Lessons from Asia in unlocking lockdown

21 May 2020 By Trent Sutton and Raoul Parekh

As the UK prepares to ease Covid-19 restrictions, Trent Sutton and Raoul Parekh examine what employers can learn from other countries' experiences

UK employers are trying to cheer themselves up by dreaming of a post-pandemic future as the focus turns to how the lockdown might lift. But for now, those dreams are vague and correspondingly difficult to make reality: will temperature checks be prohibited or required? What PPE must employers provide – and where will they buy it? The questions go on and on – and none of them were answered in the prime minister’s speech on Sunday.

The pandemic’s initial origination in China means Asian workplaces provide an opportunity for western employers to preview what a return to work might look like.

The end of the beginning

The expected non-linear decline of infection rates will mean a similar flexing of restriction levels. We saw this in Singapore where the first wave of the virus (arising from Chinese New Year-related travel) was quickly contained, but was then followed with a second wave (from Singapore residents returning from Europe and the US) and a third wave spreading through densely occupied workers’ dormitories.

Businesses should respond by ensuring they are ready for additional waves – which at its worst could mean additional lockdowns. They should build their learning from recent events into their contingency plans. This includes updating business continuity plans; communicating to staff the possibility of future waves; considering varying contracts or compensation plans to provide (where possible) the right to modify or reduce compensation or hours in another outbreak; and investing in technology to make working from home more sustainable.

Social distancing is no passing craze

The earliest indications of the UK government’s plans all demonstrate that the two metre radius will be with us for some time. Asia has seen creative adaptations to workplaces to enable this social distancing. One manufacturer in China requires employees to eat in designated places, all facing the same direction and using separate tables. Similarly, some Korean employers prohibit eating lunch opposite another employee, sharing food or even talking during lunch.

Physical changes are also being made, and not just in shops and factories. Offices are installing foot-operated doors, placing screens between workstations, staggering start times and taking other steps to reduce the possible spread of contagion. Hot-desking is now too hot to handle. For many white-collar employers, the costs and limitations of such an approach are likely to outweigh any benefits of a return to work: if you still can’t speak to your colleagues face to face, what’s the point? 

Flexible approach

Many UK and global employers were very quick to embrace working from home. Previous concerns about confidentiality, supervision and losing the value of office interaction paled against the threat of losing business continuity.

For some, this was simply a step further down a slippery slope they were already speeding down. For others, though, this was a leap into the unknown – or even the opening of a Pandora’s box that HR and managers had been struggling to keep closed. An increase in flexible working applications seems inevitable, and employers wanting a return to the old days will need to find compelling reasons to resist on grounds of practicality if home working has become the status quo.

Asia’s experience with the virus has provided some helpful tips for what UK companies can expect as the lengthy ‘unlockdown’ process begins. UK employers should continue to look beyond their borders for potential solutions to the novel issues thrown up by Covid-19. 

Trent Sutton is the office managing shareholder of Littler’s Singapore office, and Raoul Parekh is a partner at GQ|Littler in London

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