Comment: Why remote work didn't last in China

Jake Newby explains how a culture of micromanagement is stopping the WFH revolution from properly taking off.

Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer, editor and consultant.

In late January of last year, my wife and I took a high-speed train from Shanghai to Fuzhou, four hours away, to visit her family home in the countryside. Travelling a few days before the Lunar New Year – the largest annual human migration in the world as millions of people in China make the journey home – we were concerned enough about rumours of a new flu in the city of Wuhan to wear masks, but not so worried to cancel our plans. Days later, Wuhan was placed under ‘lockdown’, a term that would soon become familiar to everyone on the planet. 

Working for a digital media platform that focuses on Chinese youth culture and sharing stories from sides of the country that are rarely explored, in theory I could do my work wherever there’s an internet connection. So we decided to stay put and work remotely until the virus situation improved. People across the country were similarly assuming that a return to the office wasn’t going to happen any time soon. 

China has a claustrophobic, micromanagement-heavy work culture, and nothing like this had ever happened before. There were headlines from international media outlets about the country’s ‘nationwide work-from-home experiment’. Management consulting firm McKinsey called it ‘a blueprint for remote working’ and predicted it would ‘leave a lasting impression on the way people live and work for years to come’. 

But since then, how much has really changed? By the first week of March, my boss was already pushing for us to return to the office. He wasn’t the only one. In the spring of 2020, as the likes of Google and Twitter said that most of their remote-working employees would probably never come back into the office full time, Chinese tech giant Alibaba was insisting its workforce return to headquarters. The government pushed to ensure a ‘return to normal’. 

‘But how much has really changed? By the first week of March, my boss was already pushing for us to return to the office.’

In part, this was due to that corporate culture. It isn’t unheard of for Chinese companies to place timers in bathrooms to discourage employees from taking long toilet breaks. Elsewhere, there are plenty of debates on Chinese social media around the tech sector’s ‘996’ culture: the idea that employees should work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. Against this backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that enlightened attitudes toward WFH haven’t taken off. 

Still, many employees did, in fact, want to return to the office. Having already weak work-life boundaries eroded by the pandemic, many people joked of ‘996’ becoming ‘247’.  

As such, there hasn’t been much resistance to a return to the office given the natural barriers it offers between work and home life. There has been an increased awareness of work-life balance, however, and recent employment controversies in China have revealed a strong sense of disillusionment around office jobs among millennials and Gen Z. Last year, a report stating 34% of the world’s workforce would be operating remotely in 2021 started trending on Chinese social media. One of the most popular comments read, ‘I’m so jealous.’ 

Regardless, most Chinese companies have a mistrust of remote working. The sweeping WFH revolution simply never happened. Maybe we should be wary of assuming that it is here to stay in other parts of the world, too. 

This article was first published in Courier issue 40, April/May 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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