Lessons from Lockdown: How COVID-19 and remote working have changed the way we work

2020 has been the year of COVID-19. The pandemic has affected every aspect of life in almost every corner of the globe. Apart from the devastating impact on health and lives, and the effect on economies everywhere which may take years to recover from, COVID-19 has changed the way we work. Malaysia’s Movement Control Order (“MCO”) meant that from 18 March, most businesses had to cease on-site operations. Many other countries also enforced similar restrictions.

As a result of restrictions, people the world over have had to get used to working from home. While the concept of remote working isn’t new (it may come as a surprise to many that Tim Ferriss’ classic “The 4-Hour Workweek” was published 13 years ago), before these restrictions most industries had resisted the shift to working away from the office. The COVID-19 restrictions have forced even the staunchest luddites to adopt remote working.

We sought the views of the following four individuals with links to the legal industry across Asia-Pacific to hear about their work-from-home experiences:

  1. Crystal Wong, a partner in the Energy, Infrastructure & Projects and International Arbitration Practice Group at LHAG.
  2. Gaythri Raman, the Managing Director, Southeast Asia at LexisNexis.
  3. Jeannette Tam, a Senior Managing Associate at Bird & Bird Hong Kong.
  4. Zamir Hamdy Hamdan, the Asst Vice President for Stakeholder Management in Astro Malaysia‘s Human Capital Division.

We’re sure you’ll enjoy reading their insights.

1. What was your experience of remote working prior to the restrictions/MCO/lockdown? Looking back to just before the start of the lockdown, what were your expectations of how working remotely would be like, and how did reality compare?

Crystal: Other than short business trips, my first true experience of remote working was when I was pursuing my LLM at NUS in Singapore. This time around, prior to the PM’s announcement of the MCO, my teammates and I had already started remote working for about two weeks. To be honest, I struggled, because I enjoy waltzing into the office every morning and having facetime with my teammates. I had also just moved into a new office room, which I barely had the chance to enjoy.

Gaythri: I had a healthy amount of experience with remote working. My prior roles in LexisNexis required me to engage with colleagues in various time zones, so I regularly scheduled time to work from home when I had to work odd hours. I also travel a lot for work, and am used to working on-the-go, taking calls in airports, hotel rooms, etc.

Working remotely during this pandemic has been how I expected it to be, except for how I engage with my teams. My days in the office used to be peppered with super short ad-hoc interactions with employees from across the organisation. They could ask me questions or share interesting news with me directly with little formality required. Now, I mostly interact via scheduled meetings. Also, workshops which require brainstorming and ideation aren’t as fun and interesting compared to the energy that can pulsate in a room. I miss that.

Jeannette: Hong Kong was and still is in a unique situation with regards to COVID-19. Hong Kong never really went into full lockdown; many people and businesses used their own initiative and acted quickly because of their previous experience from SARS in 2002-4, and donned masks, banned travel, and asked employees to work from home even before the government put forward any controls. Such requests or company-driven initiatives to work from home were not alien to businesses — by the time COVID-19 kicked off just before Chinese New Year, much of Hong Kong was already used to remote working, given the numerous protests that had been occuring since June 2019 that regularly disrupted the city’s transport links, making it difficult for many people to travel to work.

I’ve had a very positive experience with working remotely, which I expected. I continue to work from home now and feel productive, liberated, and in control of my everyday schedule. I know that all businesses were essentially forced into accepting agile/flexible working overnight with working from home being essential to fighting COVID-19, but what I’ve been very impressed with (at least with Bird & Bird) is how much trust and confidence the firm has placed in us. I truly felt that the firm believed and trusted that we would continue to go about our everyday work, be resilient, and supported us when needed. As an employment lawyer in Asia I know this is, sadly, a rare response. I think that the firm’s trust towards employees has gone a long way towards me having a positive remote working experience.

Zamir: Before the MCO, my organisation was already practicing a rather robust remote working culture with the entire team practicing a high degree of flexibility. This meant that we would even allow personal errands between work, as long as deliverables meet deadlines with acceptable quality standards. We did a study in 2019 on remote working and how the organisation can support this initiative, including having classes on the use of Microsoft Teams (including tapping into the apps/extensions), One Drive, and DocuSign. That being said, we have never had 100% of the team working from home but as it turns out, we are in fact collaborating between teams more now than pre-MCO. My department is still on a 100% working from home arrangement even during the CMCO (with some rare exclusions).

2. What was one thing that was better or easier than you expected about working remotely?

Crystal: The savings in travel time. I used to spend at least an hour and a half on the road daily. I also don’t miss carrying mountains of documents, though I have admittedly lost some muscle. I’ve also been surprised by how easy it is to ‘meet’ and collaborate virtually, with clients and teammates alike. Remote working can often be wrongly regarded as suitable only for lone wolves. The truth is that over these 3 months, I have had more meetings and (virtually) met more people than I would have if I was working in-office.

Gaythri: How quickly our customers have adapted to connecting and engaging remotely! They used to prefer face-to-face meetings but now that it isn’t an option, the legal community seems to have embraced virtual interactions and engagement. This saves travel time, and scheduling meetings has become more fuss-free.

Jeannette: How much additional time I have in the day to do things given that I no longer need to commute, and the proximity from my bedroom to my desk.

Zamir: Getting things done. In the office we’d have colleagues coming in for consultations, asking for tea breaks and some random chats. Working remotely somewhat reduced the unnecessary interactions at work allowing for better focus on getting substantive work done.

3. What was one thing that was worse or more difficult than you expected about working remotely?

Crystal: ‘Zoom fatigue’ from videoconference marathons. My most tiring day so far included —

  • 8.30am: a short briefing by our client;
  • 10.00am to 12.00pm: a videoconference with our client;
  • 2.00pm: a short internal discussion;
  • 4.00pm: a partners’ meeting;
  • 8.00pm: a video conference with our client with co-counsel calling from Paris; and
  • 12.00am-1.00am: an external discussion with participants joining from Vancouver and London.

To be honest, I almost had a breakdown during the second month. The daily routine of 8.00am to 11.00pm, and sometimes even to 3.00am, was getting out of control. I miss stepping out of my room to have conversations with colleagues, little breathers at our firm’s garden, or even strolls in Publika for coffee or dessert. These ‘serendipitous’ interactions do not happen remotely, because every communication is intended for a specific purpose.

Gaythri: Being seen to be accessible to my employees. I always believe that a leader must not just be accessible to everyone in the organisation but be seen to be so, and achieving this virtually is much harder! I use video all the time, so that helps, but spontaneous ad-hoc interactions aren’t happening as freely anymore.

Jeannette: The lack of face to face time with colleagues, and being able to have a laugh during coffee breaks and social occasions.

Zamir: Looking at documents and files. A lot of it is actually already digital, but there was a culture of preferring to refer to hard copies, and so there was a lot of printing done. I think this was just a mindset issue, and once we accepted the fact that we needed to shift from hardcopies to going digital, the experience became better.

4. What’s your home office setup? What are some things that were most useful? Is there anything you’d change if you could plan the ideal home office?

Crystal: Initially, I worked off my dressing table but now I work from my husband’s gaming corner (with adequate work from home infrastructure). My best investment during the MCO was subscribing to Adobe Acrobat DC, an extremely useful tool for document management. I am considering creating a dedicated home office in a quiet corner of my home.

Gaythri: Nothing fancy! Just my laptop, a noise-cancelling headset and good internet connection. The photo I’ve shared shows it all: Casper (the most vocal of my three cats) typically sits next to me at the dining table and his meows can sometimes be the topic of some amusing conversations with my team. I alternate between the dining table and the living room couch. I’ve just ordered a good office work chair — my dining chairs aren’t ideal for long hours — so once I have a chair that provides good support, I’m set!

Jeannette: My home office is ideal. I have no issues with it! I’ve always tried to go digital to maintain maximum flexibility — even my note taking book is digital — so I haven’t needed to change much!

Zamir: I bought a printer/scanner/fax machine earlier in the year as I planned to work from home more in 2020. I thought it would be useful, but during the MCO after I shifted preference to softcopies, the printer was not as useful as I thought! Having a dedicated workplace does help, as it gives you the “mood” to work and focus. I say this while recognising that a dedicated work station is a privilege not many will have at home.

5. Has your perception of work and the office changed? Do you think it’s possible to do your job without a traditional office?

Crystal: I must admit that I was rather skeptical about working from home, but I’m now really enjoying it. I think it’s important to understand everyone’s work styles and support their productivity. Perhaps law firms might now do just with a coworking space to house common services and serve as a venue for client meetings or hearings.

Looking ahead, I believe many corporations will embrace remote working or at least adopt a more flexible in-office work culture. I’ve had the privilege of working with a team who have been remarkably adept at overcoming the challenges that virtual communication poses, and who embraced the remote culture right from the onset of the pandemic. I’m very proud of them, and will continue catching up technologically.

Gaythri: It has changed somewhat. I used to think it was important to create a community within a physical workplace that could foster collaboration and innovation, but I now believe that we can create a virtual community that is equally bonded and effective if we are willing to invest the extra time and effort. Yes, of course it’s possible to do my job without a traditional office, but it wouldn’t be half as fun! Walking out with my colleagues after a robust discussion to enjoy a delicious lunch together used to be the best part of my day (not sure if it was theirs, though).

Jeannette: I think it’s possible to do my job from home, but I would greatly miss the interaction with my team and my colleagues in the office.

Zamir: Yes definitely. I realised that the preference for face-to-face human interaction was more an excuse than anything. We can actually get most things done without the need for physical presence. We now conduct interviews digitally, sign documents digitally, and send huge files online too.

We also engage (as in, have fun with) colleagues digitally. We book timeslots to play games together with the entire department once a week. We would randomly call each other to gossip/”bawang” so the experience is just like the office. Sometimes, the calls run in the background while we work and we would interrupt each other to bounce ideas. We also run contests like workplace decor and cooking recipes, to keep spirits up.

One thing to keep in mind is that not everyone copes the same. Some need social interactions more than others. So it is important to continue with our social activities while preferring digital modes or at least by ensuring proper social distancing and hygiene.

Crystal’s workspace / gaming corner.
Gaythri’s workspace, featuring Casper.
Where Jeannette gets things done.
Zamir’s home office.

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