Prior to China’s COVID-19 epidemic, remote working arrangements were rare in the country. According to a 2019 survey, only 0.6% of Chinese teleworked — significantly lower than the comparable figures for the United States and many European countries.
Working from home has long been idealized as a state of freedom and ease. It promised lower commuting costs, ample autonomy for workers to plan their time, and refuge from the disruptions of long-winded meetings or mandatory overtime culture. In theory, at least, it was a way to strike a better work-life balance.
Yet months into an unplanned global experiment with the technology, many workers are struggling to adapt. COVID-19 forced workplaces across China to remain closed after the Lunar New Year holiday: E-commerce market research group iiMedia found that more than 300 million workers at 18 million Chinese companies had started working remotely.
Nearly 70% of those surveyed said they “support” or “strongly support” the model, but only half said they are “accustomed” or “very accustomed” to their new work lives. Among the common complaints were inadequate infrastructure and work norms out-of-step with the realities of telecommuting, causing miscommunication and collaboration challenges.
Telework might free workers from the workplace, but contrary to its idealized image, it doesn’t do anything to help workers escape oppressive relations of production and gain true freedom. Instead, it merely moves the workplace home, forcing employees to simultaneously juggle personal and professional lives — while costing them many of the benefits of working in an office.
As Sigmund Freud famously said: “The possibility of shifting a large number of libidinal components — narcissistic, aggressive, even erotic — toward professional work and the human relations connected with it lends it a value that is in no way inferior to the indispensable part it plays in asserting and justifying a person’s existence in society.”
Yet remote colleague relationships, to pick one example, are far from able to fulfill our needs for society and strong interpersonal bonds in the same way as those interactions around the water cooler. Whereas in-person interactions with co-workers revolve around a wide range of topics, online interactions are generally limited only to work and do little to ease our feelings of isolation.
More to the point: Whereas routine offline interactions build understanding and trust between individuals and bring employees closer together, online workplaces make it easier for managers to “divide and conquer,” deepening the disconnect and even animosity between employees. Indeed, toxic manager-employee relationships not only remain intact when transferred online, but find new avenues to affect people’s personal spaces and private lives.
Fundamentally speaking, the manager-employee relationship can be either autocratic or democratic. From the perspective of employees, the former indicates greater autonomy; the latter, less.
In China, autocratic management styles predominate. Most of the country’s companies have not yet learned how to boost productivity by respecting their employees’ autonomy — that is, their intrinsic motivations. Instead, bosses micromanage and require overtime out of a belief that workers would otherwise slack off.
This mindset leads to the creation of software like Alibaba’s mobile workplace app DingTalk. It’s easy to mistake the technologies underpinning telework models as neutral: equally capable of being used for good and for evil. But the truth is workplace technologies are first and foremost built to address managerial needs and help bosses control their employees.
This fundamental premise shapes every subsequent design decision. DingTalk in particular is known for pioneering a number of widely reviled functions that have caused untold misery for employees, such as digital time clocks and read receipts that allow senders — bosses, typically — to see if you’ve opened their messages, and then to bombard you with automated reminder calls if you haven’t.
Bosses believe they own their workers’ time and do everything they can to “maximize” that time by wringing as much profit as possible out of them. DingTalk is just one way this manifests in China: In addition to micromanaging, Chinese corporate leaders frequently demand compulsory overtime, often unpaid, especially in the tech industry.
Workers have few options. Last year, programmers rebelled against the “996” model, in which workers are expected to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. They argued such expectations violate labor laws and harm workers’ health. Jack Ma, the now-retired founder of DingTalk’s parent company Alibaba, at first dismissed their criticisms, calling gruelling hours a “blessing.”
Relying on micromanagement to boost corporate performance is shortsighted, however. Numerous studies have shown that working long hours actually lowers employee productivity. Over-managing at work stifles morale, erodes workers’ sense of loyalty and identification with their employers, and is harmful to their mental and physical health.
Invasive apps like DingTalk also affect teleworkers’ home lives. The stresses of work and home life are becoming increasingly intertwined, leaving telecommuters exhausted and unable to focus on important relationships outside of work. Repressed resentment over work can cause employees to lash out at family members — especially when families are confined to their homes — and exacerbate domestic conflicts.
As we shed the illusion of teleworking freedom, we need to realize the positivity of our work experiences are determined by the autonomy and independence our jobs grant us, not by our physical work locations. This is born by the fact that many companies have continued to use apps like DingTalk, even after workers returned to the office.
Without worker independence, jobs are nothing more than an endless exercise in management and control, regardless of where they take place. Even for teleworkers who enjoy the flexibility to arrange their own work, this freedom generally only goes one way: They are welcome to “proactively” extend their work hours, but not to cut them in search of work-life balance. In the end, it only worsens employees’ self-exploitation.
Companies should encourage employees to choose what best suits them, based on their actual needs and wants. Improved technologies and creative work models can lead to positive change, but only if there is a greater degree of democracy in the workplace.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: 500px Core/People Visual)