This is the story of two companies in Hong Kong, and their very different views on productivity. The first company, an architectural firm, has in place a working hours policy that I found impossible to believe could exist in this day and age.
A young lady I know who works at the firm assured me that the policy not only exists, but also is enforced. The policy is this: if an employee is as much as one minute late for work, the company can demand that the employee return to work on any Saturday of its choosing to work that one (or five or 30 or however many minutes the employee was late) minute.
Amazing but true. The young lady I met said that for thinking employees, the policy is counterproductive. If she sees, on her way down the street to the office, that she will be one or two minutes late, she detours to a nearby coffee shop to drink a coffee and read the paper. After all, if you’re coming in for one minute on Saturday you may as well come in for 30.
The incredible part of the policy is that it applies even if an employee has worked until 5:00 in the morning, gone home for a shower and a change of clothes, and then returned to the office without sleep, to arrive one minute late. See you on Saturday!!!
The second company, a publishing firm, last year saw one of its senior employees approach the managing director to say that for family reasons, he had to leave Hong Kong and move to Vancouver. The employee was a key contributor to the firm’s success and the managing director knew he would be difficult to replace.
The managing director suggested that the senior employee, the firm’s chief editor, might be able to manage his department from overseas … if the supporting technology could be made to work and if the other members of the department could work under a long-distance boss.
Although the chief editor was not due to leave for six months, the company started testing the arrangement immediately, with the chief editor working half days in the office and half days from home. Using e-mail, instant messaging, telephone and fax, the man was able to demonstrate to his boss, his staff and the company’s clients in Hong Kong and mainland China that service would continue at the same high level.
It’s clear that advances in technology have made it easy to work from home, from Vancouver, or from anywhere, and to improve their productivity greatly. For example, how many new mothers would appreciate being able to work part-time from home in the months following the end of their maternity leave?
I live in Japan, where employees work ludicrously long hours, simply because they will not leave until the boss does. It doesn’t matter whether or not there’s any work to do. In Hong Kong, where I lived for a long time, employees of international firms were known to “work late”, ordering pizzas and movie rentals in to the office conference room, which in most cases was better appointed (and air conditioned!) than their own tiny (and often shared among several generations of family members) apartments.
The obstacle – in the case of companies like our architectural firm – to productivity improvements may be procedural rather than technological. Do you need to see your employees to believe that they’re working? If you do see them sitting in their office chairs, does that convince you that they are working?
Roberto De Vido is a communications consultant who has lived and worked in Asia for 25 years. He is the editor of Aidpreneur.com and producer of the Terms of Reference podcast.