10 Lessons from Working Remote in China

Even prior to the Coronavirus outbreak in China, remote positions and internships were on the rise. From this growing global crisis we can anticipate seeing an increase in these remote positions, requiring employees and companies to be more flexible, open-minded, and innovative. 

Alibaba has begun remote company-wide meetings on a weekly basis.  DingTalk, Alibab’s chat and video conferencing tool, was the number one downloaded app in China in February 2020.  Outside of China, Zoom and Slack, two other communication platforms, have seen their share prices rise by a fifth and a third respectively over February 2020. 

Whether or not the world was ready, the age of telecommuting is here, and as global citizens, it is our job to adapt and be prepared for this new challenge.

Set the bar high  

China thrives on beating expectations.  Since the early 1980s, China has consistently been leading the economic ‘rat race’ with the largest increase in nominal GDP out of the top fifteen worldwide economies (according to the International Monetary Fund). It is common to walk into a quarterly review meeting in the financial sector of Shanghai and be told that this year the expectation is to double profits. To foreigners working in China, this can often be an intimidating concept and lead to cultural clashes and a more stressful work environment. When beginning an online internship, don’t be overwhelmed by the workload outlined within the first week. The point of these goals is not to encourage longer working hours (although that is sometimes a side effect) but to encourage entrepreneurial thinking. 

Expect instant responses and instant demands

Even prior to the new remote internship trend, the work-life balance in China was blurred.  Within minutes of arriving in China, if one is not yet familiar with WeChat, they will be. Those who come from Western culture are familiar with the unwritten code of conduct within the workplace of professional vs. personal communication. One may not often text their boss on a Saturday evening to double-check when that Monday morning meeting is. In China, WeChat is life which means work and life balance is often blurred, and evening and weekend work is often an expectation. When working remotely, it is especially important to have a conversation early on about working hours and establishing expectations on deadlines and response time. Get accustomed to checking WeChat frequently and treating it as a social and work space.

Always give the benefit of the doubt  

When communicating through mostly WeChat or email, tone can often be lost. Communicating without body language and sometimes without enough context can be difficult. Always assume someone has the best intentions when communicating and give them the benefit of the doubt when you are reading written text. This is doubly important when working in China where language and cultural barriers can be a real challenge – in large cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen, cultural and language differences need to be bridged with context and understanding.

Remote companies promote real leadership  

Strong supervisors do not rely on micromanagement – they are planned, organized, and know the value of your time. When holding a meeting, they have clear-cut goals and know what needs to be accomplished. Nothing efficient happens after a meeting which takes more than an hour – this is especially true in remote work. By observing the tactics of organizers for your remote company, you can be better equipped to run your own team. In China, this is especially true due to the slightly more hierarchical nature of traditional Chinese companies – oftentimes a meeting runs more efficiently and serves as an information-providing session with the follow-up happening in private after the session.   

You’ll be more productive than you thought

It has been proven that remote work actually improves productivity. Within the traditional office setting, employees often get stressed or distracted. By cutting out daily distractions including noisy coworkers, stressful meetings, and long commutes, you’ll be surprised at how much you can get done in a shorter time period. In point one we mention setting the bar high for yourself – if you establish goals early on within the remote workplace, you’ll strive to achieve them which can lead to higher productivity rates and a happy supervisor. 

Visibility is not the same as productivity

Just because someone is online for 18 hours a day does not mean they are being productive for that time. It is ok to work offline, and it’s ok to only contribute when you have something worth contributing. While you want your name out there and to remind your team you’re present and engaged, you do not need to be the most vocal to be noticed. 

Make your own rules

Everyone has their own opinion on what working remotely means. People often say to make sure you get up and get dressed every day or organize your own workspace. But in reality, you do you. If something works for you don’t fight it just to comply with conventional standards on what remote working should look like. 

Figure out the tools that work for you and your company

What form of media is utilized at your company? When first starting, you will often be required to work within the pre-set framework. However, as you gain more experience and start making more leadership decisions, think about what medium/tools work for you. Or alternatively, what mediums do you struggle with? How do you track your workflow? Personally, I recommend Trello for keeping groups organized but figuring out what works for you and your team is an important step.

Remote work and internships fit with any schedule

Telecommuting promotes flexibility, provides real work experience, and allows you to tailor your schedule however necessary. Without needing to pay the fees, put in the commute time or travel internationally, remote work and internship opportunities allow you to still gain valuable skills, connections, and international work experience which will look great on your CV/resume 

A greater degree of self-care is possible.  

In both Beijing and Shanghai, the average commute time is approximately one hour and both cities have populations of over 22 million. As this often leads to compact and stressful commuting, remote work avoids this component and is becoming a popular option for many Chinese employees.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the majority of the Chinese workforce moved online as a “temporary” measure. However even after this disaster has passed, we can still anticipate this trend continuing. For globally-minded students, this trend could be great news as it will lead to higher participation worldwide and allow those who wish to gain experience in the Chinese sector the opportunity to do so.

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