Why China doesn’t do WFH

26 Jun 2024 | ICG News & Announcements

Written by ICG member Simon Shaw, Ignite Qualitative Research Consultancy

While working from home has become the ‘new normal’ in the West, it most certainly has not in China.  Most companies require people to make the daily commute to the office and, more to the point, people happily comply.

Why should this be so?  Here are some of the main reasons:-

  1. Unsuitable homes

Chinese apartments tend to be small, with limited access to green space.  They are cold in winter and hot in summer.  Older apartments may have slow internet connections.  For many, home is little more than a place to rest your head at night: the metaphorical bolthole.

Most young Chinese live with Mum and Dad until they get married.  This means that a large proportion of 20 and 30-somethings not only have cramped living space to contend with, but the presence of Mum and Dad too.  In many families, grandparents are also present, adding to the claustrophobic atmosphere.

In this context, the office – especially if it is modern and well-appointed – is positively appealing.

  1. Uniquely miserable lockdowns

In China, the term ‘lockdown’ meant just that: an order to stay inside your home, at all times, until further notice.  All shops were shut and food distribution became the responsibility of local government.

For weeks on end, people left their apartments only when ordered downstairs to line up for an enforced lateral flow test.  There, they would be met by the dystopian sight of the community ‘da bais’ – health workers, security guards and policemen dressed head to toe in hazmat suits.  If they tested positive, they would be carted off to a ‘fangcang’ – an industrial-scale warehouse in which those infected with the virus could be detained until further notice.  If this meant separation from family, tough.

As if this was not enough, the lack of any furlough or business support schemes resulted in huge financial losses from which many have never recovered.  The shuttered-up shops that still line streets up and down the country are testament to the damage done to countless livelihoods.

The experience of working from home was at best miserable, and at worst traumatic.  Getting back to the office was a cause for joy, not regret.

  1. Corporate norms

In many local enterprises, corporate structures are hierarchical, not flat.  Relationships between bosses and workers tend to be ‘master-servant’ in nature.  Working independently is discouraged, and micro-management is the norm.

Workers themselves – especially younger ones – feel more comfortable under the wing of their boss.  Their formative years, all the way through to tertiary education, have been characterised by the observance of rules, conforming to norms, and learning by rote.  Acting alone, taking the initiative, being a ‘self-starter’: such ideas are anathema to the young Chinese worker.

While Westerners may value the space and freedom of working from home, their Chinese peers are just as likely to find it perplexing and paralysing.

  1. Lack of trust

In the West, employers tend to assume that their employees can be trusted to act in the interests of their employer.  And, broadly speaking, they do.  Safeguards of course exist to ensure miscreants are caught, but the expectation is that malign behaviour is the exception, not the rule.

This in simply not the case in China.  The assumption is that the employee will find ways to maximise their own interests, regardless of whether or not such interests are aligned with those of the company.

And there is good reason for this.  Sales people may direct new business enquiries to a third party in which they have a stake, or who offers them a cut.  As Western companies operating in China know only too well, IP laws are rarely enforced and employees can be easily tempted to share data with competitors, especially when the reward of offer is equivalent to a year’s salary.

In this context, it pays to have your employees where you can keep an eye on them.  Allowing them to access sensitive data from home would pose too great a risk.

  1. The importance of relationship-building

In a society where the rule of law is inconsistently applied, trust between parties is the cornerstone of business relationships.  However, given that the default is a lack of trust, building confidence requires a lot of time and effort.

Above all, it requires those involved to get to know each other as people.  Business entertainment in the form of long lunches and dinners is commonplace: many people will go out two or three times a week to oil the wheels of client or colleague relationships.  Water-cooler moments or trips to the golf club are more than just helpful asides in the course of a working week; they are absolutely essential to the function of business.

The personal, human dimension is everything in China, and this is best done via face-to-face contact.  Zoom will never offer this.

  1. A love of being with others

Chinese culture is built on relationships.  Unlike Westerners, who view themselves primarily as individuals, Chinese people define themselves as members of groups: the family, the friends’ circle, the company.

They are never happier than when they are with others, and never unhappier than when they have to spend long periods of time alone.  It is no coincidence that holidays are taken in tour groups, that shopping malls are crowded and that restaurants are noisy.  Indeed, it has even been demonstrated that Chinese people are more likely to sit near others when entering a bus or train carriage, when Westerners naturally choose to sit further apart.

The workplace is a great example of this tendency.  There is no culture of eating alone, at one’s desk.  Instead, workers eat with colleagues, often in groups of 4 or 5, sometimes more.  It is notable that offices tend to empty out at the same time, as if workers take comfort in the knowledge that it is not just their group eating together, but everyone else’s group eating at the same time as them.

Eating at home, isolated from the one’s colleagues, might fill the stomach, but it does not nourish the soul.