If the fight against coronavirus is a two-halves football match, where China plays the first half, the rest of the world plays (is playing) the second.
This is a Weibo post that has been trending since the deadly pandemic started to spread globally. Going along with this analogy, whilst people in China start to catch a breath and the European and American substitutes trudge onto the pitch, there is but one player that is playing the full game. That is businesses with a presence in both China and globally. That is to say, businesses like us.
As China starts to emerge from full lockdown, relatively little has actually been written in the West about how businesses and employees in China managed to stay connected and remain productive whilst working from home. It was a situation we experienced firsthand, with our staff on both sides of the globe. And yet the answer is both a stark contrast to the technology situation in the West and one which could point the way to the development of promising social, e-commerce and even professional apps in the future.
It was estimated 200 million people worked remotely during the lockdown in China. Millions of companies used DingTalk and WeChat Work, which initially and quickly overwhelmed the servers for a short time, among the most powerful in the country. Unlike many in London, the UK and the West, the Chinese don’t have too many options of different video conferencing services and professional connection points. Their country isn’t stuck between trying to find the best video and voice quality between Facebook video, WhatsApp video, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, or the many other options out there. Their choice is much more simple. Many people’s lives in China, as with their employers, are so ingrained in powerful social media platforms such as WeChat, developed by Tencent, and DingTalk, developed by Alibaba (an absolute must-have social app if you are an e-commerce vendor on Taobao). Most Chinese live their lives in these social apps, professionally and personally.
The numbers are impressive. Take WeChat; active user accounts have been growing by 20 million people per quarter to reach its current level at over 1.15 billion users. Integrating payments, video, and many other features, WeChat has quickly woven itself into the fabric of everyday life, and that’s especially apparent in the workplace.
Some Chinese when entering a new job will be automatically registered for the company’s WeChat Work account. Tencent, the business which owns WeChat, has claimed that up to 80% of China’s top 500 companies are registered on the app, in addition to over 1.5 million businesses in over 50 industries. However, its use doesn’t stop at the workplace door. Once on WeChat Work, you will realize that it’s not possible to set up a completely separate account – instead you must link WeChat Work to your personal WeChat account. So effectively, WeChat users can use two apps when logging into one – one for personal and one for professional use.
At our offices in London and China, we’ve been using WeChat Work to aid our long-distance communication for some time, and this continued during the lockdown. WeChat Work bridges seamlessly users’ personal and professional lives. The company administrative account assigns each staff member an ‘avatar’ account that is linked to and initiated by, the staff’s personal WeChat account. That ‘avatar’ account, with an employee’s real name, job title and professionally taken profile image (think like LinkedIn) sits in a completely separate WeChat Work app, which allows staff to initiate multi-people conference calls, share large files via built-in free cloud drive, and more. In this way, without too much fuss, the staff’s personal self and professional self come together, all thanks to WeChat, the pre-eminent social platform in China.
Where the West has a confusing choice between Yammer, WhatsApp, Slack, Teams, Skype or numerous other developing office chat apps to choose from, WeChat Work has seemingly become Chinese businesses’ internal communications channel of choice and for good reason. Its workplace applications are wide-ranging. It offers a basic option of six months of online storage. Users are not stuck within the ecosystem – they can invite outside contacts in, meaning you can still communicate to a personal WeChat account within WeChat work. And they continue to launch and experiment with new Beta functionalities, such as booking holidays through the app. There is an integrated to-do list that automatically notifies colleagues when your tasks are completed. Expenses can be claimed through the system. And yes, in recent Beta testing, a new coronavirus alert functionality is inbuilt, which lets people report on their health condition status.
WeChat has already been spanning the divide between work and home in the lives of many in China, it has also been keeping them connected while working from home. It’s not the only one however, and it’s important not to think of China as a one-app state. It was widely publicized, for example, how students used the Alibaba-backed app DingTalk for educational video-streaming, managed to get the app delisted from the App Store by flooding the site with one-star reviews of the platform, it has since returned, after working out some kinks, and is now hailed as the go-to distance learning tool in China.
DingTalk is supported by Alibaba Cloud, or Aliyun, which is one of the earliest cloud service and solution providers in China. Its unmatchable infrastructure gives it an upper hand in the stability and quality of online collaboration, therefore it’s preferred by the education sector and companies that rely heavily on video conferencing. Another important feature of DingTalk is translation. The powerful built-in translation module translates English to Chinese and vice versa in a fraction of a second. Therefore many cross-border e-commerce vendors choose DingTalk over other platforms due to the high demand in multilingual communication. However, DingTalk is not the only successful education app developed in the region.
There’s also Bilibili. It started as a video platform specializing in publishing Japanese anime, cartoons, and other niche content. It attracted largely a very young audience who has a penchant for the aforementioned art forms. However, in recent years – dating back to the days before COVID-19, of course – it started to garner a wider audience by taking a more central stage of China’s online video market after broadening its content categories. One of the areas Bilibili now focuses on is education, more as a provider of content rather than DingTalks live streaming. Last year, over 20 million people, ranging from primary school students to college students, watched study guide videos on Bilibili, twice as many students who took the famous College Entrance Examination in 2019.
Beyond education, technology has facilitated Chinese peoples’ buying capabilities. Given so many of their apps have social e-commerce functionalities baked directly into their infrastructure, some 70% of the population is comfortable with buying products and services through their apps In comparison to the UK where social e-commerce is still growing, and online purchasing is only 19% of total retail sales according to Hootsuite. This highlights a huge divide between East and West when it comes to how we search and buy products. The proportion of Chinese sales being conducted online stands at over 36%. This ease of use with app orders has meant that, during the Chinese lockdown, the Chinese retail market could continue to function. Beyond traditional e-commerce in general, Chinese ‘delivery culture’ is also incredibly sophisticated with same-day delivery service still being an option throughout the pandemic in China. This meant that many coped with the stay-at-home situation with much more composure and ease compared to what some of us may have experienced in the UK with panic buying.
The pace at which technology has been swiftly integrated into everyday life in China has not happened overnight and therefore is not a solution which we in the West can now quickly replicate in order to cope with some of the ongoing COVID-19 struggles. It is instead the result of 5-10 years of social media development in the region which has seen a transformation in the lifestyle of many, to one where the middle class is becoming more dominant, and the influence of population centers beyond the longstanding powerhouses of Shanghai and Beijing begin to rise in prominence.
Of course China’s technology and mobile application landscape are not without some potholes. Of note is the adoption rate across all regions inside of China, and industries. Although technology is more readily available than ever, it’s companies and people who have the ultimate say in whether to use it or not. During the time when over half of the population in China was put under lockdown, we see that those who used these advanced distance working tools and platforms are quite limited to top-tier city residents, young professionals, and a select number of industries. A vast majority of the workforce in traditional industries, such as manufacturing, still prefer the old-fashioned face-to-face work environment, or personal communication tools like WeChat as opposed to the more holistic WeChat Work. This is the same dilemma Western countries face when thinking about developing a distance working/learning culture. WhatsApp wasn’t designed for remote working, yet it is being used by teams around the UK to try and stay on top of their work schedules and colleagues.
In the future, both the speed of development and how quickly people want to integrate platforms into their lives will be hurdles that we will encounter. Having such a diverse selection of tools and platforms will need to be revisited by organizations, and I suspect a few dominant players will come to the forefront (zoom anyone?), and will have to work hard to retain users. Apps can come and grow overnight, the rapid rise of TikTok, which has gained a huge new following during COVID-19 are examples of how quickly technology can move and be adopted and shows that even in an environment with well-established video app formats, fresh perspectives and functionality can quickly build and sustain an audience if they focus on the user experience.
Speculations on how our lockdown lives will change post-COVID-19 are starting to emerge. Given the rising status of Chinese social apps and how quickly they have been adopted outside of the region as distance learning tools, entertainment platforms, and their ability to keep e-commerce running, people and businesses outside of the Great Firewall are sitting up and taking serious notice. And maybe we will soon see that one power app that can allow us to communicate on projects like slack, video chat like Skype, message my client like email or WhatsApp and then book my annual leave.
It would be foolish to look too far ahead in a world facing so many changes on a daily basis, but it’s a fairly safe bet to assume that the influence of Chinese tech platforms will only increase, especially at a time where video conferencing tools are not only under scrutiny but also under pressure. The understandable demand for video tools, up 90% already in March according to one report also came with a fair number of hackers willing to exploit loopholes to disrupt proceedings, meaning that we’ll likely see an influx of new and improved options in that arena. Existing systems from China, which have been built from the ground up to deal with fluctuating internet service, as well as learning from the apps developed beyond their borders, will be a natural first place to look when it comes to finding the new breed of tech services. In which case, these platforms are also well placed to grow beyond China’s borders and might be coming to a smartphone near you, soon.
Written by Jimmy Robinson. Have you read?
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