China’s “Orwellian” version of Slack is tracking workers as they arrive at and leave the office

According to Alibaba, “DingTalk” is a “multi-sided platform” that “empowers small and medium-sized business to communicate effectively.”
According to Alibaba, “DingTalk” is a “multi-sided platform” that “empowers small and medium-sized business to communicate effectively.”
Image: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
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It has been more than two years since Alibaba launched its enterprise app Ding Ding (钉钉). In February 2015, websites such as TechCrunch and TechinAsia described the app as a new mobile and desktop program for businesses that aimed to compete with Tencent’s WeChat—China’s top messaging app.

At the time, Ding Ding (also known as DingTalk) was only available in Chinese. But the app, now updated to the 3.5.3 version, has become readily available in English on Chinese, Google, and Apple app stores.

Its use by companies across China is picking up. The app has now been downloaded:

  • 50.5 million times on the Huawei store
  • 27 million times on the Tencent app store
  • 20 million-plus times on the Oppo app store
  • 12 million times on the Baidu app store
  • 8.5 million times on the 360 Mobile Assistant app store

Smart mobile office

More companies across China are now using the app as a “smart mobile office.” It functions as a messaging app among colleagues, a tool for making conference calls, but more importantly, as a program that makes it easy for employees to clock in and out of work and for employers to check their whereabouts.

“Our company just started implementing it. Nobody gave us any warning,” Bryan Lee, an employee of a mid-sized Beijing educational company (who asked to use an alias), told What’s on Weibo. “I’ve spoken to many people of other companies here who also started to use it recently.”

Ding Ding has many functions, and in some ways it’s meant to replace WeChat as a work tool. The app allows users to create team groups, and also functions as an address book that shows the organizational structure of the company. Users can directly contact the HR group or other colleagues through Ding Ding.

According to Alibaba, “DingTalk” is a “multi-sided platform” that “empowers small and medium-sized business to communicate effectively.” Some of the app’s functions include:

  • An address book that allows users to view the organization’s structure at a glance and contact everyone. It also shows contacts outside the company—such as suppliers and business partners—and functions as a customer information management system.
  • A calendar for creating tasks and meetings.
  • An instant messaging app for both private and group chats. All messages display read and unread statuses.
  • A video-conferencing system that also allows users to make free calls.
  • The ability to ping all recipients (“Ding It”) by alerting them through phone, SMS, or the app. Companies can also send out voice messages or hold conference calls.
  • Self-deleting chats like Snapchat.
  • An attendance system that lets companies track employee’s attendance and overtime records. It also lets employees clock in and out of work.
  • Process approvals by electronically dealing with request for leaves, business trips, or reimbursements. Approvals for business trips and leave are automatically linked with attendance records.
  • Cloud-based file system (Ding drive) that makes file saving and sharing quick and easy between computers and mobile devices.

Despite the myriad functions, or actually because of them, some employees call the app a “catastrophe” for office staff.

Big boss is watching you

“Since Ding Ding is GPS-activated, I will be signed in when I get to work. And when I leave work, it will clock me out,” Lee says.

The app’s clocking system is one of its most-used functions and allows companies to track whether their employees arrive late at work or whether they are working overtime.

There is a positive side to it for employees since there is much less paperwork to fill out when, for example, asking compensation for overtime work. Lee notes that people can also electronically apply for a leave of absence through Ding Ding.

But the downside is that there is no room for white lies anymore. Because of the app’s geotagging function, the employer can actually check if you really are seeing the doctor (as you said you were going to).

As Lee explains:

“Through Ding Ding you can report where you are for your company. If you requested a leave of absence to go to the hospital, for example, you can bookmark the location so that your company knows you really are at the location where you are supposed to be. Same goes for business-related appointments—if your company requires it, you tag the location so they can see that you are where you said you were going, so they won’t deduct your salary for that.”

“People have a lot of different views on it,” he adds. “I am always at work when I need to be and I never cheat the system. So I think it is very convenient that I no longer need to take my phone and scan a QR code every day to log in to work, which used to be mafan [troublesome]—this is much easier.”

Still he says others find the app “somewhat Orwellian.”

Apart from the location-tagging function, which may or may not be required or activated by the company, there are also other functions that many people do not like, include read receipts and the “Ding alerts” that ping all recipients with a phone call, SMS, or in-app alerts.

On Q&A platform, a user who works at an HR company and goes by the name Aurora, explains how this the app has made life more troublesome for office staff:

“The rapid growth of Ding Ding lies in the fact that it meets the requirements of its user—the boss. Just imagine: you’re in the midst of finishing a proposal when the boss sends you a message saying you need to come over to bring them a certain file.

Before using Ding Ding:

1. You see the message. You finish the last part of your proposal before bringing over the file to your boss a bit later.

2. You don’t see the message. You finish your task and take a break. You then see the message and take care of it.

3. No matter if you did or did not see the message, the boss notices you did not respond and gives you a call.

Since using Ding Ding:

1. You see the message. Your boss gets a ‘message read’ (已读) confirmation and you have no other option than to break off your work and immediately take care of it.

2. You haven’t seen it. So your boss sends you a ‘ding alert’ and you have no other option but to read it, break off your work, and immediately take care of it.”

Aurora also writes that Ding Ding is completely made to comply with the demands of the company’s managers rather than the staff. For office staff, it is not convenient to respond to one’s boss immediately—it can disturb their everyday tasks and add stress to his or her job. For the manager, on the other hand, it has become very easy to reach the staff. They do not even need to pick up the phone anymore, and can reach whoever they want right away.

Unhappy Dingers

On Weibo, many people share Aurora’s views and are not too happy with Ding Ding. “I’ve had enough with this app! It reminds me every single morning to clock in to work! ‘You have to be at work in 12 minutes, don’t forget to clock in!’”

Others also complain that the app only adds to the time they spend looking at their phone: “If it’s not my QQ group, then it’s my WeChat group or my Ding Ding group—it seems I am looking at my phone screen all day,” one Weibo user says.

There are also people who note that they are hardly ever free from work anymore. As one Xiamen worker writes: “I had the morning off. But I had hundreds of WeChat messages, dozens of Ding Ding messages, and three missed phone calls. This is ruining me.”

“With this Ding Ding app it seems like no matter what time it is or where you are, you’re just always at work,” another complaint said.

“It looks like they are going to implement Ding Ding at my office. I just want to punch the person who invented this app.”

But despite all the backlash and complaints, Ding Ding’s popularity as an office solution for immediate workplace communication and registering employee’s working hours is on the rise.

On the app’s review page on the Huawei store, some call it “the best office application.”

Others also note that the app is not just convenient, but also free: “It is very practical, and it has saved me the costs for other office management software.” Other reviewers are similarly enthusiastic, with one reviewer saying: “In our office, it’s become an essential tool—and its functions just keep getting better and better.”

This story was originally published on What’s on Weibo. Read the original article, and follow editor-in-chief Manya Koetse and What’s on Weibo on Twitter.