“To be able to work 996 is a huge blessing. If you want to join Alibaba, you need to be prepared to work twelve hours a day, otherwise why even bother joining.”Jack Ma
That terminology means 9AM to 9PM, 6 days a week. A 72 hour work week with little time for much else. Once sleeping and commuting to the office is accounted for, one might wonder how ambitious tech workers fit in the rest of their lives. Is this the price it takes to get ahead in the booming Chinese economy, or is this a symptom of a hustle culture that has gotten way out of hand?
Nobody can doubt that Jack Ma is successful. As the co-founder of Alibaba, one of the world’s largest e-commerce businesses, and with an estimated net worth of around $40 billion US Dollars, Ma often makes lists of the world’s most powerful people. However, his recent comments on the company’s WeChat account about 996 working culture, which is becoming increasingly prevalent in China, have sparked outrage.
Ma states that “many companies and many people don’t have the opportunity to work 996. If you don’t work 996 when you are young, when can you ever work 996? In this world, everyone wants success, wants a nice life, wants to be respected. Let me ask everyone, if you don’t put out more time and energy than others, how can you achieve the success you want?”
Ma isn’t the only notable businessman advocating for long hours. A reportedly leaked email from JD.com, another Chinese e-commerce company, noted that the employees considered to be underperforming are staff that don’t keep “fighting” to do more work “regardless of performance, position, tenure, personal well-being issues or family reasons”. Youzan, a Hong Kong-listed e-commerce giant was reported to have demanded that employees also follow the 996 routine at its end of year gala event. Their CEO, Bai Ya, then defended these comments on the grounds that it would expose more people to the company’s culture and help people truly decide whether they want to work there.
Recently a website went live at 996.ICU, believed to have been created by protesting Chinese tech workers. The website is hosted on Github and has been created by an anonymous user that joined the site on March 25th 2019.
The name “996.ICU” refers to the phrase “work by 996, sick in Intensive Care Unit”, which succinctly describes how the 72 hour a week working culture touted by the Chinese tech giants as the recipe for success is anything but; it’s a recipe for burnout and serious health problems.
The website itself highlights that Chinese labor laws state that no more than 8 hours of work a day and no more than 44 hours of work per week are considered legal in a standard contract, and that it is illegal to not offer additional compensation via overtime for those workers that clock up more hours than the legal maximum. The website also claims that although it is a recent phenomena that notable companies have made public statements about the existence of 996 culture, it has long been a secret practiced in many Chinese companies.
There is further information stored in files the Github repository itself. Contributions are accepted for a list of companies that are practicing 996 working hours along with the time it was believed to have begun. It also includes links to evidence of these practices. The list currently contains 110 companies and features globally known names such as Huawei, Alibaba, Baidu and Youzan. Provided evidence ranges from screenshots of “voluntary struggle” agreements from Huawei through to posts from workers on Kanzhun, the Chinese equivalent to Glassdoor.
A contributor to the 996.ICU repository has created a new software license for others to include in their open source projects. It explicitly forbids companies that are not complying with all applicable labor laws and regulations from using that software. There have been requests to add it to projects such as Redis, React and Vue. It has already been added to a whole host of other projects, as noted by 996.ICU’s “awesomelist”.
Controversy has been amplified by reports that the protest website has been blocked by the web browsers of the Chinese technology companies that are under scrutiny. The popular instant messaging program WeChat refuses to open links to the webpage. Browsers such as Tencent’s QQ, Qihoo’s 360 and the native browser of Xiaomi smartphones restrict user access to the site. QQ displays a pop-up message that tells users that the protest page is a “malicious site”. 360 browser blocks the site and displays a message that it “contains illegal information”. Similar messages are displayed by Xiaomi’s browser.
This could suggest that Chinese technology companies are beginning to take the law into their own hands. Not only are they publicly declaring that their culture involves working hours that are deemed illegal by Chinese law, they are deciding to apply their own censorship to websites that they believe to be harmful to their reputation.
How long has 996 been going on for?
In the initial technology start-up boom era of the early 2000s, many companies embraced a culture of working around the clock in order to claim first-mover advantage on their competitors. This period gave birth to Chinese startups that are now some of the most valuable in the world, such as Tencent and Alibaba. Given the astounding growth of these companies, many have since adapted a relentless work culture in the hope that they too can replicate their success.
However, as Bloomberg reports, a commenter on Jack Ma’s Weibo post stated that “the bosses do 996 because they’re working for themselves and their wealth is growing. We work 996 because we’re exploited without overtime compensation.” This observation is not unique.
The BBC report on the story of Li Zhepeng, a 25-year old that moved to Shanghai with the hope to jump start his career. However, the reality was starkly different: he had to commute ninety minutes each way to the outer suburbs, where office space is cheaper, in order to work 12 hour days posting descriptions of items for sale on an e-commerce website. As well as being expected to work on Sundays, he took home ¥3,500 a month, equivalent to $560.
Reports of 996 culture also extend beyond technology companies. Jared Turner, a bakery owner in Shanghai, reports on Quora that when he started his bakery he scheduled shifts for workers to be 5 days a week, only to find that virtually all full-time employees had another part-time job on the side. The key difference here is that the bakery workers chose to work 996. “Chinese people work hard,” he states.
Motivation for an individual to work 996 is varied. Some are in desperate need of the money. Some know that in order to get ahead in their career they need to dedicate themselves to their job at the expense of their outside lives. Some have no choice but to comply to the culture of the company that they work for, lest they lose their jobs.
But does 996 get more done?
On the surface, working 996 is about companies capitalizing on as many hours of the week as possible in order to make progress. It utilizes sheer brute force to beat the competition and to capture a market before the competition. However, knowledge work such as computer programming is unlike factory work: it is not a series of repetitive tasks that can be done by anyone as long as they can stay awake and crank the handle.
Instead, like in many other creative pursuits such as mathematics, writing or designing, a human’s output on a given task depends on many different factors. Some of these key variables include the quality of the working environment, worker’s exposure to stress and the ability to frequently rest well. Sometimes programmers can butt their heads against a problem that they cannot solve for hours, only for the solution to come to them the next morning after having a good night’s sleep.
Working endlessly to a punishing schedule can make an individual less effective than if they were fewer less hours in a calmer manner. Tired employees can do sloppy work and introduce bugs that cause downtime and even more effort to fix. Some of the greatest minds in history – those that have produced defining works for humanity – have vouched for shorter work days in order for them to be at their creative peak. While it is true that Darwin, Poincare and Thomas Mann are geniuses with superior intellectual abilities, they confined their creative output to daily blocks of 3-4 hours, and filled the rest of their days with other activities.
Thus the greatest waste of 996 culture is that it is symbolic overwork that is detrimental to the mental and physical wellbeing of staff. It does not guarantee that those staff are producing better work than their peers who are working saner schedules. This therefore deprives people of their free time and makes families and relationships suffer, for no extra pay and no extra output. It is akin to cultural imprisonment, where staff are either pretending to look busy until it is acceptable to leave the office, or they are literally working themselves to death.
A friend of mine moved to Japan to begin his career after finishing his Ph.D. He once made the observation that if you visited the train station in my hometown of Brighton, UK at midnight on a Friday, it would be full of people who are traveling home from a night out. In comparison, the platforms of Tokyo train stations at the same time of the week are full of suited employees on their way home from work.
Overwork culture is not new, and it is not a primarily Chinese problem. Japan has long suffered from this issue. Cultural phenomena such as being unable to leave work until one’s boss leaves and regularly clocking more than 80 hours of overtime a month have been reported for decades. In fact, this extreme overwork has caused deaths in seemingly otherwise healthy individuals, and it even has a term: karōshi. Translated to mean “overwork death”, the first case is attributed to a 29 year old male in 1969, with the phrase becoming more widely known in 1978 as multiple individuals died from overwork-related strokes or heart attacks.
The Japanese bubble economy of the 1980s, which brought frantic economic activity, elevated karōshi to national attention with reports of several notable business executives dying suddenly without any previous signs of illness. Given the current Chinese technology boom, it is no wonder to see that working 996 can result in a trip to the ICU.
However, some young Chinese workers are refusing to confirm to the harmful cultural norm. Instead of suffering in silence, they are beginning to speak up or show their disagreement by finding work elsewhere. Li Zhepeng, the e-commerce worker that we mentioned earlier, decided to switch to a different job and then be up front about his working conditions. He spoke candidly with his manager to set a more manageable workload and also to ensure that he was able to occasionally leave earlier. She agreed. His colleagues noted that he was their idol for having the bravery for speaking up.
A 955 future
The 996.ICU Github repository also links to another list of companies: those that are reported to be working a saner 9AM to 5PM, 5 days a week schedule: known as 955. A majority of the companies listed are of Western origin, such as eBay, Oracle, Intel and Apple. With the anti-996 movement creating cultural pressure for non-conforming companies to change their ways, and with younger workers casting their vote for their preference with their feet, we can only hope that those that are employed in 996 workplaces will find the support to challenge those that are setting the agenda.
Although Western technology firms are by no means perfect, there are numerous pro-worker cultural movements that have gained a significant voice. Instead of sitting around until our bosses leave, we are beginning to celebrate bosses that leave loudly. At the time of writing, Working Nomads lists over 10,000 highly skilled jobs that can be done remotely and flexibly from a desk anywhere in the world. Technology companies are beginning to realize that a fridge full of Diet Coke and chocolate is less important than being able to work flexible hours. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s latest book It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work is a #1 Amazon bestseller.
Work should support and enable lives, rather than claim them. Conditions in Chinese technology companies, as they have done in other countries, will eventually change, as current practices are unsustainable. In August 2018, two Chinese technology founders died in circumstances believed to be related to high-pressure working environments. But, regardless of the bad press, has 996 culture got Silicon Valley spooked?
Many see 996 culture as a threat to Western economies. However, by no means should we cave in to these practices. Instead, we should focus on strategy and efficiency of our workforce. Companies should strive to create the conditions that allow their staff and products to succeed without being shackled to their desks. We should clear out meaningless meetings. We should allow for focussed deep work that moves the needle. We should give staff the flexibility they need to be their most productive. We should work hard, but most importantly, we should go home. That’s how we win the marathon.