What does a global pandemic mean for the future of work? In the short term, people have had to bring their jobs home, adopt new digital tools, and balance work and child care in new ways. But will these changes last? Will they make any long-term difference to office work in China tech—notorious for the “996” schedule that all but replaces home life with the office?
With the pandemic under control in China, workers are going back into the office en masse. I spoke with a variety of people working in China tech on how the pandemic is affecting their work lives. Spoiler alert: things haven’t changed much.
Liu Weiqi is a Xi’an-based Ph.D. student in Management Science and a TechNode Insider contributor.
Based in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Xi’an, the 11 people I spoke to represent different aspects of China’s tech industry: from big tech like Tencent to small startups, from senior managers to entry level programmers.
During the lockdown, many had a hard time juggling home and work life, while others found communication with colleagues difficult. China’s infamous 996 (working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week) work culture also invaded their living rooms as employees worked from home (WFH).
While the experience of working from home varied, the experience of coming back was predictable: post-pandemic tech work in China is just pre-pandemic work on steroids, interviewees said. Happy as they might be to be socializing with colleagues again, tech workers say their workloads have increased.
Busy as ever, some of them have found that the biggest change is their attitude towards their work.
Lockdowns: a blessing and a curse for tech
Stuck inside and online for weeks on end, China’s reliance on the digital world increased during the lockdown. This gave a huge boost to tech companies. Giants like Alibaba and Tencent set up health code systems, delivery services surged, and telecommunication tools such as Dingtalk and Wechat Work were overloaded.
Tech companies might have been lucky enough to see growth in some areas during the Covid-19 lockdowns, but with regards to managing their workforce, they were in the same boat as everyone else: their offices couldn’t open without local authorization.
Tech companies took epidemic prevention mandates seriously, in part because the government held them accountable for lapses in their epidemic control systems. For example, Dangdang reopened in February, but after an employee tested positive the company was “summoned for inquiries” by regulators.
Complicating the tech industry’s efforts to reopen was its high proportion of migrant workers from other provinces. Even when restrictions were lifted in some cities, many employees were stuck outside the province where their office was located due to limitations on cross-province travel and quarantine mandates.
The only person I reached who is still working from home now is an employee of a Chinese company in India, who’s unable to return because India has banned international flights. Considering recent tensions, he’s not sure if he’ll ever go back.
Not locked down, but still home
China’s tech industry has experimented with work from home before. In 2015, James Liang, the co-founder of Ctrip, published an academic paper based on Ctrip’s work-from-home experiment with its call center employees. His results showed that working from home can increase performance significantly. After the experiment, Ctrip “rolled out the option to work from home to the whole firm.”
My interviewees all said they had some remote work experience before the pandemic. Some said they preferred remote work, because they could launch a virtual meeting without having to book a conference room. Some had done so because certain jobs like remote assistants are always coordinated through the internet. Some just wanted to reduce commuting time.
But working from home en masse during the pandemic is an entirely different story. Faced with the prospect of letting all their employees stay home, companies were generally reluctant.
996 at home
Many analysts predicted that the pandemic would lead to sweeping acceptance of working from home. Some US tech giants have already taken radical measures such as allowing employees to work from home indefinitely.
But China’s tech industry defied these predictions. For the most part, Chinese tech firms were eager for employees to return to the office, and made preparations accordingly. In February, they told employees to return to the cities where their company’s offices are located, even before the work sites were allowed to reopen. This way, employees could fulfill the mandatory self-isolation requirement while working from home, and then return to the office as quickly as possible once the government allowed it.
It would be naive to think the pandemic reduced the workload of Chinese tech workers. On the contrary, the growing demands of online services made them even busier. On Zhihu (Chinese), China’s Quora, many staffers complained that they still need to work overtime while at home because their KPIs (Key Performance Indicator) “are heavier than a mountain” (my translation).
Some tech companies seemed to distrust their employees as a matter of habit. Managers are known to abuse Dingtalk to constantly monitor their staff. Some social media users even claimed that their companies required them to turn on their laptop cameras (in Chinese) while working from home, but TechNode wasn’t able to verify these stories (my interviewees found the idea shocking).
Unprepared for the long-haul WFH experience, many tech workers said that it worsened communication, lowered efficiency, and extended working hours. Workers felt that they were working longer hours at home, and sometimes “unable to get off work” for a variety of reasons: delays in remote communication, the lack of a formal lunch break, replacing commuting time with more work, and sluggish internet connections.
For tech employees with kids, having to homeschool while working from home was the stuff of nightmares. Most interviewees said it was a last resort, and couldn’t wait for it to end.
“WFH is a matter of necessity which doesn’t fit everyone,” said Chen Qianyi, co-founder of a startup that just opened a new office in Shanghai. “Of course, manufacturing requires workshops, but offline work is also better for other full-time positions and daily operations.”
It is open to debate whether working from home actually makes people less productive, but going into the office can certainly make people feel more productive: working around colleagues and bosses as a unit forces people to adjust their behavior and focus on the task at hand.
People working from home may turn off their camera soon after a video meeting starts, but they can’t do that in an in-person meeting, even as such meetings may be a waste of time. It is true that some people work overtime in the office to complete more tasks, but many also stay late just to project a good image to their bosses.
For China’s tech workers, the requirement to work from home ended with the lockdown. They were told to return to the office.
The post-lockdown crunch
Many tech workers were happy to be back at their desks.
“The office provides me with a better development environment, especially for team work,” a programmer at Tencent said. “People get distracted easily when they work from home and coordination with co-workers can be more difficult and time-consuming. The productivity of work from home is guaranteed if only you work on your own. If you have co-workers, you need an office.”
But upon returning to the office, many employees found that their challenging work from home experience was viewed by their bosses as a holiday. A trainer who hosts online workshops four times a week said: “We did not have much time off while working from home because my boss had bad coordination skills. But what’s worse is that we were asked to re-do some tasks when we returned to the office. My boss made us repeat the work simply because he did not believe in working from home,” she said. Many tech workers likewise found their workloads increased when they first returned to the office.
But the uphill battle during the Covid-19 lockdown has produced positive effects too: it made office culture more close-knit. Interviewees said they preferred to take company-provided buses to avoid public transportation, and canceled business trips so they could stay safe at the office. In the post-pandemic world, such perks of big tech, like company transportation, are even more enticing to tech workers, according to one market manager from a smaller company: “I am jealous that they have company-provided buses and canteens, because I have to take a taxi for work and bring my own lunch, which is expensive and sometimes time-consuming.”
After spending more time with colleagues during working hours and using more company services, the bonds between colleagues strengthened. However, many interviewees also said they now hang out less often with work friends outside the office.
Better 996 than 000
Despite the frequent warnings to avoid public spaces, some have found the precautions unnecessary. The spaces are “empty during the pandemic which may result from the rising unemployment”, said A Jiu, chief editor of Zhenguan, a Xi’an-based new media company covering local livelihood issues.
This rise in unemployment has pushed many tech employees to accept their heavier workloads. Many are just glad to have a job. Some even went as far as to defend 996 culture: “You have to get the job done”, a manager from JD told me. ”People have too many stigmas against 996, but the fact is, you only gain if you go through the pain.”
Others said that it is a privilege to work safely from home, because not all jobs can be done through computers. Drivers and delivery workers aren’t officially recognized as employees of Chinese tech firms, and during the pandemic, they had little choice but to be exposed to a dangerous work environment.
These foot soldiers of China tech are more aware than ever of the fact that apps determine their ability to make ends meet.
A ride-hailing driver I spoke to was pessimistic about his post-pandemic life: “I had no money for months due to the epidemic, but what makes me more worried is that my life counts on an app.”
But other than these realizations, the pandemic did not change anything foundational. At least for China’s tech workers, what happened in the pandemic stayed in the pandemic.