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Bums on office seats are not always good for bottom line

Employees can probably feel less guilty about tardiness or web-surfing during office hours. At least that’s the implication of the results from a Regus global survey suggesting that flexible working conditions can help increase worker productivity and, by extension, company profit.

The survey, which covered more than 16,000 senior business managers, is one of the largest of its kind to validate the correlation between flexibility, productivity and profitability.

Among those polled in Hong Kong, 75 per cent said that flexibility boosted productivity, while 72 per cent agreed that it could help increase revenue.

Hans Leijten, Regus vice-president for East Asia, attributes the gains to enhanced employee morale.

“Flexible work gives people power to decide when and where they work. This helps them to plan and execute their work more efficiently and to reduce the time it takes to commute and to actually do the work,” he says.

“A more efficient and happier worker will generally deliver better results.”

At 67 per cent, a significant portion of Hong Kong respondents also reported feeling more energised and motivated, thanks to flexible work arrangements. Some 60 per cent even claimed to feel healthier, implying cost-savings on healthcare premiums.

Leijten notes that flexible arrangements can also help cut office rentals. “As a rule of thumb, 40-60 per cent of any office space is underutilised,” he says. “In a city like Hong Kong, where commercial space is among the most expensive anywhere, there are big savings to be made.”

And with many firms still reluctant to commit to large pay rise this year, flexible arrangements can be used as an employee retention tool, Leijten adds. “Staff who work flexibly report feeling healthier, more energised and more motivated, which is good for staff retention and morale,” he says.

This view is echoed by Martin Cerullo, the global director of resourcing communications at Alexander Mann Solutions. “The ability to work flexibly makes up an important part of the overall employee value proposition. Employers who allow staff to work flexibly are really saying, ‘I trust you to make the decisions about the time and working location that are right for you.’ Naturally, this sends an appreciative message,” he says.

Leijten notes that the Regus survey findings help reaffirm a common practice in Hong Kong, particularly among smaller nimbler companies where implementation is easier.

“Flexi-working is the future of work,” says Leijten. “If you manage your employees by line of sight, all you can evaluate is bums on office seats. The best companies manage people by results, and flexible working clearly helps employees improve their results.”

Originally published in South China Morning Post, March 2011 
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Architecture Supplement – Building Blocks of the Future

Hong Kong has always been an architectural hub, with some of the best talent in Asia and the world, and, today, its architecture industry is alive and vigorously kicking.

“With its mixed international pool of architects and proficiency gathered over time, the Hong Kong architecture industry is perfectly set up as a hub to serve the region,” says Dominic Lam, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects (HKIA).

“In fact, more than 50 per cent of Hong Kong architects end up working on projects outside Hong Kong,” he adds.

The CEO of architecture global giant Aedas, David Roberts, shares the same sentiment, describing Hong Kong as a “strategically-placed business destination”.

“The proximity to Southeast Asia is important,” he says. “A lot of clients [from there] look to Hong Kong professionals to provide provisional services for their projects. Hong Kong has a huge advantage in terms of its geographical location.”

However, this regional market is dwarfed by business in China, which has surged two-fold in the past few years. “The workload from mainland China has been increasing, and 60 per cent of the work in our Hong Kong office is from the mainland,” says Roberts.

“Ten years ago, this would have been only about 10 per cent and, looking ahead, the 60 per cent might become 70 per cent soon,” he adds.

This is felt throughout other practices in Hong Kong, too. Kenneth Lui, a director with the P&T Group, even points out that increasing mainland work is putting pressure on local and international architects to learn Putonghua.

“One of the most important things for an architect in Hong Kong now is language – even locals need to learn Putonghua,” he says. “One must also be willing to travel and to work on the mainland.”

Lucy Richardson, managing director of Bespoke Hong Kong, is seeing the same trends at her local architect and designer recruitment firm. “At the moment, 80 to 90 per cent of candidates we place are Chinese, and this is mainly because of the language factor,” she says. “We are finding it more and more difficult to place international architects because they don’t have the language skills.”

Candidates need to know more than just Putonghua though, as Richardson points out. “Those who are most in demand are the locals who have trained overseas, who have had experiences with international practices and are returning home to the mainland or Hong Kong,” says Richardson.

“Although graduates are of interest, the Chinese market is looking for broad-minded architects who have done two to 10 years in a practice overseas, and have come back with understanding, training and experience.”

Richardson also points out that while there are some strong candidates coming out of local schools, Hong Kong-educated students are slightly weaker than their international counterparts.

“I think that the brief set in universities here is a bit basic, and does not really get people thinking – it is a lot more challenging at Australian, British and American universities,” Richardson says.

P&T Group principal designer Remo Riva agrees, adding that creativity is somewhat disregarded in Hong Kong.

“At universities here, they teach that management skills are very important and creativity is more a by-product because it is not so needed or expected,” Riva says. “Even at the University of Hong Kong, the emphasis is not so much on teaching or on creativity, but about training for management skills.”

Creativity is also lacking in the field, where developers dominate and tough regulations restrict architects. “Basically, to be approved, the architecture has to work around and within the regulations and demands of developers, which reduces creativity. In other places, you look at buildings and you can see the developers are more open,” says Lui, of P&T Group.

He adds that developers are also snapping up talent, which means that local demand for architects remains strong.

Nevertheless, HKIA’s Lam says that the architectural scene is healthier than it has ever been, and fresh graduates can expect to start at a competitive monthly rate of HK$30,000 minimum, which is the highest that entry-level salaries have been in the sector.

Roberts of Aedas has the same positive viewpoint. “Hong Kong has been able to grow domestic talent through the universities and educational establishments here, while also attracting international talent, even as markets are quiet in places like New York and London,” he says.

“We have some of the best infrastructure, and investment is continuous with strong all-round optimism and energy levels. This is certainly the place to be right now,” Roberts adds.

Originally published in South China Morning Post, March 2012

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Industry Insider – A matter of trust at Withers

Priding itself on its difference from other companies, Withers Hong Kong is the only law firm in the city that places equal focus on wealth and asset preservation, as it does on wealth planning. It has also made significant additions to its Putonghua-speaking team. Managing partner Marcus Dearle explains that this is essential as many mainland Chinese clients wish only to do business in Mandarin.

What is the ‘Wealth Preservation Group’ and why was it set up? 
Formed in 2011, the work of Withers Hong Kong Wealth Preservation Group has attracted considerable interest due to the wealth planning industry’s recognition that family discord and divorce is a clear and present danger to family wealth.

It is of great interest to high-net-worth individuals, and this part of the world. In some high-net-worth cases, spouses may lose up to one-half of their wealth on divorce. But, there are steps that can be taken against this.

We provide advice on pre- and post-nuptial settlements and dynastic trust planning, to help restrict attacks against assets.

We also “stress test” existing documentation to check that all is in order – for example, examining if a will is properly drawn up and attested, to avoid hugely expensive and acrimonious scenarios.

How do the mainland Chinese regard wealth preservation? 
An increasing proportion of high-net-worth individuals come from mainland China. As with wealthy Hong Kong Chinese clients and expatriates, some have become concerned about the big cases that have recently hit the headlines.

Is Withers trying to expand the idea of wealth preservation into China?
We are trying to push wealth preservation in China, using our intermediary contacts and referrals from private banks.

How important is the mainland China market to Withers?
We have been attracting more mainland clients in recent years, which  is the same as other Hong Kong firms. Hong Kong is often the first jurisdiction that mainlanders look to; Singapore is another.

We will be increasing our footprint in Asia when we open our new Singapore office this year.

How many Putonghua-speaking staff do you have, and do you plan to increase this number?
We are certainly looking to hire more mainland Chinese lawyers in the future. Currently, we have six fluent Putonghua speakers in our team.
One of our recent successful mainland recruitment stories is Lian Fang, a registered foreign lawyer brought up on the mainland, who attended Nanjing University and Columbia University School of Law.

Any international law firm that doesn’t appreciate the importance of mainland China risks losing valuable business now and in the future.

Is there a different way of dealing with mainland clients?
I think Hong Kong Chinese clients, like expatriates, usually have a basic understanding, for example, of the concept of what a trust is.
Mainland clients have often become very successful over a short period of time and won’t have come across the concept of a trust – the idea of putting your money in the hands of other people.

This is very unfamiliar territory to them, so this is all the more reason why we need to have people in the office who are able to win their confidence, and explain the intricacies of the law to them.

A lot of mainland clients only want to deal with Putonghua-speaking lawyers.

What is the hiring outlook for Withers in 2012?
We are currently expanding our litigation and wealth planning arm, and are recruiting for our new Singapore office, with a major focus on personal tax and trust lawyers. There is a big demand for wealth planning from clients in this region.

A mainland China office is definitely a future target as well and our first mainland-bred lawyer, Lian Fang, will hopefully be the first of many.

Originally published in South China Morning Post, February 2012