Recently, there has been significant media attention given to the Chinese government publicly announcing that it will take a tougher stance on protecting the rights of workers amidst what has become the status quo in many big corporations in China – “996” corporate culture.
996 is an abbreviation used to label the corporate culture that exists at the offices of many big corporations in China where workers are expected to be in the office from 9am until 9pm for 6 days of the week – from Monday through to Saturday.
Not only have many workers complained of the exhaustion and encroachments into free time that such a culture causes, but many have also pointed out that employers often do not pay overtime for the extra hours – despite the law requiring that work hours additional to the standard 8 hours a day should be considered overtime and thus remunerated accordingly.
For many years, the 996 corporate culture in China has commonly been accepted as the status quo by both workers and employers and, at the same time, has been allowed to exist relatively unchecked by the government. Public figures from the corporate world in China – including Jack Ma – previously have even voiced their support of 996. It is easy to understand why executives and decision makers in the corporate world have allowed it to exist. It is obvious that any stakeholder of profits in a company, from a pure cost versus profit perspective of analysis, would certainly favor an environment which allows an increase of labor resources and – supposedly – a consequent increase in production capacity whilst simultaneously maintaining a zero increase in labor cost. However, given my experience of working across multiple industries in China at various companies, I think that few employers have failed to consider some of the key reasons for why the 996 format exists; these reasons include incompetent skills and abilities of executives, management and other staff which, in parallel to necessitating the 996 status quo, also cause poor production results and failure-ridden production outputs.
Between 2008 and 2020, I worked for companies based in China. My experience spanned the industries of Events Management, Airlines, Software Development, China Market Consulting, Aviation & Aerospace and FMCG. Of the Chinese companies I worked for, some were privately owned, some were state-owned and some were Sino-NZ Joint Ventures. The smallest company I worked for had a workforce of around 30 people while the largest had a workforce of more than 400,000 people (yes, that is 6 zeroes). I believe this experience gives me some degree of credibility in commenting on 996 corporate culture. Below I will comment on my experience of 996 and the more general status quo of overtime in China that is not necessarily strictly 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week.
Across nearly all of the companies I worked for in China, overtime was commonplace and a daily occurrence. Working until 9pm was not considered out-of-the-ordinary and work spilling over onto Saturdays was considered inconvenient but normal. Moreover, the vast majority of the time, overtime was not paid for in the form of an additional monetary component of salary.
According to my experience and observations, there are several reasons why this 996 corporate culture exists. These reasons include:
- (1) Inept Planning
- (2) Poor Management Skills
- (3) Poor work Ethic
(1) Inept Planning
Inept Planning was something that was evident at the executive and management level of staff. At multiple companies in China, I noticed that those in executive and management positions lacked the ability to sufficiently plan ahead. Firstly, at the executive level, decisions about large commercial projects were often made very sporadically and at very short notice. This meant that managers – whom themselves had relatively limited planning skills, were constantly thrown curveballs by executives which consequently made projects the managers were responsible for extremely precarious. The results were hastily rolled out projects that required large volumes of overtime in order to cope with short lead-times ahead of the relevant deadlines. Below, I have included a few examples from my own experiences which illustrate this.
Only 5 Days To Prepare A Business Plan For A New Market Entry & Financial Projections For 5 Years
When I was working at a large airline group, we were told by our department manager whom was told by the CEO that, in 5 days, the CEO wanted to see a business plan for the market entry of a new airline for an emerging country market in Africa. The business plan was to include a full route network plan with passenger market projections for 5 years, an aircraft fleet plan, financial projections and also a SWOT and PESTLE analysis of the country market. At the time, I along with a few colleagues had already been mandated by our department head and the CEO to oversee a similar business plan for 6 country markets in Africa that was being compiled by an international consultancy. However, the country market we were told to prepare a business plan for in just 5 days was not one of the 6 countries we had been focusing on. As a result, in order to complete the work required,for 5 days we worked from dawn until dusk and even worked until 430am on the final night before the deadline. The result was hastily compiled market research and a rushed business plan that was based on very conservative data estimations – since we were unable to find reliable data in such a short time – that painted a very mediocre market opportunity for the potential new market. Consequently, the CEO did not think the market was worth looking into further and cancelled our focus on Africa – including our focus on the other 6 African markets which business plans had not yet been completed for and, according to our preliminary research, seemed to have much more potential than the focus market which we had been sporadically told to prepare the business plan for.
The above is but one example from my time at that airline conglomerate; however, this sequence of inept planning leading to short-deadlines which then resulted in rushed projects and then poor work outputs and poor decision making was a frequent occurrence. Moreover, this inept planning necessitated the 996 corporate culture as valuable work output was so low – despite everybody being extremely busy – and the work output frequently below expectations and thus excessive working hours needed to be incurred to compensate. Interestingly, this airline conglomerate has recently gone into bankruptcy and restructuring after going on a decade-long spree of international mergers and acquisitions. It is perhaps not too far-fetched to speculate that many decisions to merge with and acquire companies were in fact made under the influence of this inept planning.
Only 6 Weeks To Launch A Brand New Aviation Tourism Operation
When I was working at a Sino-NZ Joint Venture (JV) in the aviation and aerospace sector in China, the company decided that it would set up its own subsidiary tandem skydiving drop zones in China which would use and thus showcase the aircraft which the JV manufactured. I was responsible for doing market research and due diligence to recommend suitable cities in China for the set-up of the drop zones. My recommendations for cities and airports took into consideration multiple factors that would contribute to the commercial success of the drop zones. For each respective city and airport that was recommended, these factors included tourist numbers, tourism seasonality, tourist demographics, airport infrastructure, airspace congestion, airspace usage approval feasibility, local operating costs and et cetera. I presented my list of recommended locations for set-up to the board. After several months of deliberation, the board officially gave the project team the green light to form the business plan and market launch plan for the first drop done which was to be launched in just 6 weeks time – albeit in a location which had not appeared in the list of recommended locations due to it failing to meet key selection criteria.
The chosen location was a completely unused airport which had been built by the local government of the respective region and literally was in the middle of a desert devoid of premium tourists (which were the target demographic due to the high cost and thus high sale price of tandem skydiving). The location had been chosen by the Chinese partner in the JV – whom was an automotive manufacturer – due to the fact that the local government of the administrative region in which the airport was located had purchased a fleet of passenger buses from the Chinese partner. Thus, the Chinese partner needed to“do a favor” for their government client by bringing a commercial project to the unused airport which they had spent government money to construct.
Due to the unsuitability of the location and the short-notice of the deadline for market launch, the team had to work around the clock for 6 weeks trying to get all the operational resources we needed out to the remote location and trying to convince travel agencies to add our comparatively expensive product to their tour packages. 2 weeks prior to the launch, due to the remoteness of the location and immense workload of tasks we needed to complete to ready the location for the market launch, each day we were leaving at 5am to commute to the airport from the city where we were staying and returning at 7pm. This schedule was maintained throughout the first 2 weeks of the market launch which ultimately equated to the life of the operation since it indeed was a complete failure due to its completely unsuitable location.
6 months later, the same exhaustion ensued when the board chose a 2nd location for the set-up of a new tandem skydiving operation which again did not meet any of the key criteria and again was given a deadline of only 6 weeks for market launch. The difference with the 2nd location which exaggerated the so-called 996 problem even more was the fact that the launch was planned for the 2nd day of the 7-day Chinese New Year Holiday – one of the most important periods of public holidays in China. This meant that this poor planning not only resulted in the whole team having to work according to and beyond 996 expectations for the 6 weeks leading up to the launch, but then also had to work according to those expectations through 6 days of the 7 public holiday days – with no additional compensation.
This 2nd airport chosen by the board was again chosen sporadically and for political reasons rather than commercial ones. The airport was congested with airline traffic and was located near a massive resort which, due to it annually hosting of an international forum which was attended by many heads of states, required the airspace – which our operation needed to use for tandem skydiving – to be constantly monitored and patrolled by the military for months on either side of the forum. As a result, the operation only ever carried out 2 flights approved especially by the authorities during the 2-week market launch – no further flights were ever carried out due to the tightly controlled airspace. Thus, again the poor planning not only resulted in excessive overtime and the need to work according to the 996 format to meet project deadlines, but also resulted in fail-ridden production outputs.
(2） Poor Management Skills
In my experience, a key driver behind the prevalence of the 996 corporate culture in China was poor management skills. Poor management skills – particularly time management and management of labor inputs – at the executive level and the management level of staff caused a huge amount of inefficiencies and nonsensically overloaded work schedules which, in turn, caused working schedules to expand out into the 996 format.
“Please Call Everyone To The Meeting Room”
One thing that was common across many of the Chinese companies that I worked for was the failure of executives to let managers be managers. Often, when executives wanted a particular department or business unit to work on something, instead of just meeting individually with the manager of the department or the manager of the business unit and communicating the requirements of a project or task and thus entrusting the manager to coordinate his department or team, the executive would call the entire department or business unit into the meeting room for a long-winded meeting. Hence, instead of using 2 man hours to explain a new project or task to a manager, the executive would use the 1 man hour of himself, plus the 1 man hour of the manager plus 1 man hour multiplied by the number of additional staff in the department. In my case, varying according to the company I worked for, my department ranged from between 5 to 20 people. Hence, that resulted in the executive consuming significantly more man hours than were needed for the meeting and this resulted in pulling away man hours needed for other ongoing tasks. If these other tasks were time-sensitive – which many of them were – it often resulted in staff having to work overtime to get them complete since their schedules had been disrupted by meetings which were really only necessary for their managers to attend.
CCing Everyone On Emails
Emails between executives and managers and also from them to staff often involved extensive CC recipient lists which meant that staff were constantly inundated with emails that were filled with information irrelevant to them. At the same time, staff still needed to read the emails since they were sent from or to superiors and thus had the remote possibility of containing important relevant information. These extensive CC recipient lists meant staff spent a lot of time reading irrelevant emails and this took time away from their fundamental tasks and caused the need to work late to complete them.
Servile Executives & Managers
Many executives & managers I encountered at the companies I worked for seemed to be more concerned with pleasing their superiors than actually ensuring productive and successful work systems. Time and time again, I saw executives and managers disrupt working days with meetings or require staff to attend evening functions which were designed to allow the executive or manager to show their superior their servility. This resulted in staff needing to prolong their working hours. Below is an example somewhat comical due to how ridiculous it is.
It was 4pm the day before the market launch of a new aviation operation. The location of the aviation operation was 1 hour drive from the city where one of the board directors was visiting on a business trip – where our project team also happened to be staying. Our project team was working on site getting the venue ready for the market launch. We had been at the venue since 6am and were rushing to finish by 5pm so that we could get back to the city, have some dinner and get an early night so that we would be fresh for the next day which would start again at 5am due to the market launch. I received a phone call from a company executive where he informed us that we were to have a dinner – that evening – with the respective board director to celebrate the upcoming market launch and thank the director for his support for the project. In short, after spending several minutes desperately trying to convince the executive that this was not a good idea due to the team being absolutely exhausted and the dinner most likely involving excessive drinking and a late finish, the executive did not budge and required attendance of all members of the project team. The result was a long-winded dinner where the executive constantly made toasts to the visiting director and required everyone to drink to his toasts from the moment we arrived until 10pm. The next day, half the project team were still intoxicated and too hung-over to fulfill their roles in the market launch. Consequently, a few colleagues which seemed better genetically predisposed to handling alcohol intake had to excessively multi-task to complete the market launch. Comically, the market launch was for a tandem skydiving aviation operation and I was the project manager and supposed to coordinate the different roles of the project team during the operation launch event; however, due to half of the team being indisposed on the day of the launch, I ended up performing several of the roles simultaneously – greeting customers, arranging their sign in, introducing them to instructors, driving them across the tarmac to the aircraft and greeting them on the ground upon their landing, while also communicating with the airport control tower, pilots and the tandem instructors to coordinate flight schedules. Needless to say, due to the reduction of labor input thanks to the servile executive who seemingly did not understand the concept of man hours, labor inputs, labor outputs and the effect of alcohol and disruptions by long-winded dinners on these, the day of the launch of the operation was prolonged well beyond normal working hours.
(3) Poor Work Ethics
At both state owned enterprises – where standard working hours of around 9 to 5 were more common than 996 – and also at other enterprises where the status quo was 996, I noticed that poor work ethics was common across the majority of staff. This ultimately necessitated prolonged working hours and caused 996 to be the status quo. This was true particularly for lower level staff but also for some management and executive staff.
The poor work ethics which I observed are probably best described by summarizing what would happen on a typical working day. Interestingly, the below example is based on my observation at a state owned enterprise where overtime was not as rampant due to it being government owned; however, there the degree of poor work ethics was the most severe.
- 0845 to 0859: the staff which report to me arrive at the office and scan their fingerprints to clock in – something which must be done by 0900 to avoid a penalty deduction on salary.
- 0900 to 0930: now clocked in as on time for work, staff either sit in the office and eat breakfast which they have purchased on the way to work or go out to eat breakfast at somewhere close by such as McDonald’s or KFC.
- 0931 to 1100: staff sit at their work stations and work on productive tasks.
- 1101 to 1120: smokers take the elevator downstairs and then go outside of the building to smoke since smoking is not allowed inside. Non-smokers go to the tearoom and make tea and start to chat about where they will go to eat lunch.
- 1121 to 1145: staff return to their work stations and work on productive tasks.
- 1146 to 1200: staff head to the elevators to make sure that waiting in the line for the elevator does not cut into their lunch break.
- 1201 to 1300: staff eat their lunch out at restaurants or food courts nearby.
- 1301 to 1330: staff have an afternoon nap, either napping at their work stations in their chairs, sleeping on sofas in the meeting rooms or even on fold out beds they roll out from various storage spaces in the office.
- 1331 to 1345: staff wake up, roll their beds back to the storage spaces, smokers go outside to smoke and non-smokers prepare cups of tea to take to their desks.
- 1346 to 1500: staff work on productive tasks,
- 1501 to 1520: non-smokers head to the tea rooms again to make tea and smokers take the elevators and go outside to smoke again.
- 1521 to 1715: staff are back at their desks and working on productive tasks.
- 1715 to 1730: staff intermittently leave their desks to discuss dinner plans with colleagues.
- 1731: staff clock out by scanning their fingerprints – something they are not able to do prior to 1730 otherwise pay will be docked – and depart for home.
It is easy to see from the above that on a typical day, the amount of time staff are actually working on productive tasks is comparatively insignificant. It is true that the typical schedule depicted above was also sometimes prolonged due to busy projects and deadlines. However, often the occurrence of overtime and the resulting increase of time where staff were in office only resulted in a slight increase of time where staff were working on productive tasks – since this time was also interrupted by excessive breaks. Consequently, a working day with office hours that would be considered representational of the 996 corporate culture usually did not actually result in productive working hours that would proportionally represent the same amount of working hours that would supposedly be expected by the 996 model. In fact, even according to a 996 schedule, the total amount of productive hours in a day were still actually far below the amount of productive hours that there were supposed to be under normal working hours.
Based on my above experience, which is not limited to the examples I have included above, I believe that the reason 996 existed was not simply due to employers wanting an increase of labor resources and – supposedly – a consequent increase in production capacity whilst simultaneously maintaining a zero increase in labor cost. Rather, I think it is the existence of inept planning, poor management and poor work ethics that have brought the 996 status quo into existence. Objectively, it is good that the government are taking a tougher stance to protect the rights of workers as surely companies where inept planning, poor management and poor work ethics are not rampant but allow the existence of 996 do benefit from an increase of labor resources and a consequent increase in production capacity whilst simultaneously maintaining a zero increase in labor cost. Moreover, this benefit is often not passed onto the workers despite them sacrificing their time and health for the benefit of their employer. However, in light of what I believe are some of the causes for the 996 corporate culture to exist, I believe that if companies focus on improving the inept planning skills, poor management skills and poor work ethics of their staff, the dislodging of the 996 status quo will not necessarily result in a decrease in production outputs or production capacity. Instead, the dislodging of the 996 status quo could in fact be a catalyst for companies to increase their productivity and efficiency. Also, it could be an opportunity for companies to improve the health of the corporate culture and create an environment that encourages people to have a better balance between work and other aspects of life.