Caixin
Apr 17, 2019 10:00 AM
TECH TALK

Tech Titans Need to Give Grueling Work Hours a Rest

This week’s column revolves around three numbers — 996 — that have become the center of a lively debate over work hours in China’s high-tech realm these past few days. China is no stranger to number-play, perhaps reflecting a local fondness for trying to summarize many things with catchphrases that can easily capture much bigger issues.

In the first decade of the 21st century, numbers became a subject for fun short-hands as the nation fell in love with new mobile services that included simple text messaging. The digital catchphrase of that time was also a three-digit abbreviation, 520, which in Chinese sounded loosely like “I love you,” reflecting the fun people were having with their new mobile toys.

But 996 is far more serious, embodying the ongoing debate about grueling hours people are often asked to work at many of the nation’s top high-tech firms. The shorthand is pretty simple and is understood or sometimes even a directly stated mantra at many of these companies, demanding employees work each day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week with only Sundays off.

Two of the nation’s biggest high-tech personalities have been at the center of the debate over the past week, both from the e-commerce realm. For once Alibaba founder Jack Ma and JD.com founder Richard Liu weren’t taking potshots at each other, but instead found themselves in the rare position of being on the same side of an issue. Both argued on social media that 996 was a good thing, with the overt or implicit implication that people who didn’t work such schedules might somehow be slackers.

Liu painted the most vivid and colorful picture of the kind of life he led in JD.com’s early days, recalling how he used an alarm clock to make sure he never slept for more than two consecutive hours to ensure all customer queries were answered in timely fashion. Ma was less nostalgic, but compared the 996 lifestyle to a sort of “struggle” that has become a certain rite-of-passage for young people seeking to prove themselves and carve out their own identity in today’s China.

After being pelted with critical comments, Ma posted some additional thoughts a couple of days later admitting that what he said was controversial and perhaps not politically correct in today’s climate. He updated his thinking with some more tempered comments saying the most important thing was to do what you loved, and then 996 wouldn’t matter anymore.

Changing times, changing companies

From my perspective, the 996 phenomenon in China stems from two particular factors, one uniquely Chinese and the other a bit more universal. The first is directly linked to China’s transformation from a planned economy to a market-oriented one. The second revolves around the issue of work culture at startups, and when exactly a company no longer qualifies as a startup.

We’ll begin with the first factor involving China’s transformation, which has created a huge generation gap between those who grew up in the socialist era and those who grew up in the current period. As timing would have it, both Jack Ma, who was born in 1964, and Richard Liu, born a decade later, both came of age career-wise when the country was just starting to make the transition.

I remember that period quite vividly from my earliest China days in the late 1980s. Back then most people were still assigned to state-run employers after their schooling, and would remain there for life. Ma was among those, working his early years as an English teacher before striking out on his own to form several startups that finally led to Alibaba. Liu would have also come up through the same system, though he would have spent less time in the state-run establishment before setting up the high-tech goods trader that would eventually become JD.com.

To these guys, who were perhaps resigned at one point to lifetimes in dead-end jobs at big state-run establishments, the chance to start their own business was undoubtedly a huge breath of fresh air. Accordingly, they were willing to work as many hours as it took to nurture their babies into the giants they’ve become today. But fast forward to the present, when startups are more or less a dime a dozen, and many young people aren’t nearly as energized by the chance to do something that’s become the norm and is no longer unheard of and new.

The second factor involves the difference between startups and more mature companies, and what’s required at each. In exploring the topic, I polled a number of my former students and friends for their views. Many expressed similar thoughts, saying they found the 996 concept generally inappropriate. But most were also quick to add that they could make exceptions for a startup, especially their own, if it offered the opportunity to do something they really loved and found exciting.

That brings us back to Alibaba and JD.com, which were certainly startups at one point but can hardly deserve that moniker today. A look at their latest annual reports shows that Alibaba now employs about 66,000 people, while JD.com employed nearly three times as many — the big majority in its massively money-losing logistics unit.

I talked with one of my C-level contacts at a major New York-listed Chinese company, and he said his firm has recently gone through a transition in mentality over working hours. In its earlier days the company actually required 996-style hours of its top executives, and most rank-and-file workers followed suit. But having reached a certain size and level of stability, the company now encourages people to do things like take Saturdays off and spend more time with their families, he said.

At the end of the day, 996 really does seem like an outdated concept for any mature company, be it in China or the rest of the world. As for startups, there’s really no substitute for the buzz one feels each time a new order comes in at such firms, no matter what time, confirming that someone values what you are doing. Accordingly, I can see people working the 996 schedule at that point in their careers. But as many pointed out, at that stage you become so engrossed in what you’re doing that you don’t often don’t even notice the time.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to DougYoung@caixin.com

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