As businesses gradually reopen in China, more than two months after COVID-19 lockdown measures were enforced, are there lessons for companies in other countries to glean on how to transition back to office life once work-from-home rules are eased?
First and foremost, expect the unexpected, and proceed cautiously, says James Chen Gu, the general manager of Chinese animation studio UYoung Media & Entertainment (P. King Duckling, Love Monster).
When restrictions were relaxed in Shanghai in March, Chen Gu chose to softly reopen UYoung’s studio sending only a handful of key development team members back to the office at first. While all 19 remaining employees have since returned to that studio, the development staff went back first to maintain productivity on one of UYoung’s new projects, Kung-Fu Wa (pictured), he says.
“Our development benefits the most when our people are physically sitting in the same discussion room,” says Chen Gu. In comparison, production was able to continue largely unimpeded at home on season one of Love Monster, UYoung’s co-production with BBC Children’s and Canada’s Boat Rocker Studios, so there was less pressure to send them back sooner. (Love Monster premiered on January 27 on CBeebies in the UK. It has not yet launched in China.)
To help maintain employee safety, he specifically chose staff with the ability to drive in to the office as the first-back-to-work cohort. (Since the last week of March, it’s no longer compulsory to wear a mask on public transport or when shopping in Shanghai.)
Yet, if transitions were relatively smooth in Shanghai, the same can’t be said for UYoung’s 20-person Beijing studio. Chen Gu used the same strategy as Shanghai, and brought five development people back first, but not until April. His Beijing Love Monster production team is still working remotely in the capital.
He could have brought half of the studio back right away, as per government regulations, but decided to play it safe. It turned out to be a good decision because new COVID-19 cases appeared in the city in mid-April, which heightened restrictions again and forced Chen Gu to send most of his development people back home, thus disrupting their in-studio collaborative progress.
“Right now, I only let a producer and an office administrator back daily for some necessary management around contracts and financing,” says Chen Gu.
This could change soon, though, as government officials downgraded the state of emergency from the highest level yesterday in Hebei province and the municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin, amid decreasing domestic confirmed cases of COVID-19. In lowering the level, officials announced that museums and indoor entertainment venues, including movie theaters, could begin to reopen in early June. This would mark the second re-opening of theaters in China after more than 500 cinemas came back in late March only to be shuttered on March 27 by China’s national film bureau amid fears of a second wave of infections.
As the country’s stop-start economy eventually gains momentum, the new normal at both of UYoung’s offices is that employees are required to get their temperature checked daily by a building manager at each location before entering the facilities. The managers enforce the rule for all companies in each building. Masks aren’t mandatory, but UYoung is enforcing social distancing and sanitary measures.
Chen Gu recommends that other studios shouldn’t move too quickly when planning to re-open their offices.
“If you look at our Beijing situation, you must be flexible, as government restrictions change,” he says. “If studios’ pipelines are working quite well from home, keep them working from home even if the government says you can re-open your office, and maybe just bring some key people in for weekly meetings before slowly sending more employees back.”