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Impact of the Coronavirus outbreak on Hong Kong’s employment market

As a father of two young children and as someone who has lived in Hong Kong for the past 16 years, I hope that the outbreak can be resolved quickly. At Ambition, our thoughts and prayers are with all of those in Asia and around the world who have lost their lives and are currently battling the virus. We all need to remain vigilant and protect the health and well-being of ourselves and others.

At Ambition, despite a slower quarter at the end of last year due to the ongoing political disruption, we had a very positive start to the year in January 2020. Hiring and job flow was up significantly year-on-year across our Hong Kong and Asia businesses. However, since the Chinese New Year holidays, we have obviously seen an impact to the employment market in Hong Kong due to the Coronavirus outbreak, and I thought I would share what we are seeing in terms of the immediate impact and what I feel are some of the longer-term effects below:

Immediate & Short-Term Impact:

  • It's important to highlight that many companies are continuing to hire exactly as planned, and interview and onboarding processes are moving forward.

  • Almost all interview processes have been switched from face-to-face to using technology. WhatsApp video calls, FaceTime calls, Zoom Meetings, BlueJeans, Skype, and Microsoft Teams are just some of the tools utilised.

  • Professionals in Hong Kong are still very open to hearing about opportunities and as they are working from home, they have more time to consider their career moves!  If you are an employer looking to hire, now is a good time to approach them!  

  • For professionals about to start a new role, we expect you may well be asked to work from home initially. If you are starting a new role, do not be surprised if some (or in some cases all) of your onboarding is being done through technology. We advise all those starting new roles to be patient during this difficult time.

  • In the short-term, there obviously will be fewer relocations of Mainland China professionals (and vice versa) currently based in China into roles in Hong Kong as the relevant governments enforce travel bans etc. Once these bans are lifted, we expect this flow of talent to continue but it will be interesting to look at how this evolves.

  • We expect to see professionals that were due to move to Hong Kong potentially start roles in their home location before relocating to Hong Kong. We advise employers to offer this as an option if at all possible, to avoid losing out on good talent.

  • A significant number of companies are implementing Work from Home/Flexible working initiatives (alongside a whole host of other protocols in order to protect the wellbeing of their staff).

  • As many employees are temporarily working from home, an obvious challenge for businesses is keeping productivity high. We advise leaders to be creative in helping their employees stay engaged and motivated throughout this period.

  • We are seeing some processes being delayed or postponed as some companies take a wait-and-see approach to observe how much further the situation will escalate before committing to additional headcount in 2020.

  • In industry sectors most badly hit (i.e. hotels, hospitality, airlines, F&B and front-line retail), we are seeing a greater focus on cost control along with other initiatives (e.g. pay freeze, enforced unpaid leave) or are seeing a headcount freeze, where employees are being made redundant in the short-term. As per government announcements, we will see higher unemployment in these sectors in the short-term. 

  • We anticipate that as and when the situation is resolved, the employment market in most sectors will return quickly to ‘business as usual’. 


Longer Term…

This is a more difficult question as economists and analysts, far more qualified than I, are scrambling to predict the full economic fallout. Much of this will depend on how well China can contain the outbreak. Obviously, the long-term health and growth of China have a significant impact on the long-term health of the Hong Kong economy and employment market. However, what I can say with some certainty is that Hong Kong has proven to be a hugely resilient city in the past. Based on a strong start in January 2020, in terms of hiring volume and job flow, we would anticipate once the situation is resolved/under control, the employment market will bounce back quickly and hiring will pick up. However, with such a fluid situation, at this stage, it is extremely difficult to predict the timing of when this may be.

Key trends that may emerge as a result of this situation may include the more widespread adoption of technology as part of recruitment, screening and/or onboarding processes. Currently, most in Hong Kong prefer face-to-face meetings but when technology is almost just as good and reduces travel time (plus anticipate a heightened focus on hygiene in Hong Kong in the future), we expect as people get used to using it, there may be increased use of tech tools. I also anticipate that ‘working from home’ may become more prevalent. For many, the whole ‘work from home’ policy has been pushed onto them by the situation but if organisations manage this well during the Coronavirus outbreak and can maintain productivity, we expect to see an increased push on flexible working practices even when the situation has calmed down.

Beyond that, in the long-term, my belief is that Hong Kong will always be one (if not the) of the world's easiest places to do business, with a hugely competitive employment market offering fantastic career opportunities!

What do you think? Let us know, it would be great to hear your views!

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