slightly ahead of the curve, having been dealing with the virus outbreak since Chinese New Year which was at the end of January. We are currently tamping down the embers of a third wave, and epidemiological predictions are that we will probably be dealing with a fourth wave, come winter. Onto this unprecedented disruption also comes the uncertainty associated with the new National Security Law, introduced in Hong Kong at the end of June. For a year prior to the introduction of the law, Hong Kong had been rocked by demonstrations and social disorder, instigated initially by the attempt by the Hong Kong government at implementing an extradition bill allowing prisoners to potentially face trial in mainland China. It has certainly been a tumultuous twelve months or so.
A Tumultuous Time
Somehow, during all this chaos and upheaval, I have been expected to act as a leader and run a business as one of the three directors of my BIM consultancy, Integrated Design Limited. We have operations in Singapore and a large staff in Kolkata, as well as our head office in Hong Kong, and we have not been spared any of the trouble others have faced. We are fortunate to have a good manager in India; compassionate and understanding, as well as staff who are prepared to be flexible. There have been staff furloughed, and there has been government financial support provided to offset costs. However, overall we have managed to keep on working, and delivering projects, albeit more slowly and with much downtime, but only by being flexible and pragmatic. In such a situation, it is quite natural to face hard choices, and it may seem like a good option at this time to sacrifice an ethical position in order for the company to survive. We chose to support as many of our staff as we could, for as long as we could, and even went to the lengths of arranging and paying for home internet for our India staff who were willing to work from home, just to keep some production enabled. Legally we could have made deep cuts and reduced staff numbers greatly, but we did not. I would urge managers to avoid making short term and myopic decisions based upon the contents of a spreadsheet only, but rather consider the wider implications of actions. Similarly, I would ask employees to be flexible, where possible, but also communicate with employers so that unnecessary hardship can be avoided.
A Hong Kong Family
My wife, Yin Yin, is a qualified architect. Getting that certificate took years. The thought of investing so much time, money, and effort into reaching a goal only to give it up was not an option for her. We put off starting a family until she had completed her studies and obtained her RIBA Part III. When she was pregnant with our first daughter, she needed to arrange additional time off and reduce her hours when returning to work after giving birth. The statutory maternity and paternity arrangements in Hong Kong are quite poor; only ten weeks leave for mother and three days for father (although this has now been increased to a princely five days)! Of the ten weeks, the statutory arrangement is that the mother ceases working at four weeks prior to the expected delivery date. So a first time mother, as my wife was, had to hand a six week old baby to someone else if she wanted to go back to work again? Having been there, I can say with certainty that the decision was nonsense. Fortunately, her employer was prepared to be reasonable, and she took double the statutory time, although unpaid, and then went back to work on four days per week. But this required some sacrifices to be made, such as reduced income, and required much effort from my wife in communicating her concerns to her managers. There are plenty of couples for whom this is simply not a serious consideration, for various legitimate reasons.
Career or Children?
It is common, and expected in Hong Kong, that families employ foreign domestic helpers to assist with childcare or rely upon family to enable mothers to return to work. Is it any wonder that so many mothers choose not to return to work at all after giving birth? Once they have left the workplace, it is far more difficult to return later, both in terms of mental preparedness and from the point of view of experience; careers effectively go into stasis whilst mothers raise children, and commonly return in a more junior position should they choose to return at all. It should never, ever, be the case that a mother must choose between having children or a career. So often, successful women forgo having children of their own for this very reason.
Forming Alliances for the Future
I now have two daughters, the eldest Ophelia is now nearly five years old, and her little sister Ann will soon be three. Having two girls has brought into sharp relief for me the realisation that I do not want my daughters to have to juggle the decisions my wife and I have had to make, regarding careers or families. I do not wish for my girls to feel compelled to delay parenthood simply because they fear the consequences financially. I do not want my daughters to accept that they will stunt their career growth due to taking maternity leave. As an employer I am now in a position to influence company policy and impact the lives of my staff, either positively or negatively. Having been there myself and having witnessed the enormous impact a company can have on a family, I am able to confidently state that patience, support and understanding from an employer will be paid back with dedication, diligence and commitment. Can this be said of all staff? Those with dependents are more likely to remain stable and take a long-term view of employment. Staff who feel nurtured and supported, feel valued and trusted, are far less likely to jump ship and will dig deep when times are tough. Look after your employees and they will look after you, should be every manager’s mantra.