China's work-from-home experiment tests companies, employees
As public health experts race to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak, the country is slowly getting back to work after an extended Lunar New Year holiday, albeit with an unexpected experiment in remote working for many people.
For many, staying operational in a virtual work has come with a steep learning curve.
“I fully agree on this work-from-home method as our national priority is to curb the spread of contagion,” said Zhang Wen, a manager in the fashion retail industry. “But collaborating as a team is challenging. Communicating with clients and colleagues has been less effective without a shared office.”
Zhang is among those who prefer a daily office routine. She finds it easier to work in a familiar office setting with a structured schedule over working from home, which requires more willpower and self-motivation. The 39-year-old can’t wait for the outbreak to end and return to her 9am-6pm office life.
Helen Liu, a UX designer at the Shanghai office of telenav, Inc., an American tech company from Silicon Valley, finds it challenging to work remotely as well. “Adapting to work at home is hard because you need to give up your patterns, so your work and life kind of blend in with each other. Additionally, I’m not able to demonstrate designs to colleagues and get feedback on time,” she said. “But the good side is our team can work in a real-time design environment in the cloud. The software that makes this happen is truly helpful.”
Chris Jacobs, director of UX for telenav, Inc, based in Shanghai, said the company has looked closely at the situation and allows people to work from home until further notice.
“We have more than 300 employees in Shanghai and Xi’an offices and the majority of them are software engineers and QA specialists. Our general manager is taking the opportunity to ‘test’ the employees, to see how well they self-manage and how efficient and communicative they are. He’s truly using this particular time to sort out who the heroes are and who needs extra guidance,” he said.
Jacobs adds that some challenges are emotional and psychological. Team members are cooped up in their apartments and often find their attention scattered by family issues and slow Internet speeds, among other distractions.
Before joining the company three years ago, Jacobs was a freelance designer. “Working from home for me was a normal thing for many years back in my hometown of Los Angeles, where I built a separate studio outside of my home to be a ‘work from home’ space. When the Internet matured, this had a large impact on the ability for people to work from home, or anywhere.”
But he finds that most of his Chinese colleagues and friends want to get back to the office. “We miss the camaraderie of colleagues. A nice office to work in is worth its weight in gold for a lot of people.”
However, working from home — for the right person — can increase productivity and lower stress.
Fashion designer Helen Lee is facing hard times like many others by running her own company, but she sees her creativity and productivity increasing from her home office.
“A chilled and peaceful environment is key to getting inspired and producing nice designs. At home, I’m not disturbed by office issues and have produced 180 designs within 20 days,” she said.
The coronavirus situation has also forced many employers to find new management solutions. Most are staying positive.
Elisa Harca, the co-founder of digital marketing agency Red Ant Asia based in Hong Kong, is managing her Shanghai office on a daily basis. “The next two weeks would be mayhem with quarantines and people moving around, and we just felt that since the staff were working so well, why not give them peace of mind to work from home till the beginning of March?”
The agency is embracing digital working methods for its 30-member team. “We work with international brands marketing to China, so many of our clients are global and used to not having face time. One action we ensure happens weekly is an internal senior team catch up by WeChat to go through projects and issues. We do this partly to unite the team and maybe more importantly to let everyone share their concerns or frustrations on the pandemic. Hopefully they will feel better and see the positive side,” Harca said.