“From its first day, DingTalk has been an iron thorn whip. It turns employees into instruments, it’s a tool of enslavement.”
Based on these harsh words alone, you might think DingTalk is a medieval torture device deployed by corporations to punish employees for missing deadlines. But this is actually one of many negative comments left on a local forum describing one of China’s most widely used work communication platforms. It’s used the same way in the country as Slack is in the West.
But just as Slack has been criticized for allowing work to invade all hours of your day, DingTalk’s position in China has made it something of a lightning rod for frustration over how these tools have been used both for work and education. But is DingTalk a product of China’s relentless work culture, or is it an enabler?
Made by e-commerce giant Alibaba, DingTalk describes itself as a tool for enhancing remote work efficiency, and it’s been around since 2014. But until this year, most people didn’t have much of a need for remote work tools. In 2019, less than 1% of China’s population telecommuted for work, according to analytics firm Qianzhan.
Usage only started to surge this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, when millions of people across China started working from home during the country’s months-long shutdown. DingTalk quickly became part of daily life for many white-collar workers, who often found themselves hunched over their kitchen tables trying to avoid distractions from family, flatmates, and pets.
In February, DingTalk usage surged 350%. By March, the platform had 155 million daily active users on workdays. But many of those users haven’t been pleased with the DingTalk experience.
Some of the most high-profile criticism didn’t come from workers, though. It came when students started review-bombing DingTalk in app stores following rumors that it would get removed if its rating fell below one star.
Just as workplaces have turned to DingTalk to facilitate remote working, it’s also become a widely used app for online classes. As many as 140,000 schools and 120 million students came to rely on the platform during the pandemic.
DingTalk later told me that it appreciates all the feedback and suggestions it received. The company also tried to create a viral video apology with memes and cartoons, hoping that students would stop review bombing the app and restore the rating to five stars.
“We’ll give you five stars but in five installments,” reads one of the more popular student responses circulating online.
But students are hardly the only ones venting their frustrations about DingTalk online. Social media is rife with complaints. Whereas criticism from students might be seen as kids trying to avoid classwork, much of the criticism from adults seems to have a bit more bite.
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“DingTalk promotes unhealthy—and inefficient—work-life balance by tempting bosses to monitor employees 24 hours a day and to invade their off-duty time,” wrote Liu Weiqi, a PhD student in management science, urging China to delete DingTalk.
“In China, autocratic management styles predominate,” claimed associate professor Wang Xingkun from Tianjin Normal University. “This mindset leads to the creation of software like Alibaba’s mobile workplace app DingTalk.”
Chinese management style aside, some of these criticisms will probably be familiar to anyone who has used Slack, Microsoft Teams, WeChat Work, or a slew of other competing products.
Amy Ning, a Chinese and Spanish language translator, said most other online chat tools she’s used have similar problems. She also said her experience with DingTalk has been good even though her company has some criticisms.
Even before the pandemic, Slack was being criticized for its effects on work culture. As with DingTalk, the US-based platform was slammed for eroding work-life balance and data collection.
Huffington Post reporter Monica Torres described Slack as a “tool of corporate surveillance.” Alicia Liu, who works for the collaboration tool Notion, decries her experience with Slack as “death by a thousand pings.”
Some criticism, though, remains very specific to DingTalk. While the app has multiple features that its detractors have called intrusive, the most notorious one is the “ding.”
Chatting in DingTalk allows users to see whether a message has been read by the receiver. So if a sender, say your boss, sees a message hasn’t been read, they can keep sending dings to alert you.
China’s tech sector already has a reputation for grueling work schedules, often referred to as “996”—working from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., six days a week. This has made the ding feature seem fitting for Chinese workplaces. And it’s not just limited to China.
“We would hear these dings all day,” said Anshuman Gandhi, who used the tool during his three-year stint heading the regional marketing team for India at UCWeb, an Alibaba subsidiary known for its mobile web browser.
“We could hear these dings after working hours, on weekends, even in our dreams, which would wake us up, and upon checking our phones [we would] realize how some Chinese colleague needs us. We could hear it in traffic, in concerts, even when our phones were silent,” Gandhi said of his experience with DingTalk.
Other DingTalk features have also raised eyebrows, including the ways the app allows users to clock in for work.
One of the most dystopian-sounding features to outsiders is perhaps Smile to Clock-In. This feature takes a photograph of your face while you’re clocking in for work and rates your smile against those of other employees.
While many might balk at the idea of forcing their disheveled faces into a smile on a Monday morning, the app makers say it was inspired by features that are popular on other Chinese social media platforms. It’s just there for fun, they say.
DingTalk also has an option to use GPS location data for clocking in and out, but it will only work if you’re connected to the company Wi-Fi network. A friend of mine found this especially annoying, fearing he would be marked late because his app was always buggy.
The feature also fueled concerns about data privacy. The DingTalk team says the app doesn’t have a function to track the real-time position or to monitor the movements of employees.
As a result of these features, many have slammed DingTalk for forcing workers to be available to their superiors around the clock. The app has been criticized as being designed to appeal to managers, not the employees who use it.
DingTalk seems to be aware of the criticisms and says that the software isn’t perfect yet. In a statement to Abacus, the group noted that they “promote open collaborations and transparency and advise against many traditional ways of working such as micro-management.” Unlike some other office tools, the team says DingTalk doesn’t let administrators check private chats.
DingTalk also argues that the annoying dings go both ways—and the majority of them are sent to managers. Theoretically, the platform makes the workplace more horizontal, but workplaces aren’t horizontal: An employee might not feel comfortable continuously dinging a high-level executive to answer their message.
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It might be unrealistic to expect DingTalk to overcome the same problems that similar apps continue to suffer from. I spent a year working with DingTalk before I started to use Slack, an experience which made me realize that the two apps have common issues. After all, the stinging feeling when you realize that you’ve accidentally ignored your boss’s messages for the last three hours isn’t limited to DingTalk.
Not all of the DingTalk criticism is about the features, though. Some say DingTalk is simply a reflection of Chinese work culture. This is how they would work with or without these apps, according to Jenxi Seow, a Malaysian entrepreneur whose company RubyCode creates marketing and branding strategies for startups in China.
“It’s not so much fitting a style, more of catering to the needs of the local companies,” Seow said.
He added that he has witnessed instances of employees leaving work on time only to later have their managers invite them to tea, a euphemism for a chat with higher-ups.
Gandhi, who has also used other work communication tools like Slack, agrees that the problem stems from work culture. And that culture sometimes resembles the likes of telecommunications giant Huawei, known for its “wolf culture” of hard work and long hours.
But there’s at least one benefit to using DingTalk and competing platforms like WeChat Work and ByteDance’s Lark, according to Seow: No mixing of your work life with your private life.
During the pandemic lockdown, a friend in Europe relayed to me with horror that her boss started using a Facebook group to conduct all remote work activities. This type of behavior has long been normal in China, where the chat app WeChat is used for seemingly everything.
Thanks to a mixture of historical circumstances, email never widely caught on in China. This allowed Tencent’s ubiquitous chat app to eventually become a common tool for conducting business. In 2017, nearly 90% of WeChat users used the platform for work, according to Tencent.
This helped blur the lines between work and play, to the annoyance of many. Seow said many companies in China need to separate work contacts from personal ones.
The post-pandemic world may spark more questions about how we work. For now, it’s clear that Slack, DingTalk, or any other workplace tool my employer decides to use will have to become an inseparable part of my life.
China’s tech giants are counting on that trend. The domestic market has already started to get crowded as tech companies like Baidu, Huawei, and Sohu have introduced similar products. Alibaba, Tencent, and ByteDance are already looking to expand their work tools outside China. But, overseas, they’ll have to face entrenched players like Slack and Microsoft Teams, which have also risen in popularity during the pandemic.
There still seems to be little awareness of how work communication tools encourage certain dynamics among users, similar to social media platforms. And like Twitter and Facebook, some users find this dynamic to be toxic. Sometimes it’s because of a platform’s own features and often it’s because of other users. Unlike social media, though, there’s no option to quit—unless you hand in your resignation.
Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.
This article was originally published by Abacus News.