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Workers put up government propaganda to fight against the COVID-19 outbreak, in Beijing, on Feb. 20, 2020.

The Associated Press

Never have so many people worked from home. Never have so many bosses wanted their employees back in the office.

The spread of a deadly virus in China has put tens of millions of people under lockdown, thrusting the country into a mass experiment in remote work.

For China’s technology companies and government leaders, it has offered a chance to showcase the sophistication of the country’s digital tools and the power of its high-speed networks. Business consultants say the COVID-19 outbreak, which has now killed 2,122 people in China, stands to alter the fabric of work in the world’s second-largest economy, pointing it in the direction of Western societies that have more eagerly embraced remote work.

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Chinese health officials express optimism despite new threats emerging in coronavirus outbreak

Some Chinese executives and managers, though, have taken a dim view of their ability to get things done with workers at home. In a country that prizes long hours at the office, companies are keeping close track of how much is getting done by employees far from the gaze of superiors who worry they can’t trust their underlings to be productive on their own.

With so many working remotely, ”there’s no way for us to supervise what people are doing. We don’t know if our employees are writing code or just playing with their cats,” said Cheng Zheng, founder of DDD Online, an augmented reality company. “It’s just the opposite of the traditional Chinese work style.”

For Li Mingqiang, chief executive of image recognition company Tuputech, the numbers have done little to inspire confidence. Coders, with well-defined jobs and solitary work, are operating at full strength from home. But those in positions that require communicating with people or touching objects have fared less well. Marketers at Tuputech are at about half their normal productivity. Among hardware developers and designers, “their efficiency can be as low as 30 per cent relative to normal,” Mr. Li said. “The impact is pretty huge.”

For almost three weeks now, people across the country have sought refuge, recompense and recreation in technology as they sit at home, either locked in by local authorities or just too afraid to go outside, where they might encounter COVID-19. Smartphones have helped while away long hours at home, video streaming has beamed lessons to children unable to go to school and computers with remote working software have let white-collar employees get back to work.

WeChat Work, the remote working tool by the maker of China’s most popular messaging app, saw a tenfold increase in usage on Feb. 10, the day most of China formally returned to work after an extended Lunar New Year holiday. Tech giant Alibaba scrambled to add some 10,000 servers to keep up with a flood of new users of Dingtalk, its own remote working platform, including more than five million students at 10,000 schools. Even courts have operated virtually. QuestMobile, a Chinese internet data provider, calculated that the country spent 6.1 billion hours online – a billion more than usual – on Feb. 3, the day the Lunar New Year was initially scheduled to end.

But having workers at home has been a tough adjustment for some companies.

“We won’t use it after the epidemic is over,” said Chen Haozhi, co-founder of Beijing Chuckong Technology, a game developer. “Cultural traditions and education in our country make it so that our people don’t have sufficient initiative or self-motivation,” he said. Motivating workers in China requires “a certain degree of supervision and restriction. That is the status quo.”

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Some 60 per cent of the company is working from home at the moment – the first time the company has let its employees do so. Mr. Chen is not pleased. “As a manager, it’s easy to sense that the efficiency and effectiveness of working remotely are lower,” he said.

At DDD Online, the problems have included an initial shortage of home computers – vendors sold out as companies across the country scrambled to buy new technology for their people. Companies also had to design new ways for employees to plug into the corporate network and collaborate remotely. And managers have had to recalibrate how they think, shifting to an evaluation of results rather than just time spent on a job.

It was a difficult transition. But it has produced some surprising results.

At first, Mr. Cheng estimates, productivity fell to 60 per cent of normal levels. But after two weeks, “efficiency is over 90 per cent and has at times reached the same level as in the past. We are used to it and barely feel uncomfortable,” he said.

He has already decided to maintain remote work provisions for six months, given the seriousness of the outbreak. And he has begun to consider advantages for his employees, who have recently been able to avoid Beijing’s punishing commutes. He has told workers he’s open to a hybrid system, allowing for elements of remote work long after the virus scare subsides.

”I think we are indeed seeing a change in the way that the Chinese are working,” said Edward Tse, founder and CEO of Gao Feng Advisory Company, a strategic and management consultancy. “Working hard, as a culture in China, will probably remain,” he said, pointing to employee-tracking apps that can placate skeptical bosses. But “some companies will gravitate to more partial working at home, partial working at work – more flexible working hours.”

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Evidence of the benefits of working from home in China is long-standing. In 2013, James Liang, founder of Chinese travel booking giant Ctrip, used his own company to conduct an experiment, randomly assigning call centre workers to work from home or in the office. Those at home saw a 13-per-cent boost in performance – two-thirds of it from working additional hours, the remainder from the benefits of a quieter work environment.

Even at Beijing Chuckong Technology, the company’s employee tracking software has shown a decrease in output for only some employees, particularly those in sales and marketing. For those in research and development, it’s a different story, said Wang Zhe, who oversees project management.

“Their remote work performance isn’t much different from that of the past,” he said.

With reporting by Alexandra Li

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A Japanese infectious disease specialist has castigated his government's handling of quarantine on a coronavirus-stricken cruise ship, saying it was run by 'bureaucrats' who stoked the crisis by failing to follow basic protocols. Reuters

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