DingTalk, the telecommuting application, surged over 350% during the Chinese New Year week to become the most downloaded software on China’s app stores. Amid the outbreak of Covid-19, people have been forced to work or study from home. In addition to workplaces, schools across the country have adopted the app to continue lessons online.

That’s a lot of users—but not a lot of love. DingTalk’s rating has dropped (in Chinese) significantly amid the massive growth. In China’s Apple App Store, the application has an overall rating of 2.6 on the morning of March 5, while more than half of the reviews give it one star. Many students gave DingTalk one star because “it ruins my holiday.” Of course, backlash against DingTalk from adult employees is not a recent thing.

Liu Weiqi is a Xi’an-based PhD student in Management Science with a background in law and engineering. His writing covers innovation, institutions, marketing, gender, and civil society. Contact him via email.

Not a lot of app makers respond to criticism by calling their users lazy.

If you ask the company, it’s not the app’s fault. They suggest that when workers and students give it low ratings, they’re scapegoating the app because they don’t like their work. The Alibaba-backed application issued a video (in Chinese) on Bilibili on Feb. 16 begging students for a higher rating. The video argues that students give DingTalk bad reviews because they hate school, while DingTalk is just an innocent intermediary. It’s used similar tactics to dismiss criticism from adult employees (in Chinese) as well.

Not a lot of app makers respond to criticism by calling their users lazy. But it’s perfectly on-brand for DingTalk: it was designed to appeal to managers, instead of the employees who actually use it. DingTalk promotes unhealthy—and inefficient—work-life balance by tempting bosses to monitor employees 24 hours a day and to invade their off-duty time.

DingTalk doesn’t deserve a pass. It has low ratings because it’s a poorly designed app that makes workers’ lives worse. Of course, overbearing bosses and high-pressure jobs existed before DingTalk, but the app has become the face of the problem for most white-collar workers, and its intrusive features encourage companies’ worst impulses.

If Chinese companies want “a smarter way of working,” a good first step would be abandoning DingTalk and apps like it.

Think you’re off work?

WeChat had already acquired a dominant position in China’s social media market when DingTalk launched in 2014, including wide adoption for work communication. To overcome this head start and WeChat’s network effect advantage, DingTalk ingratiated itself with a different user base: managers who can force employees to use the service.

DingTalk offers multiple features that help management surveil employees. The most complained about on Zhihu, and in conversations with users, are “Ding” and “Clock In/Out” monitoring.

DingTalk is designed around an expectation of 24-hour availability.

Ding is one of the app’s most demanding and intrusive features. It aims to guarantee message delivery and pushes employees to react to admins’ messages near real-time and 24/7. Senders know immediately who’s read their messages, if any recipient misses, ignores, or is late to reply to a message, they can effectively push recipients to reply by them by using the app to “Ding” them—re-sending a notification, or even placing an automated call to push the user to respond. DingTalk shows the status of each recipient in group chats separately, adding a layer of peer pressure. Ding encourages bosses’ tendency to expect immediate replies: many users say being Ding-ed by their bosses over insignificant issues in off-duty time is a common experience. 

DingTalk is designed around an expectation of 24-hour availability. This is perhaps best illustrated by a rare, and grudging, concession to working parents: Around Mother’s Day, 2018, DingTalk introduced “parenthood mode” (in Chinese). The temporary feature—available only from May 10 to May 18—muted messages from the workplace and automatically replied “I am with my baby and I will reply later” from 8 p.m.-10 p.m. For one week, DingTalk encouraged working mothers to take two hours offline. How generous!

DingTalk’s punch card

The single most widely used DingTalk feature is Clock In/Clock Out. It’s essentially a digital punch card machine. This is the feature that popularized DingTalk among small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and is the only feature some companies use in the app. DingTalk stresses that it does not monitor employee location data in the background, but GPS location data (in Chinese) is uploaded each time an employee clocks in or out and admins can check it. At many companies, to successfully Clock In/Out, the person needs to be within a specific location range or connected to a specified Wi-Fi.

DingTalk scores the face of employees based on how big their smile is.

Controversial technologies like facial recognition are integrated into Clock In/Out as well. The optional “Smiling Clock In/Out” (in Chinese) feature is darkly humorous: DingTalk scores the face of employees based on how big their smile is, and later generates a digital poster showing the best-scored smiles to, in the company’s words, “thrive happiness in the workplace.” Under some situations like switching to a new device, DingTalk itself may require facial recognition (in Chinese) for Clock In/Out.

The indifference to users of DingTalk is reflected in confusing UI/UX design. It has too many features, and users can easily get lost. Even key features such as Ding are a mess: to be recognized as have read a specific Ding message in-app, one needs to press “message” on the left bottom corner, and then “Ding” on the right top corner, and then open the message manually.

And woe betide you if your native language isn’t Chinese: though I have set the default language of my phone and the app to English, many bots and the entire “work” menu are still in Chinese. In general, it is hard to have a pleasant interaction with the app.

No incentive to change

DingTalk marketing claims that it is helping to upgrade Chinese offices “in the era of the smart mobile office,” but it is actually adapted to a very old-fashioned office culture, where bosses have absolute power and overwork is normalized.

DingTalk’s positioning as a pocket boss has helped it expand rapidly. With over 10 million companies using the services before the epidemic, it is the most popular office service in China now. Its major competitor, WeChat for Work, only has 2.5 million corporate users.

DingTalk is built on an antiquated view of labor.

As younger workers take over offices, DingTalk is struggling to overcome a culture gap. On a report (in Chinese) it issued with CBNdata, DingTalk disclosed that nearly half of its users are post-90s. This generation wants to separate work from life more than previous generations, making it less receptive to the intrusive app. By adopting phrases and art forms popular among the post-90s in these obsequious videos begging for five star reviews, DingTalk clearly wants to be loved—but without changing the features that make it hated.

This provides WeChat Work, the major rival of DingTalk, with space for competitive differentiation. Though sharing similar fundamental issues, WeChat Work offers a “rest” mode which allows users to block messages off-duty (in Chinese).

The wrong way to work

DingTalk is built on an antiquated view of labor. Its logic is that employees’ output depends on their working hours and that the way to get them to put in more hours is watching them more closely.

Effective managers know that administration is more than monitoring; successful leaders guide their employees to be self-directed other than obedient. DingTalk is a symbol of failed and disorganized management.

Smart work means much more than working on smartphones, and there is nothing “smart” about DingTalk. SaaS, OA systems, and paperless offices are all commonplace nowadays, and bringing them from computers to smartphones is nothing impressive.

DingTalk doesn’t create bad managers. But it encourages their worst impulses by making over-monitoring available while ignoring the soft skills that build trust in the workplace.

Weiqi Liu

Liu Weiqi is a Xi’an-based Ph.D. student in Management Science with a background in law and engineering. His writing covers innovation, institutions, marketing, gender, and civil society.

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