This post discusses two of the long-term impacts and behavioral changes that I think will emerge from the coronavirus (hereto called “COVID-19”, its proper scientific term): remote work, remote consumption.
Disclaimer: what you will read is generally a positive piece. This is not in any way meant to diminish the human suffering, public health challenges, economic damages, and further straining of U.S.-China relations and China-World relations that COVID-19 has caused.
However, this crisis will pass; all crises do. What emerges from the rubbles of a crisis can be surprisingly positive and accelerate movement towards something new. That “something” could very well be: remote work and remote consumption.
Towards Remote Work
When roughly 700 million people (2-times the population of the United States, 10% of the entire human race) have been quarantined at home for weeks, folks get creative about ways to get work done and live their lives.
Remote work as a concept -- where a company or organization has no physical headquarters, work is done virtually online, and the workforce can live anywhere they choose to -- is relatively new. It’s less new in certain corners of the software industry, where remote online collaboration and coordination are the norms, not the exceptions. The concept has become fashionable recently with the rapid growth of pure remote tech startups like GitLab, the poster child of remote work culture which currently has north of 1,000 employees. As a steward of the remote work culture, GitLab publishes a detailed handbook that documents how it operates with employees in literally every corner of the world.
COVID-19, just like any other large scale crisis, can be a forcing function to produce fundamental behavior changes in people, companies, and culture. According to the independent research firm, China Beige Book, roughly one-third of the 1,000 businesses in China it has surveyed are operating remotely during the lockdown. So far, remote work has been applied in two broad ways: staying productive and crisis coordination.
Relatively speaking, the sector that had the easiest time staying productive is the pure software industry -- as in companies whose core product delivered to its customers is software. I do not count software-enabled physical services in this category, for example: ride-sharing, food-delivery, because what they deliver are ultimately physical services that are simply made more convenient by a layer of technology.
This is not a coincidence. Software development, especially when done in an open source way, has had a long history of remote collaboration -- Linux, the now-dominant operating system that powers almost all cloud platforms, was created in 1991 and continues to be developed by engineers collaborating from around the world. Thus, if you are a pure software company, even if you’ve always had physical headquarters and offices, the routine workflow of software development -- bashing bugs, merging code, starting a new feature branch, reviewing code, testing -- can be done from anywhere with a secure Internet connection.
This same characteristic is true for software companies in China. Despite what stereotypes people may assign to Chinese software engineers, many have been deeply connected to the global technology movement for quite some time. They live “outside the wall” so to speak, learn from open source development best practices to do their jobs, and have recently been more vocal about sharing their own thoughts and projects as China’s technology sector takes off.
This is evident from seeing some of the younger, more forward-thinking software startups in China already publishing their own remote work methodologies and experiences (in Chinese) during this COVID-19 crisis, to help other companies less familiar with this way of working cope and stay productive. They share not only workplace processes (how to conduct remote meetings, how to record and share notes, how to follow up on items and tasks, etc.), but the software tools they purchase to boost coordination and productivity for a virtual team, which connects directly to the potential increase in remote consumption (more below).
What may come out of a coping mechanism to weather the storm is the mainstream adoption of elements of remote work and collaboration.
The COVID-19 crisis has also generated some interesting examples of building remote organizations from the ground up. The best example is probably wuhan2020, a website built by volunteer developers inside China and in other countries to aggregate and organize relevant information to support the treatment and relief efforts of COVID-19. The information collected and constantly updated is wide-ranging: from what medical supplies are lacking at which hospitals, to procurement and supply chain needs, to a dashboard of the virus’s spread with live updates.
The entire web application is developed as an open-source project, hosted on GitHub, with a Google Group for announcements and Slack channel for real-time coordination and assignment, which has more than 3,700 members at the time of this writing. The documentation and processes for collaborating are written in six different languages: simplified Chinese, traditional Chinese, English, Japanese, Italian, and Portuguese. A developer in Hangzhou appears to have started the project. The top 10 contributors appear to come from various cities in China and the U.S. (many GitHub accounts do not list their locations), so it’s highly unlikely that anyone has met in-person to work on this project.
While this is a response to a crisis, the wuhan2020 project is an interesting case study with lasting knowledge and inspiration for entrepreneurs everywhere, not just the ones in China. It’s entirely possible to build a service of impact and scale from scratch, with no offices, no desks, and no in-person interactions.
Looking forward, I suspect the adoption of remote work will first take hold in mid-sized pure software startups and some large tech companies, like Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, Bytedance, who all have the DNA of being a remote-first workplace, because their products are primarily digital and their development model is increasingly open source. Many brand new companies in the tech sector will embrace remote work from day 0.
Over time, other more tech-savvy traditional services industries, like banks, insurance, and accounting, will follow, because most financial services can be built and delivered in some form of software. I intentionally left out companies like Huawei, Xiaomi, Didi Chuxing, and Meituan-Dianping. Though they belong in the same breath as other large tech companies in terms of size and influence, I believe because their products are physical goods or their services are physical in nature, they may have a harder time embracing remote work processes at scale.
Towards Remote Consumption
The flip side of the proverbial remote-work-coin is remote consumption, specifically of software services by companies. Remote consumption on the consumer level in China is already quite deep: shopping for groceries, hailing rides, ordering food, and e-commerce from livestreams and short videos, are all more commonplace behaviors spanning across age groups rather than novelties reserved for the young early adopters. Payments are increasingly all handled digitally.
However, consumption of cloud-based IT services, or software-as-a-service (SaaS), is still low -- less than 5% low -- when you account for the entire universe of businesses in China that could be buyers of these software services. While delivering and remotely consuming business software -- input payment information, get the software, start using it, get support via email, chat, or private remote login -- is mainstream in the U.S., the same type of behavior is by no means common in China. The Chinese enterprise market still demands a lot of human time investment, either in the form of technical services or customer relationship support (which is often a form of power-play between client and vendor that has nothing to do with the service itself).
This is a big source of frustration for Chinese enterprise software companies. Their customer acquisition and maintenance cost is higher than their American counterparts’, while the corresponding IT spending amount by their customers is much lower than their American counterparts, due to cheaper (though growing) labor cost. This situation makes reaching the benchmark gross profit margin of 60-80% for SaaS companies almost impossible.
However, if more remote work takes hold, companies will have more demand for software tools that can virtually stitch their team together. The upticks are already occurring. All the major workplace software products in China: Alibaba’s DingTalk, Tencent’s WeChat Work, Huawei’s Welink, and Bytedance’s Lark, have reported a spike in usage. DingTalk in particular has been used as a platform to bring classrooms online to keep the school going, while children are forced to stay home. It has been an effective tool -- so effective the children have taken to the app store to downvote the app, where its rating dropped from 4.9 to 1.3 (in Chinese).
To be clear, these services are all provided free by deep-pocketed giants with the money to do so, partially as good public service to support people who are stuck at home during a crisis, but no less self-interested as a way to grow their user base and market share to monetize when the crisis subsides.
Some in the capital market are betting on this opportunity too. Both big-time venture capitalists, like Fred Wilson, and Wall Street's treatment of Zoom's stock price, a videoconferencing company (which is also offering its service for free in China during the COVID-19 crisis), suggest that investors are betting on a future of more virtual meetings.
The multi-billion dollar question is whether remote work, beyond just videoconferencing, will become a fundamental behavior shift and remote consumption of software services will become more mainstream for Chinese businesses seeking productivity and efficiency gains.
Given the advantages of remote work, much of it I’ve experienced personally, I think it will. Many Chinese knowledge workers have already been accidentally “forced” to taste the benefits of remote work due to COVID-19. This shift won’t be overnight. It won’t be 100%. But it will be an order of magnitude bigger than what it is today.
For a detailed analysis of the advantages of remote work and its roots in open source software development, please read my deep dive post on this topic.
远程办公这个概念相对比较新颖。没有实体总部和办公室，所有工作在网上完成，员工可以住在任何地方 -- 听起来还是有点像写科幻小说。然而在软件行业的某些角落，远程在线协作工作其实是一种常态，并不是什么新鲜事儿。随着像GitLab这样的纯远程办公的科技公司的迅速发展，这个概念最近变得很时髦。GitLab是远程办公文化的典范，目前已有超过1000名员工。作为远程办公文化的”布道师“，GitLab的官网还出版了一本手册（英文），详细记录了它如何管理和协调遍布在世界每个角落的员工。
与其他大规模危机一样，COVID-19有可能是一种促使人们、公司和社会废除旧习惯，接受新习惯的力量。一家叫“中国黄皮书“（China Beige Book）的独立研究所调查了1000家国内企业，数据显示，约三分之一正在用远程办公来维持公司运作。目前为止，远程办公的使用主要体现在两个方面：保持生产力和危机协调。
整个网站都是一个开源项目，托管在GitHub上，有一个Google Groups的邮件群发组和一个Slack 频道进行实时协调和工作分配，在本文发表的时候，频道里已经有3700多个成员。协作的文档及流程已用六种不同的语言编写：简体中文、繁体中文、英语、日语、意大利语和葡萄牙语。根据Github上的信息推测，这个项目是由一个住在杭州的工程师起头的，前十名贡献者（contributors）都来自于中国和美国的不同城市（不是所有的GitHub账户都写地理位置），所以这个团队有过当面合作的可能性极小。