What the world can learn from China’s return to work

From temperature checks to spacing desks farther apart, here’s how Chinese businesses are keeping employees healthy

The coronavirus pandemic has upended life in major cities around the world. Even as businesses eventually start reopening and people return to the office, the workplace will see some major changes. 

Mainland China, which experienced peak contagion in January and February, began slowly reopening the country in March. There is much the world can learn from the new approaches that businesses there have taken to keep people safe.

A different social landscape

It took close to two months after the first reported coronavirus infections for life in mainland China to return to some semblance of normalcy and for employees to return to the workplace.

But everyday life doesn’t look the same as it did before the virus struck. Many schools are still closed, as are day care centers. It’s more difficult to hire in-home helpers. Finding adequate childcare has been a major struggle for those returning to work.

Another big challenge is public transportation. Crowded trains and buses are raising fears about further potential virus transmission in these closed spaces. And with so many people taking private cars or taxis to avoid public transportation, traffic is already ramping back up in many Chinese cities.

China has acted quickly and effectively to use technology to trace potentially infected people. Each city has a system tied to a citizen’s phone via the social platform WeChat, which checks the phone’s location and shows via a color-coded system whether that individual has been exposed to an infected person. Workers are often required to display the app before entering the office to confirm they aren’t supposed to be self-quarantining. 

Changes at work

Employees returning to work post-COVID can expect to establish other new habits and follow new norms. 

To reduce exposure and risk of transmission, many offices are still conducting meetings virtually, even when they are in the same workspace, rather than gathering in physical conference rooms. In addition, workers are typically bringing their lunch or ordering lunch to be delivered, and eating at their desks instead of dining out in restaurants. 

WeWork NEO Metropolis in Guangzhou.

Building operators and office occupiers looking to keep their employees healthy and safe have implemented other new procedures, safety checks, and etiquette guidelines. These include:

  • Temperature checks at the start of every workday 
  • Allotted arrival time to reduce congestion in the elevators
  • Limiting elevators to two people at a time
  • Separating employees into A and B teams, with each team alternating days spent in the office, to limit density in the office

The government has provided new density standards for buildings, according to Tong Yang, WeWork’s head of sales for greater China. Chinese businesses have introduced more distance between desks and instituted one-way flows in the hallways, to reduce contact among employees. 

The cleaning and disinfecting of offices is being enhanced, and employees are being asked to bring their own mugs to drink from. Businesses are looking to optimize air filtration, introducing more airflow into the space and regulating humidity ranges to reduce the time the virus can stay alive. Some workplaces are installing virus-killing UV lights. China has also been proactive about monitoring indoor air quality as well as particulate removal. According to Raefer Wallis, the founder and CEO of RESET, these measures are directly tied to slowing the rate of infection, and are among the best ways to build trust with employees coming back into the workplace. 

In anticipation of these changes and more, WeWork has prepared a plan for when we return to work

The benefit of flexible offices

Keeping workspaces clean, and their employees healthy, is now the number one concern for most business leaders. The idea of coworking will likely move toward something like “flow working,” which involves reserving a specific desk for the day but still having flexibility to choose the location you go to. 

The trends that we have seen over the past several years of companies moving toward a “hub and spoke” office strategy and away from centralized headquarters will now be sped up, and many are setting up nodes of smaller offices across cities, so their employees won’t have to travel as far from home. This decreases the risk of getting infected on public transportation and distributes the risk of office closures in the event someone does get sick. 

The total office footprint of most companies likely won’t change much, but their main headquarters could be about 10 percent of the size it used to be as employees use other locations in a city. That said, some companies are planning to take a more extreme approach: A global bank recently said that it is cutting its fixed locations by 70 to 80 percent and taking up more flexible office space, according to Sean Lynch of The Instant Group.

WeWork Lancun Building in Shanghai.

All of these changes come at a time when businesses were already recognizing the value of flexible office space. With more distributed teams, more remote workforces, and more employees wanting to stay close to home to cut down on commute times, a flexible physical workspace provides the sense of community and the human interaction that is so important for long-term employee satisfaction and success.

Construction is now on hold in most parts of the world, delaying the opening of new locations and negatively impacting these companies that had planned to move into their own offices. Because WeWork offers move-in-ready space, that is one reason why WeWork China has seen a strong uptick in demand from enterprises in Q1 of 2020.

Building trust in the new workplace

When the coronavirus pandemic forced most in China to shelter in place, working from home became the norm. Now there is a push to get employees (barring high-risk individuals) back into the office where they can take advantage of a dedicated workspace, a change of scenery, and human connection. Companies need to start today to think about their plan for the day their offices reopen, as well as how to prepare for the next crisis.

The building operators and office occupiers that are going to thrive in this post-COVID world are the ones that can communicate and prove (ideally with data) that they have healthy workspaces and control over their environment. 

Last week, we hosted a webinar that included even more learnings from China’s return back to work. Moderated by me, the panel featured Sean Lynch, managing director, APAC at The Instant Group; Raefer Wallis, founder and CEO of RESET; and Tong Yang, head of sales, Greater China at WeWork. Watch the on-demand video to learn more, and stay tuned for more content from WeWork on how to handle virus transmission in the workplace and what large corporations are doing to respond. 

Alex Shoer is director of strategy at WeWork. Formerly the enterprise strategy lead for APAC at WeWork and cofounder of Seeder Energy, Shoer spent more than eight years working in China.

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