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November 2021   |   Volume 23 No. 1

Social Media and the Workplace

Social media is not only blurring the lines between home and work, but reinforcing workplace hierarchies, finds Dr Tian Xiaoli who has been researching social interactions online.

It is Chinese New Year, you are enjoying a meal with family when suddenly your phone pings. Your boss has sent you a virtual red packet on WeChat. Do you tuck the phone in your pocket and turn your attention back to your family, or respond right away? Increasingly in Mainland China, the only safe answer is the latter.

As Dr Tian Xiaoli of the Department of Sociology has discovered in a study of WeChat use among urban middle-class workers, these workers face immense pressure to engage with their supervisors on the app in their private time about matters unrelated to work – but still with a workplace purpose.

“Most of the social interaction on WeChat is not about productivity but about maintaining the workplace hierarchy,” she said.

Showing deference to bosses might seem unsurprising, but her research has found fundamental differences between online and face-to-face engagement that are adding to workers’ burden, starting with the lack of physical presence and boundaries.

“Your supervisor can message you anytime, anywhere. I heard many stories about workers who felt compelled to reply immediately to messages from supervisors, even at night,” Dr Tian said.

Failure to respond is ‘intolerable’

Digital media also means past interactions are recorded, so your boss can refer back to who said what, when they said it, and who neglected to respond. Some workers told Dr Tian they were pulled aside by their bosses because they did not respond to trivial messages and were told they needed to acknowledge all messages s/he sent. “Even small, trivial interactions are easily recorded and traceable and can be referred back to with accuracy. This is very hard to achieve face-to-face,” she said.

A third unique feature of online interaction is that it is ‘n-adic’, which means it is impossible to know the number of participants in a chat because anyone can jump into a past interaction at any time and read the exchange, including a boss’s boss. This helps explain why bosses are so keen for their workers to respond to them – they want their own bosses to think they are in control of their team.

“One manager summarised it well. He said it’s intolerable if someone does not reply to a message because this is about group solidarity. By showing loyalty to the group leader, you are showing loyalty to the group instead of just thinking of yourself,” she said.

All this takes a toll on workers. Many of her respondents felt their private lives were being invaded because their supervisors did not respect work hours. She likened the interactions to an all-seeing panopticon. “There is no escape in time or space. Since messages are automatically recorded, you’re under constant and permanent observability,” she said.

“This enforces workplace hierarchy because even the language used shows deference – the boss is addressed by their title and what they have said is acknowledged.”

Going through the motions

Dr Tian found that workers have developed strategies to cope with these pressures. The most popular is ‘cynical performance of compliance’, where workers do not believe they are inferior but go through the motions expected of them; some even use this to gain advantage in the workplace. A small number refuse to comply, although they tend to suffer consequences. One woman who refused to show deference to her supervisor believed this was why she failed to receive a year-end bonus and promotion. There is also a small group who comply because they genuinely believe they are inferior – usually those new to the group who feel they have much to learn.

Unfortunately, these interactions seem here to stay. WeChat has more than one billion active users and people constantly set up groups to organise social events, such as work dinners or outings. “The workers understand that even if they change jobs, it won’t make much difference. The situation will be the same there,” she said.

There was an upside, though, as some found it easier to express deference online with an emoji or a few words of text than to do so in person. However, WeChat may only be the beginning of workplace surveillance.

Dr Tian is now looking at DingTalk, the most popular e-work app in China. It ‘dings’ reminders and will even phone users if they fail to respond to a message within an appropriate timeframe, can track an employee’s movements in real time, has a punch-clock app that requires workers to smile when they clock into work, and another function requiring workers to submit daily summaries of their work activities for others to read and comment on. Not surprisingly, Dr Tian said: “DingTalk has the reputation of being the most hated app in China.”


Dr Tian Xiaoli looks into the use of DingTalk, one of China’s most widely used workplace apps, with 500 million users.

There is no escape in time or space. Since messages are automatically recorded, you’re under constant and permanent observability.