Internet & Tech

Staying late at the office

Tencent’s game developer emerges as first to attack ‘996’ work culture


Lightspeed’s overtime police

Wednesday is “Healthy Day” when no one has to work past 6pm. Staff won’t be asked to work on Saturdays and Sundays. And Wednesdays aside, you must leave the office before 9pm.

The so-called “Happy Work, Healthy Life” regimen was conceived as a selling point for employment at Lightspeed & Quantum Studios, a Tencent-owned games developer that employs thousands of people. Indeed it’s considered a highly enlightened work schedule by the standards of China’s hyper-competitive internet and technology sector. So much so that copies of the ‘radical’ arrangement were leaked online this week, reviving the debate about China’s gruelling ‘996’ work culture (see WiC449 for our first mention of this arduous practice).

Some aspects of Lightspeed’s overtime rules are edifying. For instance, if a department makes more then 10% of its employees work past 6pm on a given evening, managers can’t order anyone to work overtime for the following five days. The idea is that managers are then forced to confront the issue of too many people staying late.

Line managers at Lightspeed must also ask bigger bosses to sign off on overtime if employees have to stay later than 9pm.

Yet even these “healthy” rules don’t align with China’s labour laws – though they are an improvement on working arrangements at other tech companies. Chinese law says employees should not work more than 47 hours a week including overtime and that extra hours can only be demanded after negotiation.

The ‘996’ label first appeared in 2016 when job ads used the label to indicate positions that demanded long working hours – colloquially, from nine in the morning to nine at night, six days a week.

Over the years, the government has tried – somewhat half-heartedly – to discourage the practice, although none of the big tech companies has ever been prosecuted for overworking their staff, despite deaths that have been linked to long working hours (see WiC523).

Indeed, at various times China’s biggest tech entrepreneurs have laughed off the concept of work-life balance. Alibaba founder Jack Ma famously said that ‘996’ was a “huge blessing”.

“If you join Alibaba, you should get ready to work 12 hours a day, otherwise why do you come to Alibaba? We don’t need those who are only comfortable working eight hours,” he said.

The leading tech firms typically incentivise people to work longer hours by paying lucrative overtime, while smaller start-ups keep people at their desks by promising big payouts if the company is sold or IPOs.

But young people have started citing the long working hours as reasons they are not meeting partners, getting married and having kids. They can also lead to serious health problems such as depression, insomnia and even cardiac arrest, say critics.

One study by the Wuhan University of Science and Technology in 2018 found that more than 80% of Chinese workers felt overworked and stressed by their jobs. The China Economic Life Survey of 2019-2020 found that 25% of working adults were reporting less than an hour of free time a day, while a 2019 survey by online recruitment platform Zhilian Zhaopin found that more than 70% of respondents said they had gone unpaid for overtime work too.

Recently Douyin’s owner Bytedance surveyed its staff to see whether they wanted to change the company’s longstanding rota system of working one week for five days, followed by the next week for six. The results were inconclusive: a third of the staff voted to abolish the longer weeks, a third voted to keep them and the remainder were undecided.

A major factor for those that voted against the removal of the longer weeks was money. One engineer calculated he would earn Rmb100,000 ($15,432) less over the course of the year on the reduced number of hours. Others said they wouldn’t know what to do if they had more free time. “I’d probably just stay home and play computer games,” one admitted.

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