How Covid 19 led to a nationwide work from home experiment

Millions of Chinese employees are working from home for the first time, as the nation tackles Covid-19. Will it change conservative corporate culture?

Tao Yu usually works in a stylish office in Shanghai, China’s major financial hub, as a member of German automaker Porsche’s marketing department. But since the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak the 28-year-old, like tens of millions of her compatriots, has been forced to work from home.

Tao is from Hubei, the southern province where the virus originated, and she is working from her family home in Huanggang, a city of 7.5 million people. It is the second most affected city, after Wuhan. “I get up, have breakfast, come to my room and start working,” she says.

Tao is not a fan of working from home, but it’s what many of her neighbours are doing as the city is in lockdown. She worries about what her colleagues think of her. “I want to show that working at home and in the office is the same, but I’m worried my colleagues will think it’s not fair. They might think working from home is luxurious,” she explains.

Since 3 February, millions of Chinese have been experiencing the pros and cons of the home office for the first time

In China, working from home is much less common than in the West. But since 3 February, when local governments and companies across the nation encouraged workers to stay at home, millions of Chinese have been experiencing the pros and cons of the home office for the first time.

With normally busy streets in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou eerily quiet, this mass experiment in working from home has led to a surge in demand for video-conferencing apps such as Tencent’s WeChat Work and Alibaba-owned DingTalk. US company Zoom, another video-conferencing provider, has seen its stocks rise, counter to overall trends as coronavirus fears drag down the market.

Chinese workers have had mixed reactions to the experiment. Some complain of intrusive bosses who cannot believe their employees can be trusted to work from home; some are distracted by family members or find it difficult to focus, while others are embracing the experience, enjoying improved productivity; some even report improved love lives.

‘Forced to adapt’

Sun Meng, 32, from Liaoning province, works in Beijing as a curriculum planner and designer for online education company VIPKid. She’s been working from home for a month – and doesn’t miss the long trek to and from the office. “It feels great, because normally I commute four hours there and back to work,” she explains.  

She can’t move closer to work because her husband’s hukou (a household registration system that grants access to welfare facilities) means her three-year-old son is tied to their local kindergarten. “It’s a public kindergarten – the only one he can go to. If he were to go to a closer one [to her office], we’d have to go private and it’s too expensive.”

At the office, people have to clock in and out, but now they start their day by sending a ‘check-in’ photo to a DingTalk group

Sun has applied unsuccessfully in the past to work from home two days a week (the company instead allowed her to shift her working hours). But since staff have been forced to work from home Sun says her CEO has admitted workers are being more efficient. And internal ways of working have also changed to accommodate the new normal. At the office, people have to clock in and out, but now they start their day by sending a “check-in” photo to a DingTalk group and fill in daily work reports through one of the platform’s apps. “Now we are forced to work from home, they [HR] are forced to adapt how they monitor,” she says.

The best thing about home working, Sun says, is that her son doesn’t have to wait until late in the evening to see her. “I can close my laptop immediately [after work] and start playing with him.”

‘Makes things harder’

It’s not clear exactly what proportion of the workforce was allowed to telecommute before Covid-19 emerged. Fifty-one percent of businesses in China say they have a flexible workspace policy, according to the 2019 IWG Global Workspace Survey; the corresponding figure for the US is 69%. Yet flexibility is defined differently by different organisations: to some it can mean simply the ability to control your hours or manage your own workload. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Chinese workers use (or are allowed to use) home working considerably less than the US, for example, where figures from Gallup showed that by 2017 43% of workers worked remotely at least some of the time.  

Jay Milliken, senior partner and Asia regional lead for consultancy Prophet, believes China’s lower home working rate is linked to traditional workplace culture. “The organisational culture of Chinese companies overall still has a long way to go – with creative agencies and tech start-ups being exceptions,” he says. Many Chinese companies still adopt a highly top-down management style, with requirements such as their employees punch in and out for work, and their bonus and KPIs tied closely to attendance. “The ‘work-from-home’ style goes against their belief of how employees should be managed,” says Milliken.

Working from home made administration harder, due to less efficient communication and employees slacking off at work doing personal things – Xin Sun

Xin Sun, 36, a manager at Pingan Bank in Shenzhen, certainly feels he has less control over his employees when they’re not in the office. “Working from home made administration harder, due to less efficient communication and employees slacking off at work doing personal things,” he says. “When working from home, my team members sometimes respond to me late, which makes me feel out of control. Usually we have weekly meetings, but during the work-from-home period, I host daily meetings, just to make sure everyone is on the same page and has something to work on every day. Also, I’ve asked them to report to me every day what they’ve done and what they plan to do tomorrow. I find it an effective way to motivate them and not fall behind,” he says.

But requirements to check in more with managers are hitting some employees hard. Yang, 23, a producer at Chinese games company NetEase, says she now has more conference calls each day, cutting into the time available to do her work. “Before the outbreak happened when I was at the workplace, it was not mandatory to report deliverables every day, but now everything you’ve done should be carefully recorded in daily reports and sent to the boss. I’m afraid that it reduces my efficiency,” says Yang, who chose to use only one name.

Here to stay?

Although Chinese work culture might be more conservative, in technological terms it is well set up for working from home. WeChat – a super app that combines messaging, file transfer, video-conferencing capabilities, e-payment and other functions – is ubiquitous, with over a billion users in China. Matthew Brennan, who is writing a book about WeChat, says that for many small and medium-sized enterprises using WeChat is the obvious option, given it takes the place of apps like Slack (which is sometimes blocked in China) or email.

And in many cases, working from home would help employers hit by sky-high office rental rates and employees suffering from long commutes. Yet it is hard to tell whether this enforced period of home working will lead to the practice becoming more widespread in China in the long-term.

People often feel stressed out, both mentally and physically. Now many have tried working from home and have found it’s a way of balancing work and life, I believe there will be more demand – Qun Li

Qun Li, associate professor of enterprise culture at Beijing Jiaotong University, believes demand from employees will certainly increase. “They have limited time spent with their families, taking care of kids or accompanying their parents. They also have difficulty coping with their personal well-being. Since working and commuting occupy almost their entire schedule, people often feel stressed out both mentally and physically. Now many have tried working from home and have found it’s a way of balancing work and life, I believe there will be more demand,” he says.

But whether employees get what they want will depend on the type of work they do and how team-oriented it is, he adds. Industries such as media and tech allow more flexible schedules and a higher possibility of granting permission to work from home. “But traditional industries that need workers on site – involving production lines, high demand for team co-ordination – will still be averse to home working,” he says.

With more than a billion users, WeChat is a dominant super app. Demand for WeChat Work, its enterprise product, has surged in recent weeks (Credit: Getty Images)

Zhang Xiaomeng, associate professor of organisational behaviour at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing, points out that many companies have invested in online office platforms and related training during this period, which will make them more likely to use such features in the future. Attitudes are changing too, she says. “I think this ‘autocratic’ management approach is getting less popular, and more managers are caring more about employees’ needs.

“The Covid-19 outbreak is just another chance for companies to re-examine the relationship between companies and employees, and to elevate their corporate culture to be mutually beneficial.”    

Milliken of Prophet points out that more flexibility could come with a potential downside. “The adoption of work-from-home technology could actually make the overwork culture even more widespread,” he says, referring to the infamous “996” culture, in which tech and start-up employees work from nine in the morning to nine in the evening, six days a week.

Cindy Song, 29, who is a manager for PR firm Ruder Finn, is on the fence about whether home working is a success. “Our home is not big – husband and I are working in the same room, we disturb each other,” she says. She’s also worried about the future; her boss says this year might be hard if clients cancel events due to the coronavirus and reduce marketing budgets. 

But one positive has been her “improved marriage” due to spending 24 hours a day with her husband. “Before this ‘special time’ we were so busy; busy working and coming home very late. Now we can spend more time with each other, we are closer than before,” she says. 

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