Jack Ma’s Ant Group Bows to Beijing With Company Overhaul
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Jack Ma’s Ant Group Bows to Beijing With Company Overhaul

China’s central bank said Ant will apply to become a financial holding company.

By Jing Yang
Tue, Apr 13, 2021 4:52pmGrey Clock 3 min

Ant Group Co., the financial-technology giant controlled by billionaire Jack Ma, will apply to become a financial holding company overseen by China’s central bank, overhauling its business to adapt to a new era of tighter regulation for internet companies.

In a statement, the People’s Bank of China said Ant representatives were summoned to a meeting Monday with four regulatory agencies that also included the country’s banking, securities and foreign-exchange overseers. It said a “comprehensive, viable rectification plan” for Ant has been formulated under the regulators’ supervision over the past few months.

The directive follows an intense regulatory assault on Mr. Ma’s business empire that began with the suspension of the company’s blockbuster initial public offering in November. Ant had been on track to sell more than US$34 billion worth of stock and list on stock exchanges in Hong Kong and Shanghai, when Beijing pulled the plug on the deal after Mr. Ma criticized financial regulators in a public speech.

In January, The Wall Street Journal reported that Ant was planning to fall fully in line with China’s financial regulations by turning itself into a financial holding company, essentially subjecting Ant to regulations similar to those governing banks.

Ant, which owns the ubiquitous mobile payment and lifestyle app Alipay, will have to correct what regulators called unfair competition in its payments business and improve its corporate governance. The Hangzhou-based company will have to reduce the liquidity risks of its investment products and shrink the assets under management of Yu’e Bao, its giant money-market mutual fund. Ant will also be required to break an “information monopoly” on the vast and detailed consumer data it has collected, the central bank said.

The Economic Daily, a state-run newspaper, said in a Monday commentary that Ant’s restructuring plan reflects the central government’s recent calls for the platform economy to return to its roots and focus on serving the real economy and people.

“The underlying colour of financial technology is still finance,” the newspaper said. Formulating a rectification plan is only the first step and going forward Ant should benchmark itself against the plan to fully meet the regulators’ demands, the newspaper said.

Ant’s Alipay has more than a billion users in China. It handled the equivalent of more than $17 trillion of digital-payment transactions in the year to June 2020, originated unsecured short-term loans to roughly 500 million people and sells many insurance policies, mutual funds and other investment products.

In a statement, Ant said it “will spare no effort in implementing the rectification plan, ensuring that the operation and growth of our financial-related businesses are fully compliant.”

In addition to applying to become a financial holding company, the company said it would set up a licensed personal credit reporting company. It plans to fold Jiebei and Huabei, its two popular online personal lending services, into a regulated consumer finance company. Ant said its payment business will remain committed to serving consumers and small businesses.

“We will put our growth proactively within the national strategic context,” Ant said, adding it will “strive to create societal value.”

The regulators’ disclosure of Ant’s plan comes shortly after Ant’s sister company, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., was fined the equivalent of US$2.8 billion by China’s antitrust regulator, which accused the e-commerce giant of abusing its dominant market position to the detriment of rivals, merchants and consumers. In addition to the record penalty, Alibaba agreed to undertake a comprehensive revamp of its operations and ensure its compliance with fair competition rules.

Mr. Ma, who is Ant’s controlling shareholder, co-founded Alibaba and still owns some stock in the company. Alibaba owns a third of Ant. Both companies—which have grown rapidly and are highly profitable—are trying hard to appease regulators and move forward for their employees and shareholders.

Last fall, Ant was on track to go public with a valuation of more than $300 billion, well above the market capitalizations of the world’s biggest banks. Less than three years earlier, in June 2018, investors had valued Ant at $150 billion following a large private capital raising.

More recent estimates of Ant’s valuation have varied widely. Many analysts and investors expect Ant’s profit potential to be reduced as it scales back some businesses including online consumer lending, which was previously its main growth driver. At the end of January, some American investment funds managed by Fidelity Investments had marked the value of their Ant shares at prices that implied a company valuation of about $230 billion, according to regulatory filings.

On Monday, Ant’s Chairman and Chief Executive Eric Jing said in an interview with a state-media outlet, The Paper, that Ant would maintain the continuity and quality of its services while it complies fully with regulations.

Mr. Jing, who retook the CEO job last month following the resignation of Ant’s other top executive Simon Hu, said the company won’t raise costs for consumers and the financial institutions it partners with.

China’s push to rein in Ant could end up limiting future developments in financial technology, said Ji Shaofeng, a former banking regulator who follows the microlending industry. “Putting everything under the scope of a financial regulator tends to discourage further technological innovation,” he said, adding Ant will have to navigate uncertainties and new rules that are in the process of being written.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: April 12, 2021.

 



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The Loneliness of the American Worker

More meetings and faceless chats. Fewer work friends. How the modern workday is fueling an epidemic of isolation.

By TE-PING CHEN
Wed, May 29, 2024 6 min

More Americans are profoundly lonely, and the way they work—more digitally linked but less personally connected—is deepening that sense of isolation.

Nick Skarda , 29 years old, works two jobs in logistics and office administration in San Diego to keep up with his bills. After a couple of years at the logistics job, he has one friend there. He says hi to co-workers at his office job but doesn’t really know any.

“I feel sort of an emptiness or lack of belonging,” he says. Juggling two jobs leaves Skarda exhausted, with little energy or time to grab drinks with co-workers . “It makes it harder to go in and give it your all if you don’t feel like anyone is there rooting for you,” he adds.

Employers and researchers are just beginning to understand how workplace shifts over the past four years are contributing to what the U.S. surgeon general declared a loneliness health epidemic last year. The alienation affects remote and in-person workers alike. Among 1-800-Flowers.com ’s 5,000 hybrid and fully on-site employees, for instance, the most popular community chat group offered by a company mental-health provider is simply called “Loneliness.”

Consider these phenomena of modern work:

It is a marked shift from even a decade ago, when bonds fostered at work helped compensate for declining participation in church , community groups and other social institutions. As the American workday becomes more faceless and scheduled , the number of U.S. adults who call themselves lonely has climbed to 58% from 46% in 2018, according to a recent Cigna poll of 10,000 Americans.

The faceless workday

The disconnection is driving up staff turnover and worker absences, making it a business issue for more employers, executives and researchers say. Cigna, the health-insurance company, estimates that loneliness is costing companies $154 billion a year in absenteeism alone.

“Work is social, it’s a lot more than a paycheck,” says James McCann , founder and chairman of 1-800-Flowers.com.

Earlier this year, 1-800-Flowers.com moved from three days in the office to four to boost a sense of connectivity among workers. It has also begun tapping workers across teams to serve as designated hosts during lunchtime, encouraging people to sit with colleagues they don’t know in common areas and chat, and suggesting conversation topics.

While today’s workers have more ways to connect than ever, “there are only so many memes and jokes you can send over Slack,” says Maëlle Gavet , chief executive of Techstars, a pre-seed fund that has invested in 4,100 startups. “We tend to have more and more people with back-to-back calendars, more meetings and less connections.”

Gavet says that is especially the case for hybrid workers on in-office days, which they tend to use to dash from one meeting to the next.

Paradoxically, meetings can make people feel lonelier—and even more so if the meetings are virtual, behavioural researchers say. A 2023 survey by employee experience and analytics company Perceptyx found people who described themselves as “very lonely” tended to have heavier meeting loads than less-lonely staffers. More than 40% of those people spent more than half their work hours in meetings.

In Cincinnati, Kelly Roehm says she came to chafe at the meetings—sometimes as many as 12—consuming her day after joining a consulting company in 2021. She would often feel her eyes glazing over as she multitasked on other screens.

“It’s like you’re a zombie, there but not there,” says Roehm, who lived 10 minutes from the office but worked mostly remotely because she says few colleagues typically came in. It is a more common setup as companies distribute teams across more locations: At Microsoft , 27% of the company’s teams all worked in the same location last year, compared with 61% in 2019.

She compares that experience with her time more than a decade ago at a company now owned by AstraZeneca . There, she enjoyed lots of social outlets at work: a Weight Watchers group and a lunchtime crochet club.

“Now if I were to think about asking, ‘Hey, do you want to participate in something like this,’ it would just sound weird,” says Roehm, who left this year to focus on her own career-consulting business. “There wasn’t that emotional attachment that made it difficult to say, it’s time to move on.”

The power of small talk

Office chitchat, sometimes an unwanted distraction, seems to provide more benefits than many people realise, says Jessica Methot , an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies social ties at work.

In a study of 100 employees at different workplaces, Methot and fellow researchers surveyed participants at points throughout the day. They found those who had engaged in small talk reported less stress and more positivity toward co-workers.

Even exchanging pleasantries with a co-worker you barely know can help, says Sarah Wright , an associate professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who studies worker loneliness.

“We used to think loneliness has to be overcome by developing meaningful relationships and having that degree of intimacy,” Wright says. “More and more, though, we’re seeing it’s these day-to-day weak ties and frequency of [interactions] with people that matters.”

Such interactions are substantially harder to replicate in a virtual environment. “The default now is, I have to schedule time with you, even if it’s five minutes, instead of just picking up the phone,” says Katie Tyson , president of Hive Brands, an online food retailer founded in 2020 as a fully remote company.

The frictions add up, she says. Last fall, the company added an office in New York where employees voluntarily gather a couple of times a week to foster more cohesion.

Coming to the office, even on a hybrid basis, tends to yield a roughly 20% to 30% boost in serendipitous connections, according to Syndezo, which analysed survey data and email and messaging traffic from more than two dozen large companies.

Yet there are diminishing returns to time in person, says Philip Arkcoll , founder of Worklytics, which analyses workforce data for Fortune 500 companies. Coming in once a month provides a significant boost in ties; two or three times a month adds a little more, Worklytics data show. Once or twice a week results in a smaller increase, though, and working in-person four or five days a week makes almost no difference.

A business priority

Ernst & Young has asked managers to use the first five minutes of team calls to engage in conversation “as real human beings,” says Frank Giampietro , whose title, chief well-being officer for the Americas, was created in 2021 to help support employees during the pandemic.

The professional-services firm is also training employees to spot and reach out to co-workers struggling with issues such as isolation. To date, more than 1,600 employees have taken the training.

One challenge is that American workers have sacrificed connection for productivity, says Julie Rice , co-founder of fitness chain SoulCycle. These days, with more business contacts preferring video calls, she finds breakfast meetings and coffee dates on her calendar have been replaced with Zoom. Though efficient, such video calls are less likely to yield conversations that can turn into useful professional connections or lasting friendships, she says.

Julie Rice says that her work schedule, once packed with coffees and in-person meetups, is now an avalanche of Zooms. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER GREGORY-RIVERA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Even people I’m meeting with here in New York, we’ll just Zoom,” she says.

Last year, Rice co-founded Peoplehood, a company that runs “gathers” to improve connectivity and relationship skills, and employers are signing up. One, a beauty-services business with hundreds of field employees who never see each other, asked Peoplehood to host a series of gatherings for workers to meet and share job advice. Another, a marketing company with far-flung employees, requested help after surveys showed staff wanted to feel more connected.

“Whatever relationships we had pre-Covid have sort of run out of gas,” Rice says.

Good luck prodding employees to socialise, though. Nearly all the 150-odd staff at the Pleasanton, Calif., headquarters of Shaklee, the nutrition-supplements company, used to attend annual Earth Day gatherings, which involved community service, lunch and breaking early for the day, says Jonathan Ramot , the company’s North American human-resources director. Office happy hours, bowling outings and “mix and mingles” were also robustly attended.

Now that the workforce has gone remote, last year’s Earth Day event attracted 20 staffers, even though most workers live nearby.

“We have a lot of people asking for in-person events, but when we plan them, they don’t show up,” Ramot says. “Then they complain they’re lonely.”

This past April, Shaklee instead held a mandatory get-together with the chief executive, who had relocated to Florida during the pandemic and was in town. About 100 employees gathered at a brewery for food, drinks and conversation—and no speeches from the bosses.

There was a buzz in the air, Ramot says, as staff hugged and delighted in seeing each other, some for the first time. “People were saying, I miss this,” he says.

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