Inside China’s reopening: A tech founder in Chengdu returns to a changed workplace

May 4, 2020, 9:00 AM UTC

This is part of a series on China’s emergence from coronavirus lockdowns, featuring seven people who are living it.

For Jasmine Yang, a 37-year-old cofounder of a coding education company, the lockdown in her home city of Chengdu, the capital of China’s central Sichuan province, seemed like some sort of a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

“It really felt like the end of the world, and we didn’t know what’s going on,” said Yang. Being trapped in her apartment away from friends, watching online videos of others struggling to cope, and seeing daily news of the pandemic’s growing death toll—in China and abroad—left Yang feeling anxious and scared. Her once-bustling neighborhood was desolate, with few signs of cars or people. “It was like a war zone; I’d never seen anything like this. I can’t even describe how depressing it felt,” she said.

As an employer, she also had the safety and livelihoods of her workers to consider. “Let’s hope next week is better” was the message she sent to employees during the dark days of January and February. Things are better now, on the other side of the lockdown. Her team is back at their desks and slowly adjusting to the peculiarities of a post-pandemic workplace—new practices that offices globally are likely to weigh in the weeks and months to come.

The public square in front of the Sichuan Science and Technology Museum is usually packed with tourists and visitors but was empty as the city locked down in mid-February. Photo by Jasmine Yang

The eastern edge of Sichuan is close to Hubei province, where the pandemic’s epicenter, Wuhan, is located. In fact, a high-speed rail network connects Chengdu’s 16 million inhabitants with Wuhan, and some 55,000 travelers left Wuhan for the Sichuan capital in the three weeks before Wuhan was put under lockdown. Yet Chengdu has confirmed just 145 coronavirus cases and three deaths since the beginning of the outbreak, according to Chinese media.

Starting in late January, Yang, along with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, didn’t leave their city apartment for about a month under orders from building managers and city authorities.

At the time, Yang’s office was already closed for the Chinese New Year, and she knew the company wouldn’t go back to work when the government extended the holiday because of the virus.

The many unknowns of the virus and the local lockdown made things especially difficult. Yang tried to garner information from her network of industry contacts, but they knew as little as she did. She checked in on her staff—all working from home—and waited for government guidance on when the office could reopen.

Some relief came in mid-February, when management of Yang’s apartment started letting residents leave the complex—one person at a time. Yang and her husband alternated trips to the grocery store every three days or so. By the end of February, restrictions loosened further; she and her family could freely leave the apartment, but only after registering for the city’s smartphone health app.

In Chengdu, the app is called Tianfutong, in reference to the city’s nickname meaning Land of Plenty. Yang describes life in Chengdu as more laid-back than fast-paced, work-focused cities like Beijing. And like the region’s famously fiery food, she said, in Chengdu “we have spicy personalities.”

The app rates users by color—green, yellow, and red, denoting their risk level for carrying the virus. Yang has so far received only a green code and is determined to keep it that way. So for now, she is avoiding crowded places like the subway, since she’s heard rumors that being near someone with a yellow or red badge may worsen her own score.

Yang and her fellow employees returned to the office in early March, but not without caveats. The government requires them to maintain stocks of hand sanitizer, disinfectant, and face masks—none of which were easy to procure. After some searching online and in stores, she eventually found high-priced hand sanitizer and disinfectant supplies on Ele.me, a Chinese e-commerce platform, and had them delivered. She ended up sourcing a shipment of face masks from Cambodia because they were so difficult to find locally.

She says all eight of her company’s employees are now coming back to the office every day, and because of its small size, the office hasn’t instituted staggered shifts or a seating chart that would keep distance between workers.

But the government does mandate that the company conduct three temperature checks per employee per day. If someone is running a fever, which hasn’t happened yet, Yang must report it immediately to local authorities, according to a contract she signed in opening up the office.

Her company, Zhongxi Technology Education, has managed to retain most of its customers—coding students—through online classes, having adapted quickly to January’s lockdowns. Her husband, Jimmy Keesee, is managing partner of Zhongxi. When authorities announced quarantine measures, Keesee and his team of coding teachers built an online teaching platform in 10 days.

Zhongxi’s classes are still online. In-person instruction will have to wait until Chengdu’s schools are fully back in session; they are slowly starting back up, according to a government document Yang shared with Fortune. High school seniors and sophomores returned to classes on April 13; juniors and freshmen returned on April 20. Middle and elementary school students will also stagger start dates until all pupils are back May 5. The health code app is required of students too, no matter their age. Yang’s daughter is now registered on Yang’s own app for when the 3-year-old returns to day care.

Yang says creativity and empathy have been critical in helping her company navigate the pandemic.

“There are creative ways to adapt to chaos,” she said. “But you have to be sympathetic [with employees] because you cannot imagine what they have been through. This lockdown was the lowest point of my life, so I can’t imagine what their life has been like.”

As China emerges from the pandemic, Yang hopes that those abroad can identify and connect with the struggles that she and those in China experienced over the past several months.

“We need to discuss our psychological journeys, to help everyone facing the situation right now,” said Yang. “We are all facing this problem as global citizens, not just nation by nation.”

Read the other stories in this Fortune series:

—A Shenzhen entrepreneur gets a 6 a.m. throat swab and mandatory quarantine
—A Wuhan college student still avoids restaurants and public transit
—A Shanghai consultant eschews a contact-tracing app
—A startup operations manager in Hangzhou sees automation accelerating
—A Beijing tech worker needs a quarantine certificate to dine out
—A Harbin university professor confronts a second lockdown

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