In the last year, Alibaba’s 996 culture has been quite the hot topic, perhaps because of how specific the overtime guidelines were, requiring employees to work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. However, in many respects, these types of overtime are nothing new in China, and have in fact been in practice for many years. I first experienced this over seven years ago, when I first moved to Shenzhen to work in the Chinese tech sector.

I still remember the day, one balmy afternoon in April of 2014, when I crossed the border from Hong Kong into Shenzhen, and began my trip to the Huawei campus where I would work and grow for the next 4+ years. Huawei, then one of China’s more successful tech companies overseas, is a classic example of an environment where overtime could and did thrive, full of ambitious and driven employees looking to build something bigger and better.

However, if one truly wants to understand overtime culture, or really anything about China, it’s vital to look at it from different perspectives and understand how it affects different types of people. And throughout my more than ten years in China, I’ve had the somewhat unique experience of working both for smaller companies and factories in addition to towering multinationals with employees in the tens of thousands.

“The boss says that the good and loyal employee is one who stays till at least 9:00pm…”

Office worker, furniture manufacturer, Jiaxing China

So while I would never claim to understand everything about China’s overtime culture, I feel that at this point I understand a good bit, certainly that’s it’s more complicated than Alibaba’s 996. With this in mind, in the below video, I talk a little more in detail about the types of overtime in China and the true value of the practice.

As I discussed to some extent in the video, trying to conclude that overtime is either good or bad is far too simplistic. Instead, I’d suggest that it is better understood to be a tool that can be used by companies, managers, and employees. While overtime work can indeed help companies grow faster and achieve greater (though not always better) results, it is also a double-edged sword, with as much capacity to hurt as to help.

We often hear stories about inexperienced managers who think that delegating mandatory overtime work is a magic bullet to solve their problems, or that employees staying late is an important indicator of loyalty to the company. But continuous overtime degrades performance and efficiency, and potentially employee morale as well. Knowing when to use a tool and when not to is an important part of being a professional in today’s fast-paced world.

In the end, no matter the positives and negatives of China’s overtime working culture, it is and will continue to be a part of the local work culture. Those who aim to work in China or with Chinese companies would be well-advised to understand the potentially more strenuous work environments they will be becoming a part of. For everyone else, I would simply suggest you take a fuller view of what overtime actually is, not just how it can lead to companies’ and teams’ failures, but also how it can help them grow and succeed.

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