International Department of the CPC Central Committee       BEIJING REVIEW
Special Issue Against Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19)       MONTHLY
Distance Makes Less Difference
By Li Xiaoyang 
A group of medical experts provide remote consultation at a smart medical treatment center in Zhengzhou, Henan Province in central China, on February 1 (XINHUA)
As a big data engineer based in Beijing, Li Kun got into telecommuting as early as 2013, but he said that today, during the novel coronavirus outbreak, he has seen it grow like never before.

To reduce face-to-face contact and prevent the spread of the epidemic, China has promoted telecommuting and online education through emerging Internet platforms.

Data from DingTalk, a mobile office tool developed by China's Internet giant Alibaba, showed that nearly 200 million people across the country started working online on February 3, the first work day after the Spring Festival holiday.

As a flexible way of working, telecommuting is expected to offer more choices to domestic enterprises. "It may become a new trend in some industries, such as technological research and development, where offline communication is not always needed, which can greatly lower costs," Li told Beijing Review.

Remote but close

As the demand to work online has grown during epidemic control, many telecommuting and teleconferencing platforms have offered free services such as video conferencing to support working from home. Along with DingTalk, products from tech giants such as Tencent, ByteDance and Huawei have also seen robust user growth.

According to WeChat Work, developed by Tencent, millions of domestic enterprises had used the app by 6 p.m. on February 3, three times the number of users for the corresponding period a year before.

Data from WeLink, a Huawei cloud service, showed that a total of 17,000 new enterprise users registered on the platform and held 120,000 conferences that same day.

Telecommuting service providers such as Xiaoyu Yilian, a China-based intelligent cloud platform established in 2015, have emerged by providing targeted support. According to the company, its newly registered users have surged since the end of January, consisting of both enterprises and hospitals for remote work and consultation.

Technology enterprises have also seized the opportunity to expand their consumer base in the online education market. Since the Ministry of Education announced that the 2020 spring semester would be postponed due to the epidemic, many schools have joined the trend toward online education by turning to platforms where students can communicate with teachers in real time. According to DingTalk, its live-streaming courses had attracted 12 million students in 20,000 schools nationwide by February 2.

To ensure people's health while working at home, DingTalk has introduced a module for a daily health report that collects real-time data. As of February 4, nearly 100 million people from over 2 million enterprises and organizations had used the module to report the health status of members, the company said.

While many people are staying home, the delivery sector has remained busy to ensure the supply of daily necessities. UU Runner, a delivery service platform, told Zhengzhou-based Dahe.cn that consumer demand for cooked food, foodstuffs and medical products such as masks, has increased greatly in this period.

Online food delivery platforms such as Meituan Waimai have introduced special services for users to pick up their food in containers without face-to-face contact with delivery people.

A food delivery man takes dishes from a restaurant in Hefei, Anhui Province in east China, on February 6 (XINHUA)

Harder than expected

Although remote work is a fantasy for most, suggesting flexibility and freedom, some office workers have found it less rosy than they expected. According to many users, problems caused by the delay of live streams have led to big headaches.

Working at home also brings challenges such as how to remain efficient and focused. Many people have reported that housework has taken up much of their working time.

Fei Fan, a designer based in Beijing, posted on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter-like platform, that his views on working from home have changed. At first, he said he was happy to be spared the daily three-hour commute as a freelancer, but unexpected problems soon emerged.

"Since my company has shifted from offline businesses to online promotion during epidemic control, I have been even busier than usual," Fei said.

Working at home also makes the boundary between work and life less clear. "My phone rings at all hours with new messages and there are even more conferences because team leaders want to ensure efficiency and progress, which makes me anxious. Having my child around also makes it hard to focus on the work," he added.

For those working in industries that involve offline activities, it has been quite difficult for them to advance their work. A legal specialist surnamed Cheng told TMTPost, a domestic tech site, that the project he is working on has been suspended because it requires the collection of paper documents in person. "I have only completed about a quarter of my routine weekly work in the week starting on February 3," Cheng lamented.

Still promising

The boom of remote work has brought many telecommuting enterprises forward, but Yuan Wenhui, CEO of Xiaoyu Yilian, warned that the consumer group of remote work may shrink once the epidemic and free services end, according to Business News Daily.

"However, domestic enterprises will at least be able to make quick progress from user feedback and begin to explore a larger market with the consumer base developed during this special period," he said.

The rise of telecommuting enterprises has shown the potential of China's remote work market. Although it has not yet been widely promoted in China, the market has been expanding and has a lot of room for growth, Zhang Xia, an analyst with China Merchants Securities, told Securities Daily.

According to Qianzhan Industry Research Institute, China's remote work market was about 23.4 billion yuan ($3.3 billion) in 2018, an increase of 20.8 percent year on year. And it is expected to expand to about 48.6 billion yuan ($6.9 billion) by 2024, with a compound annual growth rate of 12.4 percent.

Remote work is part of China's drive to boost the digital economy. Although its long-term economic fundamentals will remain sound, it needs to restore growth momentum amid the epidemic, and the development of the digital economy needs to be prioritized, Hu Zongbiao, an associate professor at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, told Beijing Review.

The digital economy has become a key driving force for China's economic growth. Data from the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology showed that the market value of the digital economy was 31.3 trillion yuan ($4.4 trillion) in 2018, contributing 34.8 percent to the country's GDP.

"With rising demand, remote work will expand to more industries, which can inject impetus into domestic enterprises and promote the digital transformation of the Chinese economy," Hu said.

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

Comments to lixiaoyang@bjreview.com

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