Shifting Attitudes and Expectations for Work in China’s Post-Pandemic Era
The upheaval brought about by the pandemic has led to significant changes in Chinese work culture and accelerated trends in the labor market. This includes shifting attitudes toward flexible work to expectations of salary stability and career development. We look at how China’s workplace and labor market have changed in the aftermath of COVID-19 and discuss how companies can address and meet the changing expectations of Chinese employees.
The landscape of work in China has undergone a significant transformation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic forced millions to adopt remote work and adapt to new norms, workers in China have new expectations and attitudes toward remote or hybrid work, job stability, and regional preferences. These changes also coincide with longer-term shifts in Chinese work culture brought about by generational and demographic changes.
In this article, we discuss the multifaceted shifts in Chinese work culture, revealing how attitudes toward the workplace and career development have evolved since the pandemic began and how companies can address these changes to stay competitive and improve worker retention.
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Changes in expectations and attitudes of workers in China
Remote work and expectation for more flexibility
Despite the pandemic forcing millions to work from home for weeks or months at a time, remote work has not taken off in China in the same way as other markets. Prior to the pandemic, remote work was extremely rare, with companies reluctant to allow even hybrid or flexible work schedules. According to a report from Peking University, only around 0.14 percent of job postings in 2019 were for remote work, a number that jumped four-fold to 0.58 percent in 2021.
Whether workers in China desire to work remotely is another question, to which there isn’t a clear answer.
A survey conducted by The Paper in May 2022 asked respondents about their sentiments toward work-from-home arrangements, with generally mixed results.
Over 50 percent of respondents reported that work-from-home arrangements actually lengthened their work hours as there no longer was a clear clock on and off time. Among these respondents, 80 percent said that working from home blurred the lines between work and private life.
People who work in highly collaborative positions also reported that working from home made completing their tasks harder. Workers also reported household chores as a major distraction.
Of course, the impact of pandemic-era lockdowns is likely to impact the sentiments around working from home, as the restrictions on movement extend beyond work hours. The May 2022 survey conducted by The Paper found that only 34 percent of people reported positive experiences working from home during lockdowns, but this figure jumped to over 64 percent when the work-from-home arrangements were unrelated to the pandemic.
Another survey conducted by The Paper in 2023 found that around 28 percent of people would prefer to work remotely, while another 28 percent stated they didn’t have a preference between the office and the home. In addition, over 45 percent of respondents gave working from home a 9 to 10 out of 10 rating.
Among the main advantages to working from home cited in the 2023 survey were lower physical contact reducing the risk of a COVID-19 infection, shorter commutes, and more flexibility in work hours. The main disadvantages cited were delays and obstacles in handling urgent work matters, inefficient communication, and the inability to complete certain tasks outside the office.
It is worth noting that, unlike in some other Western or industrialized countries, many white-collar workers in China live in or very close to urban centers, and therefore live in small apartments that are less suited to remote work. In addition, it is much more common to live in multi-generational households. With many workers in smaller and potentially more cramped housing, remote work may be less desirable depending on the situation at home.
Although full-time remote work does not appear to be desirable to most, workers are increasingly expecting companies to provide a higher degree of flexibility in their work arrangements.
The Peking University report conducted a survey in early 2022 asking job seekers whether they would want to work from home, without considering the impact of the pandemic. 95 percent of the over 3,500 respondents said that they would like the option to work at least one day a week from home, around half said they wanted to work at least three days a week from home, and 20 percent said they wanted to work from home full time.
Echoing this figure, 57 percent of job seekers said they would want their companies to allow employees to work remotely from home on a regular basis, while 16 percent said that they do not need to work remotely, but that they would like companies to provide more flexible work hours and commuting times.
The Peking University survey found similar pros and cons to the remote work arrangements as The Paper, with more flexible hours and shorter commutes being the main advantages. However, one of the main anxieties was an assumption that companies would offer lower salaries for people who work remotely.
Despite workers being clearly in favor of a hybrid model, many companies are reluctant to provide remote work arrangements, with managers expressing concerns over impacts on productivity and team dynamics. The Paper’s 2022 survey found that the top reason for a company to allow remote work is to satisfy the employees’ expectations, rather than improving work outcomes.
However, providing employees with work-from-home options for their own well-being can have a positive impact on companies. In early 2022, the online travel agency Trip.com Group began permanently allowing employees to work up to two days from home every week. The company implemented the policy after a trial and found that the hybrid model decreased the turnover rate by one-third without impacting productivity.
Openness to new positions and job hopping
Despite the instability brought on by the pandemic to both the economy and the job market, a recent survey conducted by Michael Page suggests that employees in China are actually becoming more active in looking for new positions. Around 86 percent of survey respondents, which numbered almost 3,000 from the Chinese mainland, responded positively to the idea of changing jobs, while 44 percent said they were actively looking for a new job or looking to change in the next six months.
In addition, among people who had started a new job in 2022, 78 percent said they were open to new job opportunities.
The Michael Page report also found that there was a positive correlation between an economic downturn and a willingness to look for new jobs.
According to Lily Liu, Head of the Beijing Office and Regional Director of Michael Page, the economic slowdown brought about by the pandemic may be a driver of this phenomenon. As companies tighten their belts and freeze budgets, many employees see switching jobs as their only chance of improving their job title or getting a raise. In addition, the instability brought about by the pandemic may also lead employees to feel that their positions are more precarious than before, causing people to keep an eye on other opportunities as a kind of safety net.
This trend suggests that companies should think carefully about the kind of support and opportunities they provide employees in order to improve retention. Providing regular feedback and guidance to employees can help provide assurances and demonstrate that the company values their work. This may help to reduce anxiety around job instability.
Being transparent about routes for career progression is also crucial to managing the expectations of employees, which includes providing pathways and guidance to success within the role. If a company is unable to provide salary raises or promotions at the current time, providing opportunities for on-the-job training or upskilling, or otherwise providing opportunities for an employee to grow within their position, may also be an option to increase job satisfaction and security.
Desire for work stability and job development
Although employees in China still have an appetite for job seeking, the tolerance for risk and instability in salaries appears to have gone down. This comes as the slow post-economic recovery coincides with stagnating wages during the pandemic leading many to feel they are faring worse economically than before.
In the Michael Page survey, 40 percent of respondents said that they felt the pressure of the rising cost of living, while 22 percent said they had received no salary increase in the past two years. According to Michael Page’s own analysis of the survey results, this is leading employees to seek more stable compensation structures than they had in the past. This may mean employees are less willing to accept “riskier” compensation terms, such as stock options and equity, and will instead be looking for a more tangible and stable salary and benefits structure.
This could also mean that job seekers look more favorably at opportunities in larger established companies, and are less willing to take up positions in smaller companies with uncertain futures. Whereas a small upstart with plans to go public in the future may once have been an exciting prospect, now it may be too big a risk.
The Michael Page report also suggests that companies need to provide more opportunities for their employees to develop their skills in order to increase retention rates. The survey results show that a lack of career development in their jobs is one of the main reasons for job hopping. Whereas in the past, employees may have been attracted by certain job titles or a company’s brand, now they are more likely to pursue opportunities that provide clear paths for progression.
There are a number of steps that companies, including small businesses, can take to overcome these challenges. This includes providing a stable pay structure to employees, such as transparency in pay progression and the performance expectations to achieve them. In addition, as employees place more stock on stable jobs and salaries, it will become increasingly important for companies to understand an employee’s ambitions and expectations for their future within the company.
Youth labor trends in the aftermath of COVID-19
A discussion of China’s labor market in the post-COVID era would not be complete without mentioning the employment of young workers. Young graduates are entering an increasingly competitive job market, with fewer positions available to a higher number of graduates.
The job expectations of college graduates, particularly those who have spent time studying overseas, are increasingly not being met by the domestic labor market. Low salaries and undesirable jobs mean that more and more young people are choosing not to join the job market at all, instead returning home to work in family businesses or becoming so-called “full-time kids”.
The younger people who do find jobs are also increasingly choosing to stay closer to home and avoiding China’s larger and more expensive eastern and southern cities.
This trend is not exclusive to the younger generations. Regional demographics data from 2022 shows that more and more migrant workers (broadly, people who leave rural areas to find work in urban areas) are increasingly choosing to find work within their home province or a neighboring province.
In addition, the data suggests that workers are choosing to move to (or stay in) prefecture-level cities or provincial capitals which offer lower costs of living. For instance, the municipality of Chongqing recorded a slight increase in overall population size in 2022, despite having a negative rate of natural increase (total birth rate minus death rate), indicating positive net immigration. Meanwhile, Guangdong province saw a decline in overall population despite recording the strongest natural rates of increase in China at 3.33 per mille. Major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing also experienced significant population drops.
Whereas these phenomena are not entirely new – the tradition of migrant workers moving across the country in search of work has waned over the last decade – the pandemic may have served to accelerate it, as restrictions on movement and limited job opportunities meant it was easier to stay closer to home. The stagnation of wages during the pandemic has also led many to reevaluate whether life in the large metropolises – with their sometimes unmet promises of better economic opportunities – is worth it.
As noted in a report on youth employment in China by the Asian Development Bank, “The increasing number of college graduates and the immobility of workers appear to be a nationwide phenomenon. Location-wise, for youth workers to change their preferences from top-tier cities and industrial hubs to less-developed cities or provincial hometowns, sufficient quality jobs and stable labor markets must be created”.
At the same time, younger workers are eschewing the types of manual jobs – particularly manufacturing and construction – that were major employers of previous generations. Instead, new types of jobs in the service sector and those based on the digital economy, such as couriers and delivery drivers, have largely replaced manufacturing among this cohort. This is despite these types of jobs generally being low-paid, as they offer a great deal of flexibility (delivery drivers can generally choose where they want to work and when, for instance), and are relatively less physically demanding than manufacturing and construction.
In a slight reversal of attitudes, government and public sector positions are becoming popular again. Known as the “iron rice bowl” for the stability that they provide, these positions had gone out of vogue as people pursued the higher pay potential and glamour offered by fast-growing private industries, particularly tech and digital sectors. However, many of these industries have lost their shine among negative news stories of overwork and instability as companies go under or lay off workers.
The desire for stability and regular work hours offered by government jobs among younger workers reflects the more general pursuit of stability in work that has increased since the pandemic.
The changes in attitudes and expectations for work among the younger population mean that companies will have to adapt in some ways in order to attract younger talent. To meet younger workers’ desire for stability, HR departments should highlight the potential for stability and career growth within the company, emphasizing long-term prospects and opportunities for advancement.
In addition, companies can consider expanding offices to less expensive and smaller cities as a way of addressing the trend of workers staying closer to home. Where this isn’t possible, companies can also consider remote positions, which would include providing the necessary tools and technologies for remote work.
China Briefing is written and produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. The practice assists foreign investors into China and has done so since 1992 through offices in Beijing, Tianjin, Dalian, Qingdao, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Suzhou, Guangzhou, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. Please contact the firm for assistance in China at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dezan Shira & Associates has offices in Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, United States, Germany, Italy, India, and Russia, in addition to our trade research facilities along the Belt & Road Initiative. We also have partner firms assisting foreign investors in The Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh.
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