Remote Working is Easier Said Than Done: Lessons from China During COVID-19

In a bid to stem the spread of Covid-19, approximately 200 million people in China made the sudden switch to working from home by mid-January. Many companies cited rapid declines in productivity, while employees struggled with changing employer expectations and juggling work with homeschooling kids.

Gina Kim
July 20, 2021

We looked at the work-from-home experience during the pandemic in China to find lessons for those going through it right now.

Lesson 1: Establish effective decision-making and communication structures

Challenge: Working remotely can quickly result in confusion and a lack of clarity. Team norms sometimes don’t translate to remote settings, making it hard for people to know who to talk to and how best to approach them, leading to delays and confusion.

Response: Cross-functional teaming was found to ease these communication challenges. These new cross-functional teams were each given a clear mission, line of reporting, and decision-making authority.  

What this looked like: A leading fashion company mitigated the closure of its stores by redeploying employees into four cross-functional teams, each tasked with finding ways to support front-line retail workers. Teams designed standard processes for live broadcasting and launched new retail tools to encourage front-line staff to drive sales remotely.

Lesson 2: Set a clear direction and communicate confidently, consistently, and reliably

Challenge: With the sudden shift to remote, many managers struggled to effectively manage their teams, while many employees felt dips in motivation and productivity.

Response: When leaders articulated expected outcomes, frequently checked-in with their teams and recognized deliverables, employees felt greater clarity of expectations and were accountable to get things done.  

What this looked like: Alibaba increased the frequency of meetings, shared weekly plans, and used a voice-to-text app to provide managers with regular progress reports.

Lesson 3: Show empathy and genuine care

Challenge: Everyone experienced the shift to remote work differently. Some employees struggled from extreme isolation, while others had to juggle childcare while working.

Response: Leaders who quieted down to really listen to their employees and understand how remote work is affecting them were able to surface issues, offer perspective in challenging times, and help their teams feel supported.

What this looked like: One global bank applied this principle to their clients as well. Relationship managers connected with clients via video call to understand their situation and help them weather the crisis. Managers were supported with scripts, internal trainings, and tools to be able to be truly empathetic to their clients.

Lesson 4: Establish a new routine

Challenge: Without the regular flow of being in the office, many people struggled to manage their schedules, missing important virtual meetings or failing to have the informal conversations that proved so valuable in the past.

Response: Establish new norms, workflows, and lines of authority. Spend time to discuss everyone’s constraints in this new environment so as a team you can set new norms that work for the full team.

What this looked like: Alibaba used a five-star system for each member to rate the usefulness of each meeting to offer prompt feedback while one person was assigned to track time and manage the outcomes.

Lesson 5: Adopt a “test and learn” mentality

Challenge: Quickly identifying what wasn’t working and reacting quickly.

What needed to be done: Need to have a practice where the leadership team can continuously learn, actively identify best practices, and rapidly set up mechanisms to share ideas across the organization.

What did companies do?:
A leading high-tech manufacturer had its R&D teams creating a productivity target for remote work. Specifically, the team estimated their productivity each week relative to onsite work and identified levers to make improvements. Within four weeks, they had progressed from 50% to 88% of their baseline.

Think of this period as an opportunity, not a disruptive crisis

When employees in China began heading back to their offices, companies who weathered the sudden switch to remote work saw boosts in productivity and morale.

Remote working does not need to be a disruption, yet it is another way for companies to find a new normal that increases employee satisfaction and productivity. With these lessons learned, companies can use this as an opportunity to find a new way of working for the future.

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