In late April and early May, CSA Research partnered with the Academy of International Language Services of Beijing Language and Culture University and the Institute of Language Services, Hebei Normal University for Nationalities to survey 135 language service providers(LSPs) in China about their experience during the period when COVID-19-related restrictions were in force and what has happened since they were relaxed. “As the first country to have experienced stringent limitations on movement, social activity, and work – as well as the first to emerge from them – the experience of Chinese LSPs can give LSPs elsewhere insight into what to expect as they go through the same process,” says Arle Lommel, the senior analyst of CSA Research. The initial results provide insight into how language companies around the world can plan for their future.

  As has now happened almost everywhere, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a substantial negative effect on most LSPs in China: 68% experienced a decline in revenue. Interpreting-centric companies were hit particularly hard – 80% reported a decrease. Although most respondents to our survey of Chinese LSPs continue to report depressed revenues, we do see signs of a rebound – the number of companies with decreased revenues has dropped from two-thirds to approximately one-half, and 10% reported higher than expected revenue. In addition, although conditions for interpreting companies remain difficult, their rebound compared to their performance during the period of restrictions is comparable to what other LSPs have experienced. These numbers show light at the end of the post-COVID tunnel.

  A major challenge for LSPs in China, as in other countries, has been how to negotiate formal and informal restrictions on everyday activities. Chinese companies have traditionally relied on a culture of long hours in the office (a practice informally referred to as the “996” model: working from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, six days a week), but COVID-19 has severely disrupted this model. As of May 1st, only 17% had brought all of their workers back to the job, but 33% had yet to return any workers. Of those that had begun the process, the average was that less than half (45%) of the workers who had gone remote were in the office.

  The reasons why workers are not yet back are largely logistical: School closures lead the list, followed by employee concerns about health and differing provincial timelines in a tie for second place. Although our survey did not ask about public transit, worries that buses and trains might spread COVID-19, as they appear to have in New York City, have left many individuals in large urban centers leery of traveling to work. In addition, social distancing requirements are particularly difficult to meet in offices with an open floor plan – 19% of Chinese LSPs in our sample cite this as a challenge to bringing employees back, a number we expect to rise as they push to increase on-site staffing.

  These challenges will not disappear. The recent second wave of COVID-19 in some cities in China has shown attempts to bring staff back may be premature and subject to reversal. But, more critically, will workers feel safe and want to come back, even as concerns abate and widespread interest in restoring economic activity rises?

  In Europe and the Americas, COVID-19 has accelerated a trend toward remote work and even pushed governmental agencies in this direction. It is leading to a shift to more reliance on cloud-based technologies, with several TMS vendors reporting record utilization of their remote-work platforms. As long as uncertainty about health and safety persist, expensive real estate in city centers will seem like an unnecessary, and possibly deadly, luxury. Workers who no longer face 90-minute commutes on top of long days may not want to come back to the office or may prefer to come in only for in-person meetings.

  “Chinese LSPs will feel similar pressure to change how they work. If they discover that remote workers are as productive as those in a closely controlled office setting, they too may embrace the change and benefit from decreased costs and greater flexibility,” says Dr. Meng Yongye, the director of the Institute of Language Services, Hebei Normal University for Nationalities. Workers with newfound flexibility may demand change. Just as pandemics in the Medieval era resulted in major changes in labor markets in Europe, so too may COVID-19 result in substantial and long-lasting changes in how LSPs and other companies deliver their services. Those LSPs that can adjust the most quickly to these new realities will be better positioned to take advantage of the rebound as restrictions are eased and grow in the post-COVID-19 future.

  Professor Wang Lifei, the chief expert of the Academy of International Language Services of Beijing Language and Culture University, comments that according to this survey, what Chinese LSPs experienced before and are exercising now are shared worldwide, providing in-time enlightenments for global LSPs to realize their better future after COVID-19 pandemic.

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