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“Eating out these days requires courage”: Tales from quarantined China

Written by Luna Lin Published on 

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The so-called world’s largest work-from-home experiment has created unprecedented inefficiency and strain in workplace communication.

As her 14 days in self-quarantine comes to an end on Sunday, Wei Jingxuan feels relieved that her life might finally return to normal.

The coronavirus outbreak, which started in Wuhan last December and has claimed more than 2,000 lives in China in over a month, has left millions of holiday returnees like Wei both bored and overworked—a quirk of sequestering 1.4 billion people in the time of smartphones and an internet-driven economy.

On one hand, Wei, who came back to Beijing from Hebei on Feb. 3 after an extended Chinese New Year holiday, has not found it particularly troubling to be stuck in her residential compound—the 3D designer says her perfect weekend involves watching TV all day and ordering in food.

Residents at her building, which is on partial lockdown, need a temporary entrance pass to get in or out. Delivery drivers are barred from entering, meaning they need to pick up orders at the gate. Most restaurants nearby are closed. “Of course, eating out these days requires courage anyway,” said the 25-year-old creative worker. “I went out every three days for grocery shopping and cooked my own meals.”

However, the experience, which has been called the world’s largest work-from-home experiment, has created unprecedented inefficiency and strain in workplace communication.

Wei works at a gaming startup. Before the outbreak, she would have an early meeting in the morning, discuss ongoing projects with colleagues throughout the day, and report progress to her manager before leaving the office.

Now, with all communications moved online, she found herself exhausted at the end of the day due to endless work-related messages, video conferences, and internet connection issues. Her two cats also took turns sitting on her keyboards, refusing to leave her work desk.

While Wei enjoys the flexibility and saving up to 90 minutes per day on commuting, she said the results of this unexpected country-wide experiment are not entirely promising.

“In our line of work, we do a lot of face-to-face brainstorming group meetings,” she said. “Sometimes you just can’t explain an idea via online communication as clear as you do in person.”

Lan Xi, a marketing director at a hardware company in Shenzhen, shares Wei’s concern about declining team communication quality.

“People these days are unwilling to have face-to-face meetings and, instead, most opt for sending online messages, which is very inefficient,” he added.

During the past two weeks, one big problem Lan has observed is the discomfort many colleagues have had switching their communication methods.

“They are used to coming into my office and having discussions in person, and when it comes to messaging and calling, they become over-cautious,” he said, adding that he noticed some colleagues being less straightforward in communicating their demands.

Organizing team meetings also turned into a hassle when nearly half the staff are staying at home scattering in different locations and even cities. “You don’t know if you are disrupting their work,” he said.

Punctuality problems and bad internet connections are also making it difficult to hold online team meetings.

But Lan and his colleagues have more pressing issues to deal with—the company’s sales team finds it almost impossible to meet up with potential clients. Meanwhile, its supply chain has been gravely affected by the epidemic outbreak.

“The pressure of running the daily operation is huge for the whole company,” he said.

While the past two week of remote working have been bearable for young people like Wei and Lan, things have been more unpredictable for older employees.

Su, a middle school teacher from Jinan, found himself a trending topic on Sina’s microblogging platform Weibo last Tuesday after a short video of him circulating online collected millions of views.

In the video, Su delivers a semester-opening remark to his class via a livestream from home. Unknowingly, he was using a streaming app with a beautifying function on full—his skin was spotless, forehead wrinkleless and cheeks pinkish. When his wife interrupted him during the livestream, he impatiently fired back.

“I’m doing livestreaming now. If you talk, the whole class will hear,” he said.

Not only did the whole class hear—one student recorded the session and put it online.

“It was the first time I used livestreaming, and I didn’t know how to use the app,” he told KrASIA.

Su said he hosted the livestream because he had not seen his students since the beginning of their winter holiday, and wanted to say a few words to cheer them up during the outbreak.

As schools remain closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, livestreamed classes with collaboration platforms like Alibaba’s Ding Talk or videoconferencing app Tencent Meeting have become the new normal for many Chinese teachers like Su.

Despite last week’s episode, Su was surprised by the effectiveness of teaching at home with remote working apps. “It was the first time for many students to attend class via livestream and they were quite interested,” he said.

After the initial learning curve, the veteran teacher said he began to appreciate the use of online tools. He can now easily reach out to students after class, and a homework submission function allows him to know instantly who has not turned in their assignments.

“The attendance rate has been 100%,” he added.

But many students are less cheerful about the recent livestreaming and remote learning push.

While educators see it as a way to make up for time spent at home, ensuring students don’t fall behind, some learners blame the technology for cutting their long holiday short. Many have flocked to app stores to leave negative reviews for these apps.

Enterprise service tools like DingTalk, WeChat Work, and Tencent Meeting are gaining access to the education industry with a potential user pool of more than 180 million primary and middle school students—something almost unthinkable before the epidemic outbreak, even for the most ambitious players in the industry.

Tony Pei, vice president of Guangdian Capital in Beijing, noted that many organizations and companies had previously been reluctant to use online services for remote working, even when most of these services have started to offer free trials and promotions during this unusual period.

However, the epidemic outbreak has made remote working a necessity. “For many in the enterprise service industry, it is a very good opportunity to increase their penetration rate,” he said.

Echoing Pei’s observation was the sudden ascent of Alibaba’s DingTalk to the top of Apple’s App Store in China.

“Ding Talk has experienced explosive growth in daily active users (DAU) and in the number of corporate users,” said Alibaba’s CEO Daniel Zhang, in a recent earnings call with analysts.

“Seventeen years ago, the e-commerce business experienced tremendous growth after the SARS outbreak. We believe that adversity will be followed by changes in behavior among consumers and enterprises, and bring ensuing opportunities,” he added.

It might still be too early to tell whether this nationwide remote working trial will be successful, but creative worker Wei already has an opinion. “I really wish this outbreak will be over soon so that I can go shopping and eat out again. But then, I would also need to get up early to go to the office,” she said. “What a hassle.”

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