When Gao Ting left Wuhan in China’s Hubei province to go back to her hometown for Lunar New Year, she was excited about seeing old friends and going out for festive meals. Back then, she recalls that face masks were rare among her colleagues and people on the streets, and she didn’t wear one.
She left the provincial capital, where she works, just three days before it was placed under a strict lockdown on 23 January, after it became clear that the dangerous new virus we now know as Covid-19 needed to be contained.
Gao, 34, would go on to spend 68 days trapped in her parents’ apartment in Yichang, a city of four million about 300km west of Wuhan. “We could only stay at home. Every day people would come to take our temperature,” she says. “It felt good to spend more time with family, to eat together, chat together. There were eight of us, including my sister and brother-in-law’s family.”
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Over two months later on 29 March, Gao went back to work. “There were a lot of people on the subway,” she says of that first commute back. “Everyone wore masks.” Apart from that, it was business as usual with most people engrossed in their phones. It was almost as if nothing had changed. But the working landscape told a different story.
Gao works in operations management for Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group in one of Wuhan’s most popular shopping areas. Chǔhé Hànjiē is a long, paved street filled with international and local brands – but business is slow. Part of Gao’s job involves measuring footfall for her employer, which invested in and developed the area: “We had 60,000 people, on average, daily in 2019. Now it’s around 10,000 people per day.”
Despite this Gao’s job is both busier and tougher, and she is regularly still in the office at 2100. At the weekends she works from home, trying to clear her backlog. Her role also involves calling around local businesses to try to entice them to move into vacant units. “The brands are not doing good business [on Chǔhé Hànjiē]. We try to help them. Lots of businesses don’t have money and can’t afford rent. Some are closing down.”
And the businesses that haven’t closed down are having to be cautious not to reignite infection rates. Wuhan’s restaurants now close at 1900 and people are not allowed to sit inside; very few people wander around after that time. Instead, Gao’s office orders packed lunches and dinners to be delivered.
New rules in the office
For much of February, millions of employees in China were working from home, which for many was a new experience. Now some – but not all - have returned to the office, although lower economic activity means that some struggling companies are reported to be reducing working hours and pay. Others, like Gao Ting, are working longer than before as they try to crank their business back into gear.
Local authorities across China have proposed 2.5-day weekends to encourage consumer spending. East China’s Jiangxi province implemented the plan recently. The new measures however are voluntary, and companies can choose how to implement them. Other provinces like Hebei, Gansu and Zhejiang have also recommended the 2.5-day weekend to stimulate the economy.
The presence of Covid-19 is still very much in the back of everyone’s minds as health officials worry about a potential second wave of infections. Many office buildings and apartments have security personnel to administer temperature checks for people wanting to enter.
Amal Liu, 26, works for a major Chinese state-owned insurance company in southern Shenzhen. At her office, and in many others, everyone must wear masks and practise social distancing. “In the canteen, we must sit away from each other,” she says. Liu mentions that some overseas brokers, who she communicates with for work, are now feeling the effects of their own extended lockdowns.
“I didn’t enjoy working from home, I wasn’t as efficient as I was in the office,” says Liu, who prefers the regularity of the office schedule.
For others, relationships with international clients have also been curtailed. Ariel Zhong, 25, works for a leading Chinese video game live-streaming platform, Hu Ya, in Guangzhou and is responsible for developing emerging markets.
Zhong had been based in Mexico, with regular travel between Asia and Latin America, but had travelled back home to China in late March. On her return she was first placed in quarantine in a hotel and then worked from home for a week. Since 15 April, she has returned to the office, with some noticeable changes.
I didn’t enjoy working from home - Amal Liu
Before Chinese New Year her working hours were fixed but “now we have flexible clock-in and clock-out [times], as long as we work for a nine-hour period including lunch”, she says. These staggered hours are partly because social distancing on public transport causes delays and also to prevent too many people from entering and leaving the office building at the same time.
Despite not being able to travel overseas Zhong is happy to be back in the office, citing a more efficient work routine, especially as she requires stable and fast internet speeds. But her pay has dropped significantly, since 60% of her salary is made up of incentives to travel abroad – something she can’t do under the current circumstances.
More flexible working?
Zhang Xiaomeng, associate professor of organisational behaviour at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing, has found that many employees reported reduced efficiency when working from home.
In a survey conducted by her team, which had 5,835 respondents (drawn from her business school’s employees and alumni’s companies’ employees), more than half the participants reported reduced efficiency when working from home. Nearly 37% reported no difference in their efficiency, while less than 10% said they worked more efficiently from home.
Krista Pederson, who works in Beijing for Hogan Assessment Systems, a personality assessment company, says China is in an ideal position to pivot towards a more flexible workstyle, with the technology and infrastructure to support this. But this additional flexibility could come at a cost.
“We have also seen an increase in expectations for responsiveness at any and all times, with higher pressure for employees to respond more quickly or be willing to have meetings at later or earlier times,” she says.
However, this trend is not being seen across all sectors.
“We have heard that some of our SOE [state-owned enterprise] clients are digging in and trying to get back to the previous go-to-the-office traditional work setting that they previously employed,” she says. Pederson believes this is because “they are highly structured organisations who rely on the structure to get things done”.
She says that in personality assessments, leaders in these companies often score higher on “tradition” and “security”. “SOE leaders tend to be higher on these values,” she says. “They tend to value doing things the way they always have.” She believes that this makes it harder for companies led by such leaders to change and adapt.
China is in an ideal position to pivot towards a more flexible workstyle - Krista Pederson
'We can’t say we’re safe’
Not all of China was badly affected by Covid-19 but there were still knock-on effects. He Kunfang, 75, is a retired doctor of traditional Chinese medicine. She lives with her husband in Kunming, in southwestern Yunnan province. “We haven’t been much affected by the virus,” she says. “Food and vegetable supplies are stable. But we used to go swimming three times a week, now we can’t go to the pool.”
Her daughter, who is in her mid-thirties and usually based in Beijing, is now living with them. “My daughter is a freelance conference interpreter; her job is affected,” she says. Travel into the country is still heavily restricted and so the international conference business, not to mention tourism, has been hit hard – an after-effect that is being replicated around the world. “She has to pay rent in Beijing as well as other loans, fees and insurance she’s paying on her own.”
Schools meanwhile slowly began to resume classes in mid-March after being closed since late January. With 278 million students, the logistics and timing of this is of huge importance. It’s being done in stages across provinces, with schools in Hubei province the last to reopen in early May. The same health precautions are being taken in schools as in workplaces with staggered start times, temperature checks, masks and social distancing still in place.
For Yun Tao, who works for a state-owned engineering corporation in Beijing, and her 16-year-old daughter, it hasn’t been easy. "I'm tired of cooking three times a day for my daughter," she says. "In addition to taking care of her life, I also need to spend plenty of time supervising her studying, [and] at the same time deal with my day-to-day job, though I don't feel I'm as productive as when I was at my workplace."
Yun's only daughter is a first-year student at an international high school in Beijing and has not been at school for over three months. "Online learning due to the lockdown comes with extra difficulties; my kid was not very motivated, and we as parents [have] way more administrative routines than before such as printing handouts, marking daily attendance, solving technical issues, etc. It feels like I don't have any downtime after I've done work and chores," Yun adds. "However, one good thing is that I cook better now than ever before."
Many countries are looking to China to get a sense of what life might be like when stay-at-home restrictions are lifted. But there is still a lot of uncertainty in China and many are anxious as they watch other countries struggle to contain the virus. “We’re still in [the] coronavirus period, not yet post,” says Ariel Zhong, stressing that the endgame of this global pandemic is very much dependent on a worldwide collective effort. “Looking at other countries – [we] can’t say we’re safe... If other countries don’t control it, we will all be affected.”