Companies Implement Flexible Working Arrangements for White Collar Workers in China

Jake Parker

Increased air pollution, deteriorating traffic conditions, and rising office rent prices are leading some US companies in China to offer more flexible working arrangements to white collar employees, according to recent interviews with more than 20 US-China Business Council (USCBC) member companies. To adapt, companies are taking a wide variety of different approaches, with the majority of companies allowing employees flexible start and finish times, allowances to work from home, or opportunities to transition to part-time work. Though most of the companies interviewed offer employees some form of flexible working arrangements, policies are rarely publicized and are often restricted to company management, according to those surveyed.  

What types of flexible arrangements are available?

The majority of companies interviewed allow only two types of flexible working arrangements: flexible start and finish times or telecommuting. A small but growing number of companies offer more creative flexible working arrangements. For example, one company gives its employees their choice of working hours once a year, with three different options: 8:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., 9:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m., or 10:00 a.m. - 6:30 p.m. Another company encourages employees to work from home one day each week. In this case, employees are permitted to choose any day of the week, and they can choose a different day each week. Another company said as long as its employees are working in the office during the “core” hours of 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m., coming in late or leaving early is “acceptable” and permits them to do so.

Why do companies allow flexible working arrangements?

US companies operating in China allow flexible working arrangements for a variety of reasons, but the following are the major areas cited in USCBC interviews:

  • Air pollution  Many companies interviewed allow flexible arrangements to account for uncontrolled external factors such as pollution or bad weather. Many of the companies interviewed mentioned increased air pollution as one of the key reasons they began implementing flexible working times.
  • Traffic  Companies operating in Shanghai and Beijing noted that traffic conditions have deteriorated significantly in the past two years. This has greatly impacted the ability of employees to arrive at work on time, and it has been a driving factor in implementing flexible start and finish times for many companies.
  • Office rent  Rising office rents and the need for larger office spaces has led many companies to move operations from central business districts to high-tech parks and other areas further from the center of the city. In these cases, staff often live closer to the previous office location and require significant additional commuting time. Allowing flexible working arrangements under these circumstances has been critical for employee retention during office moves, companies said.
  • Medical  Most of the companies interviewed offered flexible working arrangements to allow employees to care for a family member.
  • Job function  Some companies said they allow more flexibility for some functions—such as sales and marketing—than for regular operational staff. These companies said they expect sales and marketing employees to spend a large amount of time outside the office visiting customers or developing new business. When they allowed flexible working arrangements for these employees, companies noted desk space was cut significantly, by about one desk for every four employees.
  • Calls  Employees at many US companies operating in China are required to hold frequent late night calls with their counterparts in the United States. In these cases, companies often allow employees to come to the office a few hours late or work entirely from home.

Who is eligible for flexible working arrangements?

Among the companies USCBC spoke with, nearly all now employ flexible working arrangements, but some allow only certain groups to utilize this benefit. For example, some allow only management (employees at the director level and above) to engage in flexible working arrangements, while a smaller percentage of interviewees allows all employees to apply for flexible working arrangements.

A new solution?

Talent recruitment and retention is one of the key issues faced by US companies operating in China and flexible work arrangements have emerged as one way human resources departments have responded to recruitment and retention challenges. Non-compensation-related factors—such as flexible working arrangements—are gaining increasing importance in retaining or recruiting talent in China. Earlier this year, the MRI China Talent Report reported that employees indicated for the first time that “improved benefits” and “work-life balance” were key to their decision to stay with a company. As China’s workforce has reached new levels of maturity and wealth, flexible working arrangements are an increasingly important part of employer strategies and will continue to play an increasingly important role going forward.