8th October 2020

A letter from Hong Kong

3rd August, 2019

Dan Szuc & Jo Wong

Why “Busy” has become the standard 21st answer to “How is work?” in Hong Kong


Welcome: Hong Kong is a vibrant international city and it is home.

It has provided Jo and myself with opportunities to start a business together and to have connections to a diverse set of friends and business associates. It bridges to an incredibly wide and deep range of backgrounds, perspectives, cultures in places including Mainland China, SouthEast Asia and the rest of the world.


It still continues to be a superb base at researching problem as we explore how to “Make Meaningful Work”


Hong Kong, like many places in our study, has a real problem of “busy at work”. This is having wide reaching negative connotations on people’s ability to see and plan forward as clearly as they would like.


“Hong Kong’s problem with long hours – which put workers’ both mental and physical health at risk – has persisted for years, with tens of thousands of people working 75 hours a week, according to government figures.”

- Will Hong Kong’s problem with long working hours ever come to an end?


The traditional 20th century model of the hierarchical organisational design still places the boss in charge of the company and this can create environments, sometimes toxic, where direct reports and other staff in the company are usually not proactively expressing their views.


Expressing one’s views, ideas or feelings in a more open way is not something that’s encouraged in Hong Kong - especially in work places.  


Busy is a core problem

The business community in Hong Kong is known for its entrepreneurial spirit and fantastic attitude in getting stuff done. Hong Kong has enjoyed success with a commitment to speed and implementation. But it cannot and will not sustain.


This core idea of being constantly busy and addicted to one velocity at work can be problematic.


Organisations in Hong Kong are failing to invest in the creation of learning environments, but also expect people to improve magically and gain deeper expertise over time.


Work does not give people the time and space needed when facing problems that cannot be solved with speed alone.


Speed can also result in personal and professional health problems that create platforms that foster poor work cultures that do not encourage forward thinking, creativity, collaborative practices and an innovative spirit.


Core problem at work is the “transactional” mode

Hong Kong is a fast-paced city by nature. People thrive on speed as a source of energy to get work done. However, a fast-paced environment at work is not always the answer to the deeper reflection required to solve harder problems.


“Generally speaking, our culture does not promote sitting still, and that can have wide-reaching consequences for our mental health, well-being, productivity and other areas of our lives. Technology doesn’t make it any easier: The smartphone you carry with you at all hours makes it almost impossible to truly unplug and embrace idleness. And by keeping ourselves busy at all times, we may be losing our ability to sit still because our brains are actually being rewired.”

- The Case for Doing Nothing


In fact, the lack of opportunities to stop and reflect and be explicit in communication on the values, practices, spaces (physical and mental) and behavioural intentions to look at real problems has merit.


“Sleepwalking” at work

Back to back meetings result in people not having the time needed to finish the activities needed to meet deliverables and goals against their performance criteria.


This assumes that people know what their performance criteria is and that they have the appropriate amount of time with their management and co-workers to explicitly look at this throughout the year.


Because of these and other factors, people are caught up in the transactional mode or “Sleepwalking” at work resulting in stress, anxiety, little time for family and results in a short sightedness at work that can impact direction adversely on personal and work fronts.



Work as an environment that contains culture

Office space is in limited supply in Hong Kong and can be expensive. This is partly because of the limited land available, a property company monopoly and dealing with a large population in relation to available land.


The layout of buildings and office spaces are generally smaller. People work in cubicles and sit in close proximity to each other.


People also spend much of their time at their desks with their attention on their computers. When people are not on their computers you will find people spending their time on their smartphones.


This leaves some time for cultures encouraging people to people conversations and detrimental impacts on reflection time. As a result, this has impacts on deeper learning to see problems clearly and to prioritise what is critical to work on.


“Sparkle” at work

Creating explicit micro moments in work environments to stop and reflect is becoming paramount. We call these micro moments “Sparkle”. Because people are primarily sleepwalking at work and there is a need for a moment to separate from the transactional modes of work.


Core opportunity at work is the “meaning” mode

There needs to be a time given so people can stop and reflect about their work and to have those reflections be codified for a sustained goodness in the form of sparkle and be a direct contribution to people’s work wellness and meaning. We call this mode the meaning mode.


Increasing the Meaning Mode to “Make Meaningful Work

As people constantly interact with their environment their focus is too much on delivering the product.


The repeatable problem is that people function primarily in a transactional mode that includes the conditions and interactions necessary to produce and deliver the work itself—the outcomes of projects.


Unfortunately, in many companies in Hong Kong there is little time for being in learning mode within work contexts, whether for individuals or teams.


So, let us consider a plan towards increasing the meaning mode by:


  • Contributing to healthier environments and cultures to encourage the spirit of continuous learning
  • Shifting people explicitly from the transactional mode to the meaning mode
  • Defining meaning to identify relevant practices and make these practices more explicit and intentional daily
  • Asking people - “how is work?” and imagine alternative answer to “busy”
  • “Make Meaningful Work’ together to help people move from sleepwalking to sparkle.


We look forward to your thoughts as we kick off the question and intention of “Make Meaningful Work’ with you and towards opportunities to dive deeper into the practices that matter to you.

Dan Szuc & Jo Wong

Dan Szuc and Jo Wong are authors and co founders of Make Meaningful Work and Apogee Dan has been involved in the UX field for 25 years, and has been based in Hong Kong for over 21 years. He has lectured about design globally and co-authored two books including Global UX with Whitney Quesenbery and the Usability Kit with Gerry Gaffney. Jo collaborates with global teams conducting research. She is passionate about the environment, political and economic systems and how we can live healthier and happier lives while not adversely impacting less fortunate people.

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