In late January of last year, my wife and I took a high-speed train from Shanghai to Fuzhou, four hours away, to visit her family home in the countryside. Travelling a few days before the Lunar New Year – the largest annual human migration in the world as millions of people in China make the journey home – we were concerned enough about rumours of a new flu in the city of Wuhan to wear masks, but not so worried to cancel our plans. Days later, Wuhan was placed under ‘lockdown’, a term that would soon become familiar to everyone on the planet.
Working for a digital media platform that focuses on Chinese youth culture and sharing stories from sides of the country that are rarely explored, in theory I could do my work wherever there was an internet connection. So we decided to stay put and work remotely until the virus situation improved. People across the country were similarly assuming that a return to the office wasn’t going to happen any time soon.
China often has a claustrophobic, micromanagement-heavy work culture, and nothing like this had ever happened before. There were headlines from international media outlets about the country’s ‘nationwide work-from-home experiment’. Management consulting firm McKinsey called it ‘a blueprint for remote working’ and predicted it would ‘leave a lasting impression on the way people live and work for years to come’.
But since then, how much has really changed?