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May 8, 2020

China’s return to work – not quite business as usual

In this Q&A, we hear from Toby Rakison, Unispace’s Managing Director of Asia, who has been speaking with our clients and contacts in China to understand what life has been like post lockdown and what the return to work looks like. 

As governments begin to lift restrictions around the world; communities, businesses, and individuals are preparing for life outside the house and back in the office. 

While we are all looking forward to getting back to our daily routines and drinking REAL coffee again, no one is quite sure what to expect. All indications suggest it will be a very different workplace to the one we all remember 

Several weeks out of lockdown, China has seemingly resumed a new normal. While the country is still finding its feet, there is a lot that can be learned from their experience.   

What has life been like in China post lockdown?  

The initial “post-lockdown” euphoria in China was huge. Every part of life, from leaving the house to reuniting with friends and colleagues became cause for celebration 

Slowly but surely, as confidence has collectively grown, life has returned to a new normal, with the number of people on public transport increasing day by day. Gyms and movie theatres are still closed, but retailers and restaurants are open for business again.  

The virus is still very much at the back of everyone’s mind, and while most people still wear a mask, and body temperature checks are routine, it’s a small price to pay for the relative freedom 

Is remote working the new normal? 

Beijingers spend an average of two hours a day commuting to work, so it’s likely plenty of people enjoyed avoiding this, but for the most part, it seems that individuals and businesses found remote working challenging. 

There was some concern at the start that productivity would drop, but in reality, many people I have spoken to have said they were working well past usual business hours due to the “always on” culture and blurred lines between work and personal life.  

Parents with children at home found it incredibly difficult to focus, with colleagues only acutely aware of this when little ones made an appearance in the background of video calls. 

Without access to adequate space, facilities and equipment it is unlikely that remote working will replace the office. What this experience has proven in China is that some teams and departments are able to work remotely with little impact on performance. 

Going forward, this will likely lead to managers giving their teams more flexibility, with individuals being able to divide their time between home and work in line with their preferences.

What does the return to work look like so far 

Overwhelmingly, people are pleased to be back in the office, even if it is markedly different to how they remember.  

The standard return to work protocol that the rest of the world is now beginning to adopt began in China several weeks ago. People are staggering the times at which they come into the office to minimise the potential for exposure, thermal scanners are placed at the entrance of every building, and no more than six people are allowed in an elevator at one time.

Inside the workplace, desks are distanced at least 3.8m apart and are disinfected three times a day. Ample supplies of face masks, hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes are also readily available.

UV lights are being used to sanitise smart phones, and further investment is being made to improve the quality of air inside buildings. Air purifiers with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters have seen a recent spike in demand with makers claiming they are effective in protecting against the coronavirus.

In terms of face to face meetings, formally they are discouraged, however informal lunch and “social professional gatherings” are beginning to gain momentum in small groups. 

It’s important to note that the collective sense of responsibility to minimise the risk of exposure is taken very seriously among the population – something that stems from the SARS experience in 2002. 

What role does the workplace play in a post COVID reality?  

Legitimate questions are being asked about how the office is going to be used going forward, with some CEO’s questioning if they even need one.  

If this experience has taught us anything, it’s that people want to be with people, and that’s not going to change. Overwhelmingly the feedback I have received from counterparts in China is that they missed the ability to collaborate and have face to face time with colleagues.

Like many of the scenarios faced in recent weeks, the reality is that what comes next, and its impact on how people will work in the future is still largely unknown. Many preconceived notions have now been challenged; maximising space efficiency, for example, and conflicts with social distancing. So how will real estate teams and management grapple with the economic and social tensions created moving forward? 

What we do know is that people take comfort, and gain confidence, knowing they are facing issues as part of a community and not by themselves. A destination to build on this sense of connection and culture is still needed. Workplaces allow organisations to connect their people to their brand and their values, build relationships, and establish their culture - something that is difficult to replicate online.

As the first major country to emerge from coronavirus lockdown, China is quietly relishing life out of isolation, giving other countries a glimpse of what awaits them once the worst of the pandemic has passed. I for one am looking forward to joining them and am optimistic about a greater variety of choices available to the individual on how and where they do their work.

About Toby Rakison  

Toby has worked extensively with a broad range of institutions across Asia Pacific over the last 15 years, helping multi-national organisations enhance and optimise the productivity of their people and teams to support the achievement of key business results. As the Managing Director of Unispace’s Asia business, his goal is to help global brands in Asia create high-performing spaces for a diverse workforce.

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