More people in China and elsewhere prefer to work out of the office environment, either permanently or in hybrid arrangements. Photo: Getty
Gleb Tsipursky
Gleb Tsipursky

Is remote working bad for Chinese employees’ well-being?

  • While hybrid and remote workers report being happier, and are more committed and productive, they are not immune from burnout and work-life separation issues
  • Companies can address this by clarifying employee policy and offering online mental health support
As more Chinese workers ditch their cramped cubicles, it’s clear that remote working is here to stay. After all, it has been found to improve productivity. A recent study featuring a random assignment of employees either to fully office-centric work or to some days working remotely by, China’s largest travel company, found that the hybrid workers had 35 per cent less attrition and that lines of code written increased by 8 per cent.

A report in May by online job search giant Zhaopin and the National School of Development found that nine out of 10 jobseekers hoped their employers would let them work remotely, even after the pandemic. And two-fifths of Chinese employers are willing to offer permanent remote working options, according to another May survey by digital newspaper The Paper.

Yet, of the three-fifths surveyed who don’t intend to offer remote working, about half – 47 per cent – say they believe the arrangement is bad for employee well-being. Many traditionalist business leaders still think that remote or hybrid work leads to social isolation and a lack of work-life boundaries.

This is sneaky misdirection – decrying the negative impact of remote and hybrid work for worker well-being while glossing over the damage caused by stressful office-centric work.

It’s like comparing remote or hybrid working to a state of leisure. Sure, people feel less isolated if they can hang out and have a beer with friends instead of working.

But that’s not on the cards. The alternative is office-centric work. And that often means the frustration of a long commute to the office, sitting in an often-uncomfortable and oppressive open office, having a sad desk lunch and unhealthy snacks, and then even more frustration commuting home.

This is especially problematic in China with the 996 work culture still found in some enterprises. Such office-centric work often leads to burnout, and contributes to the tang ping or “lying flat” movement.

Remote working is good for productivity, so why don’t bosses believe it?

So what happens when we compare apples with apples? That’s when we need to hear from the horse’s mouth: namely, employees who worked in the office and switched to hybrid or remote work after Covid-19 struck.

Consider Cisco’s Global Hybrid Work Study 2022, which surveyed 28,000 full-time employees, including in China. Nearly 78 per cent said remote and hybrid working had improved their overall well-being and 79 per cent felt their work-life balance had improved.

Some 74 per cent report better family relationships, and 51 per cent strengthened their friendships – so no problem with social life there. More than 82 per cent said the ability to work from anywhere has made them happier, and 55 per cent have lower stress levels. For China in particular, 81.5 per cent report that remote work helped improve their physical well-being.


Digital nomads flee coronavirus-hit Manila for beach resorts

Digital nomads flee coronavirus-hit Manila for beach resorts

Other surveys back up Cisco’s findings. For example, a Future Forum survey conducted in May found that those who work remotely were most satisfied about their work-life balance, compared to hybrid workers and in-office workers – this last group was the least satisfied.

According to a Gallup survey on hybrid working released last month, 71 per cent reported that the top advantage was an improved work-life balance and 58 per cent reported less burnout or fatigue.

Academic peer-reviewed research provides further support. An International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study this year found that customer service employees at a German bank who worked remotely experienced higher meaningfulness, self-actualisation, happiness and commitment than in-person workers.


Stressed out Chinese man suffers emotional meltdown in public

Stressed out Chinese man suffers emotional meltdown in public

Still, burnout is a real problem for hybrid and remote workers, as it is for in-office employees. To address this, employers need to offer mental health benefits with online options.

For many remote and hybrid workers, there are also specific disadvantages around work-life separation. To overcome this, companies need to establish and encourage clear expectations and boundaries, develop policies and norms around response times for different channels of communication, and clarify the work-life boundary for their employees.

However, the research is clear that, compared to office workers in the same roles, remote and hybrid workers tend to end up with better well-being and lower burnout.

Dr Gleb Tsipursky is CEO of the hybrid work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, and author of “Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams”