In Hong Kong, where the coronavirus outbreak is now entering its third month, law firms are struggling with a choice: how much should they keep their offices open?
For a brief while, the virus transmission appeared to be well contained in Hong Kong, where local government had imposed strict border controls and quarantine measures early on against travelers from high-risk areas such as mainland China and Korea. Until March 17, the highest number of additional new cases reported in one day in Hong Kong was 10, which at that point happened only on two occasions. In the first 54 days since Jan. 23, when Hong Kong started to report confirmed cases, there were 36 days of three new cases or fewer.
But last week, things took a turn for the worse. On March 18, Hong Kong reported 25 new cases and by last Friday, the number of new cases hit a record 48. The increase in new cases has remained high, with an average of 35 new infections recorded every day since Friday. Professor Gabriel Leung, dean of the University of Hong Kong’s medical faculty, warned that the recent wave of people returning to Hong Kong from overseas could spark a second round of infections and that the city is now at its highest risk since the outbreak began.
This has resulted in changes to the process law firms had employed to resume full-time office operations. Many firms in Hong Kong have kept their offices open since late January, when people returned to work from the Chinese New Year break. They alternated their operations as the situation dictated: they let people choose whether they wanted to work in the office or remotely when the outbreak appeared more contained, and strongly encouraged people to work from home, keeping only an essential team on-site, when transmission risk increased.
But until last week, an increasing number of employees were opting to work in the office and law firms said office attendance was on the rise.
“The office did not close for one single day. We had adopted a flexible working strategy since Chinese New Year,” said Stephen Kitts, Eversheds Sutherland’s Hong Kong-based Asia managing partner, who added that the number of staff coming into the office had gradually increased.
Since the beginning of March, almost everyone had been working in the office, he said.
But as new cases began to spike in Hong Kong last week, more firms have switched to remote working arrangements. Government employees have now returned to working from home and the government also called on private companies to support social distancing among employees. On Wednesday, local authorities started banning all nonresidents from entering Hong Kong and suspended alcohol sales at local bars and restaurants.
On Monday, Mayer Brown reversed its policy of requiring Hong Kong staff to come to work in the office after employees criticized the firm’s handling of the crisis in an anonymous letter. The firm said it began to resume having employees work full time in the office in mid-February when government agencies in Hong Kong did the same. Mayer Brown reimplemented a voluntary work-from-home scheme on Monday.
Eversheds also switched back to flexible working so employees could work at home but gave staff the option to come to the office if they are working on closings or have other kinds of deadlines. The firm had allowed flexibility throughout the outbreak for staff who had challenging situations with their families, according to Kitts. And the disruption from Hong Kong’s political protests last year prepared the firm for flexible working arrangements, he said.
“Last year’s protests allowed us to stress test our business continuity plans in a live environment,” he said. “We made some changes, including investing more in IT infrastructure. We also learned the value of allowing staff to develop their own flexible working rosters, based on individual circumstances, such as child care and caring for elderly relatives.”
Others had similar arrangements. Herbert Smith Freehills, which also changed back to remote working this week, has had a secure remote working program available to lawyers and business services in Asia for more than two years. The firm also extended the program to almost all its administrative staff during the political unrest in Hong Kong last year.
Currently, a very small core team works in the office on rotation to maintain essential services at the firm, but almost all other legal and administrative staff are working from home, according to a Hong Kong-based representative. The firm already had a very high proportion of staff able to work agilely in its global offices, including in Hong Kong, before the outbreak so the transition has gone very smoothly, the representative said.
“We’ve also been aware that for some people working from home is difficult,” the representative said. “If you have three generations living at home, with children learning online and perhaps two or three or more trying to work online from smaller flats, some have preferred to come into the office, so we have accommodated that too where possible.”
Clifford Chance implemented a similar weekly rotation of a “tag team” of staff in several Asia Pacific offices, including Hong Kong, for those who want to work in the office. The Magic Circle firm has formed an incident management team that regularly reviews coronavirus measures worldwide, and the Asia offices are sharing lessons they’ve learned with other Clifford Chance offices now working remotely.
Herbert Smith Freehills initially started large-scale remote working in China back in January and has over the last two months extended it to other parts of Asia, Australia, Europe, the U.S. and the rest of the world as the coronavirus spreads.
“Our experience in Hong Kong and other Asian cities has been a useful live test of plans and systems already in place globally before the outbreak,” the firm representative said.
Eversheds’ Kitts recently shared with the firm’s executive team his experiences handling the virus crisis for the firm’s offices in Hong Kong and on the mainland. From the get-go, he expected partners in Hong Kong to actively lead their teams, emphasizing the importance of regular communications using clear and straightforward messages.
The office learned from last year’s political protests the danger of “over-communicating” through a constant stream of ad hoc messages. Maintaining a regular communications schedule and a consistent tone from the top is one of the key ways to effectively manage difficult times, said Kitts, who has been sending a single note each week to all staff since the end of January.
“The role of partners as managers and leaders is paramount in these unpredictable situations with new challenges emerging almost daily,” he said. “We cannot afford any complacency.”