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China Must Embrace Remote Work

Summary:
The COVID-19 pandemic spurred a far-reaching shift to telecommuting throughout the West. But China has not followed suit, even though the social and environmental payoffs would be far larger than in the US and Europe. CHICAGO – Before the pandemic, firms and workers around the world used emails and conference calls to reduce communication costs. But a lack of coordination made using these technologies fully difficult. Firing off an email was easy, but there was no guarantee of when the other person would respond. People were reluctant to break old habits. Holding a virtual meeting might be interpreted by participants to mean that the topic wasn’t particularly important. More broadly, low demand discouraged product development,

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The COVID-19 pandemic spurred a far-reaching shift to telecommuting throughout the West. But China has not followed suit, even though the social and environmental payoffs would be far larger than in the US and Europe.

CHICAGO – Before the pandemic, firms and workers around the world used emails and conference calls to reduce communication costs. But a lack of coordination made using these technologies fully difficult. Firing off an email was easy, but there was no guarantee of when the other person would respond. People were reluctant to break old habits. Holding a virtual meeting might be interpreted by participants to mean that the topic wasn’t particularly important. More broadly, low demand discouraged product development, leaving much to be desired in many workplace apps.

By forcing entire economic sectors into virtual work, the COVID-19 pandemic has resolved many of these earlier coordination problems. Everyone in these sectors has had to invest in new technologies and learn how to use them. And with everyone in the same boat, there is no longer any risk that a virtual meeting will be interpreted in a negative light. Better yet, workplace apps are becoming more user-friendly with every passing week.

In the United States, companies such as Google and government agencies such as the Federal Reserve have embraced virtual workplaces and announced that a significant number of their employees will continue to work remotely after the pandemic. This makes sense: companies lower their real-estate overhead, and employees gain more flexibility in their work schedules and choice of where to live. Moreover, fewer commuters imply less air pollution and urban congestion.

By contrast, in China, many sectors have been able to function relatively normally over the past year. As a result, there has been neither a wholesale shift to virtual work nor much discussion of new workplace models for the post-pandemic era. Paradoxically, the benefits that China risks foregoing would be even more advantageous for its economy than for those of the US or Europe.

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