Cultural Intelligence for the Remote World: Virtual Working in China

Published on January 21st, 2021

Like the rest of the world, China is getting used to a dramatic shift in work patterns as more companies move to either full or part-time remote working. For some, this is a relief; many Chinese face a very long commute each day. Others are not adjusting to the isolation, away from the constant reassurance of the group, and feel under pressure to be switched on and available, 24/7.

Here are some points to consider when working remotely with colleagues in China:

1. Make sure your structure is effective. Teams should be small enough to remain agile and lines of communication defined. Managers should be very clear about goals and individual responsibilities. Use shared calendar software and cloud-based file storage that everybody can access, bearing in mind that platforms like Google Drive are blocked in China – and not everybody has access to a VPN. Also take into account China’s somewhat unreliable internet service, which can be patchy when under pressure. If this is the case, adjust your expectations.

2. Objectives should be clear; bear in mind that the Chinese are unlikely to question a manager’s decisions, for fear of causing loss of face. Managers need to lead, inspire and communicate. Some Chinese companies are using unconventional methods to motivate employees – encouraging and inspiring messages via text from senior management, for example, which appears more personal and immediate, or voice-to-text messaging. Strong leadership – and visibility of the most senior members of the company – is more important than ever.

3. When working with Chinese teams, use China-based platforms to create a social side to business and to streamline team communication. This might include success stories, or platforms on which to share best practices, or discuss challenges. WeChat Work is the most popular app, used by many businesses as a means of keeping in touch with customers or employees; it combines the functions of WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Skype in one place. Feishu by ByteDance and DingTalk by Alibaba have also seen great success in recent months.

4. Empathy and inclusivity are vital when large numbers of employees are working remotely. Managers need to understand the dynamics within a group and also the individual situation of each team member, given that home workers may be contending with other issues like childcare, living with parents and operating from a very small space. Regular check-ins with team members are important.

5. Extra care is needed to involve new team members, who may never have met their colleagues face to face. The Chinese are collectivist but individuals tend to identify with a smaller group, usually including family, friends and colleagues. The bonds within a team can be very strong and it can be difficult for a newcomer to be accepted.

6. Be aware of the danger of burn-out. Some Chinese managers, when working remotely, feel they should be constantly available, leading their team members to feel the same. Some collaboration software allows monitoring of remote workers, which many consider unfair and intrusive. Trust and clear communication about time management and expectations is healthier and more positive.

7. In meetings, building trust is important with Chinese counterparts. This is no different in a virtual situation. Key issues are the concept of saving face, of honour, loyalty, respect for seniors and the trading of favours to get a job done.

8. Approach virtual meetings with Chinese counterparts as you would physical meetings. The Chinese will attend in teams, certainly when negotiating is involved. Seating arrangements, if you are basing your team together in a boardroom, should have the most senior member at the centre, facing the camera. Distribute an agenda before the meeting so your counterparts can prepare. Stay adaptable and agile. The shift to remote working is a new challenge for virtually all businesses.

9. The Chinese are high context communicators and in a virtual setting, it can be all too easy to miss non-verbal signals. Enabling the video on whatever conferencing software you are using is essential for effective communication. Look for subtle changes in expression (sucking in air through the teeth can be a sign of disapproval) and listen carefully to what is being said. You are unlikely to get a direct ‘no’ to any question as this causes loss of face. Read between the lines.

10. Consider the tone of email communication. Unless you know the recipient well, use formal titles (so you will need to know the gender of the person you are addressing), enquire after their wellbeing and sign off formally. Practices like putting the entire message in the subject line, one-word answers, an abrupt tone or failure to sign off will be seen as sloppy and disrespectful.

11. Understand that social media is different in China, with platforms that are not used elsewhere, among them WeChat, Weibo and QQ. Access to Western apps like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter is censored – and even for those using a VPN to reach these, internet service may be slow. Weibo is China’s answer to Twitter, also used by many corporates for micro-blogging and linking to other posts. Tencent’s QQ is an instant messaging app and although its audience is mainly younger, it’s often used within teams for quick-fire chat and file- sharing, while companies use Baidu Tieba, a bulletin board system, to post content and host discussion.

12. Stay adaptable and agile. The shift to remote working is a new challenge for virtually all businesses. For some, balance has still to be found, for example, deciding whether to encourage a part-time presence in the office. Employee satisfaction and productivity should be paramount as companies adjust to the ‘new normal’.

Written by Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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