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Can we take work-from-home out of the home?

As Hong Kong is embracing further social distancing measures in light of a new wave of coronavirus cases, some members of the Invotech community got together online to try out a tool commonly used by futurists to think about the far-reaching implications of changes today, and spot opportunities for innovation.

The coronavirus crisis has exposed the need for change in many areas of society, from our food and health systems, to our workplaces and schools. What might we do to transform Hong Kong for the better?

To help us think through some options, I introduced the ‘Futures Wheel’: a tool created by the American futurist Jerome C. Glenn in the 1970s as a way to think through the diverse potential consequences of any particular change or trend.

It’s a very simple tool: a circle on a page, surrounded by two or more outer rings of circles. The process begins at the centre of the wheel. In that first circle, you note the name of the particular trend or change you wish to explore. Your first question is: “What direct consequences could this change have?” Each consequence is noted down in the ring of circles closest to the hub of the wheel. Then you move outwards to the next ring of circles, and ask: “What are the possible consequences of each of these changes?” - and so on.

As an example we looked at the implications of the global rise of working from home. What are the potential implications of this trend for Hong Kong? Where could it lead? What opportunities are emerging?

We started by noting a range of immediate consequences: empty offices, less travel, cramped living conditions as we try to cater for family, office and schooling needs in our homes, and the rise in appeal of rural living. As we explored the consequences of each of these, we found ourselves discussing some pressing challenges.

One challenge is the rise in mental anxiety and domestic violence resulting from the additional pressures on our home lives. Employers in Hong Kong have long treated working from home as a luxury: now that it has become a necessity, it’s clear that there are difficulties for home-based workers, as well as rewards. Nor are these difficulties evenly distributed: those with smaller, darker, more crowded homes will struggle to be productive at home; those with jobs that demand them to be ‘on-site’ face either increased health risks or potential loss of income; those with children out of school - and particularly their primary carers, usually women - face added strain.

The relationship between employers and employees is also changing as a result of home-working. While there’s an opportunity for management to demonstrate increased trust in their teams, and for employees to show that they are indeed motivated beyond presenteeism, there is also growing interest in ways to monitor working from home. . Tech solutions for remote collaboration are doubling as solutions for domestic surveillance. As we bring our offices home, will our working relationships become more conducive to independent problem-solving and creative innovation, or will we find ourselves more closely observed, and less able to be ourselves even at home?

These concerns led us to question whether we can take work-from-home out of the home. How might we establish affordable access to local, safe (and sanitised) co-working spaces? How can we join up community facilities and public spaces? What role can libraries and other public spaces - such as shopping malls or transport facilities - play? And how can business and government cooperate in this?

Article contributers: Mark Pixley, Waltraut Ritter and Thomas Tang

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