BEIJING – In the middle of a phone call with a customer, an important visitor knocks on Michael Xiong's door: his 3-year-old son.
Xiong, a salesman in Chibi, a city near the center of a virus outbreak, is one of millions of people in China who are obeying government orders to work from home as part of the most sweeping anti-disease measures ever imposed.
After breakfast, Xiong leaves the 3-year-old and his 10-month-old brother with their grandparents. The salesman for IQAir, a Swiss maker of household air purifiers that are popular in China's smog-choked cities, goes into a bedroom to talk to customers and try to find new ones by phone and email.
His son “comes to knock on the door when I am in a meeting, asking for hugs,” Xiong said. “I put myself on mute, open the door and tell him I will be with him later, and he is fine with that.”
Most access to Wuhan, a city of 11 million people where Xiong usually works, was cut off Jan. 23, and some other cities have imposed travel restrictions. Controls imposed on business to try to stem the spread of infection extend nationwide, affecting tens of thousands of companies and hundreds of millions of employees.
The government extended the Lunar New Year holiday to keep factories and offices closed. Cinemas, temples and other tourist sites were shut down to prevent crowds from forming. Group tours were canceled and businesspeople told to put off travel.
China's vast manufacturing industries cannot function without workers in factories. But as some businesses reopen, Beijing has told anyone who still can work from home to stay there.
That is forcing employees – from solo entrepreneurs to automaker Volkswagen AG's 3,500-member headquarters staff in Beijing – to stay in touch with customers and business partners and keep companies functioning by phone and email.
Millions of Chinese entrepreneurs operate house cleaning, small trading and other businesses out of their homes. Many have suffered the same impact as bigger businesses from restrictions on movement and orders to families to stay indoors.
Maggie Zhang, founder of SheTalks, a company in Beijing that organizes events for women, is working out of her parents' apartment in the northwestern city of Zhangye in Gansu province. She went for the Lunar New Year and said she might stay through March.
Zhang temporarily stopped organizing talks and other public events and is gathering material for her company's social media account to attract users.
In the morning, “I will do some interviews over the phone or online with women working at the front in fighting the epidemic and sometimes foreign businesswomen working in China,” Zhang said. “When I am working, my parents always try to keep quiet and not disturb me.”
Zhang said she uses the sunny living room to write and moves to a bedroom to do interviews or talk to employees. She works out on an elliptical machine during those calls “because my mind works faster when I exercise.”