Will the Coronavirus Epidemic Change Work Culture In China?

Published on March 9, 2020

Work-life balance has a hard time entering the mainstream work culture in China and its Asian neighbors. Quite recently, protests against the prevailing “966” working system among Chinese IT companies have aroused heated debate nationwide.

According to statistics from NBSC (National Bureau of Statistics of China) and OECD, in 2019 an average Chinese worker worked 9.2 hours a day, almost twice as long as someone in Germany did. However, the coronavirus outbreak and the ensuing quarantine requirement have brought an unexpected change to millions of worker bees in China. Locked at home, many have found themselves learning to adapt to a new work mode.

Michelle Guo, who worked as the Account Manager at ToJoy International, a cross-border business accelerator headquartered in Beijing, was visiting her family in Wuhan when the city was shut down. Before she was able to return to Beijing again, she had to stay with her uncle’s family in their suburban apartment, a space that directly conflicted with work culture in China.

The first problem with working from home in relation to work culture in China was space. The modest apartment was too small for the big family to live in, and Michelle had to share the bedroom with her aunt, her cousin, and her two-year-old niece. After her company restarted its daily operation remotely, she needed a space to work without interruption or noise. Thankfully, her family had been nothing but understanding. They would leave the room to her whenever she needed to concentrate or join remote meetings. It also helped that she had grown up in a big family and was used to sharing space with others. Michelle even joked about the benefits of having a two-year-old wake her up in the morning so that she would never be late for work.

As the quarantine stretched on, companies and their employees were feeling the impact to varying degrees. While Michelle’s job didn’t require too many in-person errands, her colleague Florian, a German who came to Beijing in 2016 and now lived there with his wife and daughter, observed a bigger change to his work life. As the Business Development Director, he spent most of his time developing international deals and connecting with new contacts at events and conferences. While companies from relatively more traditional industries wanted to slow down, he and his team saw new opportunities in fields such as online entertainment, remote healthcare, and e-commerce. Many organizations and chambers of commerce, too, were experimenting with online conferences and webinars.

It was easy to overwork when you were locked in the confines of your apartment, where the boundary between life and work seemed to get blurrier every day. Back in Wuhan, as the regulation got stricter, only one person from each household was allowed to go out at a time. Usually it would be Michelle’s cousin or her husband, who were locals and more familiar with the city. The rest of the family entertained themselves with mahjong games and dance exercises.

“It is quite exhausting (to keep your spirits up),” Michelle said. “But you have to make the effort. We have such a big family under one roof, if any one of us is feeling bad, the rest of us will be affected, too.” It certainly helped that she didn’t have to worry about losing her job, but Michelle still hoped to be able to return to Beijing in March.

Florian, too, was itchy to get out of his apartment. “It’s not healthy to stay at home for 24 hours for days in a row,” he said.

From time to time, he tried to do some sports and go for a walk in the nearby park. In Beijing, quarantine policy varied from compound to compound. Where he lived, Florian was able to come out and tour around the neighborhoods. Although most of the supermarkets were open, the foot traffic was no comparison to what it used to be. The cafes were almost empty, except for a few delivery men from Meituan or Ele.me, China’s food & beverage delivery service providers.

Towards the end of February, Florian traveled across the city for a business meeting and took a few pictures of the city. Never has the capital been this empty at the beginning of the lunar New Year, but it was behind the closed doors that real changes were happening.

Wassila Satouri and Charlton Cheng contributed to researching this article.

Na Zhong is a trilingual marketing specialist at an international business accelerator. She holds an MFA degree in Creative Writing from The New School and is passionate about business, tech, environment, and multi-media storytelling. Previously a cultural reporter, she has interviewed and profiled outstanding figures from various fields, including Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer winners.

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