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Coronavirus: The World’s Largest Work From Home Initiative

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With the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases reaching its peak in mid-February, the hopes of many employers in China for work to return to normal after the Chinese New Year period, were dashed. The vast spread of the highly contagious Coronavirus had forced many local governments within China to direct businesses to remain closed, in order to control the epidemic and prevent any further spread. However, even amidst the outbreak, it is unfeasible for many businesses to cease operations, leading to one of the largest “work from home” (WFH) initiatives the world has ever seen.

Working from home: a first in China

A large part of controlling the Coronavirus outbreak relied on the containment measures China would put in place. The government in Wuhan, where the outbreak first occurred, ordered a complete lockdown of the city, with no one being able to enter or leave freely. Other major cities imposed less severe measures and urged citizens to isolate themselves at home and only leave the house when absolutely necessary. Businesses in certain industries, however, received strong direction to avoid letting employees congregate, resulting in certain businesses closing until further notice. With such restrictive measures in place, employers across the country directed their employees to WFH.

For many, the nature of their work demands them to be present in their workplace to carry out their duties. For others, the lack of access to the workplace is no longer a problem. With the arrival of the information age, people are more connected in every aspect of their lives and work is no exception. With access to computers, phones, the internet, shared drives and specific databases, an employee is able to set up shop wherever he or she sees fit.

China is no stranger to the information age, with tech giants like Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu ensuring Chinese citizens remain connected around the clock. With the arrival of the Coronavirus, tech companies came to the forefront and had to prepare for one of the world’s largest workforces to carry their work out remotely. Immediately after the extended Chinese New Year period, more than 200 million workers were directed to set up office at home; an unprecedented event both in China and the world.

The order to work from home immediately resulted in a surge in the use of business connectivity apps such as DingTalk, Zoom and WeChat Work. Zoom has added 2.22 million users so far in 2020, eclipsing the 1.99 million it added over the course of the whole of 2019. While Alibaba Group’s DingTalk had over 50 million students utilize its online classroom feature. 

With the immediate and unforeseen increase in number of users, these tech companies were put under pressure to ensure their servers were able to maintain the load, with inevitable crashes and glitches occurring along the way. While many industries in China suffered as a result of the Coronavirus, these tech companies experienced a boom, all in the wake of the world’s largest workforce going online.

Working from home: an increase in performance?

Although this is the first time employees across China were directed to work from home, there has previously been a spell where specific employees in China were requested to WFH. In Shanghai during 2010-11, 996 employees from the travel company Ctrip volunteered to work at home for 9 months as part of an empirical study.

The results of the study showed a 13% increase in performance among employees working from home in comparison to working in their typical call center environment. The findings of the study further revealed that those who worked from home, worked more minutes per shift and had an increase in the amount of work completed. Notably, there was an increase in employee satisfaction. The only downside seen within the 9-month period, was that the ‘promotional rate contingent on performance’ decreased. This meant that fewer employees got promoted based on their performance; perhaps due to their employers not being able to physically see them work. Nevertheless, due to the success of the trial, Working from home became a company-wide option for employees of Ctrip and the overall performance gains then increased to around 22%.

Chinese law on working from home

According to Chinese law, an employer is able to request an employee to work from home if there is a significant health and safety risk to other employees. If an employee is requested to work from home, he/she is entitled to receive his/her full compensation.

Benefits of working from home

While Ctrip saw an increase in productivity among its employees, that’s not to say working from home will be viable across all industries. Each industry differs in characteristics and as such the external factors which determine the success or failure of WFH, may vary. Also, in certain industries working from home may be impractical due to the nature of the work.

Nevertheless, over the past few decades there have been various studies on the benefits of working from home, for both employers and employees. For the employee, working from home offers a more flexible work schedule, less time spent travelling, a less stressful environment with fewer distractions and surprisingly an increase in productivity. Studies reflect that the overall happiness of an employee improves, if he or she is permitted to work from home.

Although a high level of trust is required for employers to allow their employees to work remotely, there are various benefits that may accrue to the employer. The employer may have reduced overheads, lower turnover in staff, employees may produce more work on a daily basis and they are likely to see an increase in productivity. The Ctrip study revealed that improved performance was valued at about $230 per employee per year. Moreover, the estimated savings on the cost of capital per year was valued at $1,400 per employee, due to reduced office use and IT costs; while there was a reduced turnover savings of around $260 per employee annually. This resulted in a grand total of $1,900 saved per employee per year.  

Drawbacks of working from home

Of course, working from home is not purely advantageous, otherwise there would be hordes of vacant office spaces around the world; there are various disadvantages that come along with implementing it.

Firstly, implementation may be difficult, as managers may be apprehensive to the idea due to concerns over their career (if a scheme like this fails, it could be damaging to their careers). A period of adjustment may also be required to enable employees to get used to the process of WFH. Preference may also play a roll, as some employees may feel they are unable to concentrate or be productive at home, as such they may prefer to work in an office. A director of a Beijing start-up stated that on the first day he did a video conference with employees, some of the employees looked like they just got out of bed; however, on the second day they all looked ready to work. Lastly, there is a possibility some of your employees may have difficulty communicating, however this may be mitigated through use of the right tools and processes.

As it appears with the arrival of the internet age, it may be time to start looking at the way we work from a different perspective. Even though China was forced into adopting the concept due to external factors, the empirical evidence does indicate that the benefits may outweigh the disadvantages and remote work may be beneficial for both employers and employees. Although it can’t be predicted how long companies in China will allow their employees to WFH, more companies around the world are looking at modern approaches to managing teams, such as 4-day work weeks and allowing employees to work remotely. It is often said that remote work is the future of the way we work, perhaps the future is now.


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