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Perspectives on the 9-9-6 work ethic in China

In this article, I want to explain if the 9-9-6 work ethic is really sustainable for anyone out there and offer the perspective when 9-9-6 work ethic can work for an individual.
Perspectives on the 9-9-6 work ethic in China

The 9-9-6 work ethic championed by technology companies in China suggests that every tech worker there should work from 9 am to 9 pm for 6 days a week. Within a year, it has gone from the envy of people outside of China to a serious pushback from the Chinese technology workers.

In truth, the term 9-9-6 is a metaphor for Chinese tech workers to work long hours. The origin of the term 9-9-6 has been well covered by Rui Ma and Ying Ying Lu in their podcast. For some of my Chinese friends who are actually on the ground with very reputable technology giants there, the usual work hours starts from 10 am to 11 pm per day, and typically if you work in Shenzhen, the worst time to get rides on Didi is about 11 pm, because most people get off work after that time. Mike Moritz from Sequoia Capital hailed the 9-9-6 work ethic in China and warned Silicon Valley is in danger of being displaced as a technology nexus in the world if tech workers in Silicon Valley continue to demand work life balance and perks for their jobs. The work ethic even become the name of a podcast for GGV Ventures, a well-known venture capital firm which invests in both US and China.  As the China and US trade tensions escalate, the Chinese economy start to head for a slowdown. Leveraging that reasoning, the Chinese technology companies have started to made both tech and operation workers redundant and emphasized that they should work harder. Even Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group encouraged his employees to continue (note that the article is best read in Chinese) despite the backlash from an anti 996 group building their case in Github.

When I first heard and read about the 9-9-6 work ethic in China, I was very sure that it was not sustainable. From my perspective, this will take a few years to unravel, but it was challenged in less in a year. Yet I believe that it’s a natural cycle of how people from developing nations catalyses the explosive economic growth until it reach the developed nation status. When I was growing up in Singapore as it was still a developing economy, hard work and long hours are the only way to attain high social mobility. At the same time, I witnessed the rise of Japan during that period. An analogous version of the 9-9-6 work ethic was also popular with the Japanese. It took a few years to unravel, with workers going into depression and suicides happening. It is not surprising because working beyond 40 hours is not sustainable. Analogous to the technology industry in China, the Japanese gaming companies have also demanded their workers to work overtime. Eventually, there were enough critical mass of suicides among Japanese game developers that they have to create a black list to punish firms for pushing this.

The 9-9-6 culture is temporary and eventually, like the other cultures of the world which evolved towards a developed status, people will eventually demand work life balance. The problem is that most people conflate working long hours to getting more things done. Unfortunately, efficiency and overwork often and rarely go hand in hand. Once the culture of the nation starts to shift towards creative work, overwork can be counter productive. In fact, when I returned home to Singapore in the mid 2000s, the attitude shifted from working long hours to work life balance.

Why are people working such long hours in China? The reason is that they want to achieve economic well being after going through a tough period where people died of famine and had no opportunity of even working. What has happened in the process, is that the 9-9-6 work ethic is used to spin why some technology companies are more successful than the other in China. There is conflation between three things: working hard and working long hours are synonymous to work achievements in life. However, in reality, it is much more complex than that. As I have learned in my own way, when you start to have a family, your priorities change and you want to start reducing that work hours, but it does not take away what I want to achieve in life.

Picture credit: Imperial storm trooper (taken by Bernard Leong)

Let me break it apart here. We should all work hard in our lives and that work ethic will carry you very far. Particularly when you are young, you need to learn as much as possible so that the work experience and additional skills become the foundation for your success in later life. Working long hours does not mean that you will eventually become successful in your career. In fact, I have started to insert breaks so that I can reflect and think so that I won’t be caught in making wrong decisions in work. That’s the reality. When it comes to decision making and setting and executing a strategic vision is anti-correlated to the number of hours you work. In fact, it has more to do with how much rest you have. Yes, we should work hard, but we must allow ourselves to have the rest to think so that we can engage in deep work.

While you may think that I sound against working long hours, I do see the merits of 9-9-6 mentality. For founders and well-compensated senior leaders of a company, the 9-9-6 mentality is a must. I don’t think that any founder can get away from it. If you don’t try to work very hard for the business as you are fighting for survival, then it’s unlikely that you succeed. When you work on something you really love, and in my case, even on my side project of building a weekly podcast, you will naturally adopt the 9-9-6 work ethic. If you are senior leader in a multi-national corporation, you definitely need to have a 9-9-6 mentality but not doing in the expense of your family or other things important to you. In the weekends, I often reflect on the past work week and write down what I need to do in the following week from prioritizing to tasking. In fact, I often joke to people that I am a 0-0-7, i.e. 12 am to 12 am and 7 days a week.  However, what it really means, is that my mind is focused on the task and I focus on building something better every week, not by explosive pace, but with an incremental craftsman mentality to eventually work toward where I will like it to go. Even when I am resting and attending to other matters, I know that there is a part of me processing work challenges and thinking of solutions at the same time

The analogy is how I look at my learnings in the subject of theoretical physics, after going through a 9-9-6 work ethic to finish my doctorate within 3 years. While re-reading the literature, I develop new insights and perspectives on the same subject as I have been transitioning into both startup and corporate careers. Difficult concepts such as physics and mathematics are osmotic and requires time and patience to take it to the next stage. That’s why working long hours don’t work when it comes to creative work and innovation.

The last thing I want to say about the 9-9-6 work ethic is about people. As leaders, I only expect myself and my immediate reports to work hard and not long. I do not think that everyone is cut out for that as everyone have their own set of issues that they have to cope with. If we want to enforce the work ethic onto others, merely being inspirational is not enough. Investment banks and management consultancies insist their employees to have a 9-9-6 work ethic, but they compensate them well. So, I don’t see why the Chinese firms continue to squeeze their workers on the pretext that 9-9-6 is essential for China’s future success. What the Chinese technology firms are facing the backlash, is that the leaders believe that they can extract more out of their employees without better compensation. Like everything else in life, if you are setting an example, how do you expect others to follow? Hence this is an important consideration when you adopt 9-9-6 work ethic and start to impose such work ethic to the rest of your workforce.  

In the long run, my prediction is that China will evolve towards the current state of Japan and Singapore in a few years time. Expecting everyone to work in such harsh conditions is just not sustainable. This is not about laziness and productivity. Yet, I remain surprised by the pace of change in China so quickly on 9-9-6 work ethic as I thought that this will take at least a few years or if not a decade, to change when people become comfortable and start questioning why they are working so long and getting so little.

In macro-economics, Japan and Singapore have suffered from low birth rates and economic productivity as a result of the spill over effects of working long hours. Essentially, the Chinese government will have to grapple this problem. Starting families are part of the economic cycle and the long hours now championed by the CEOs and founders of Chinese companies may find themselves at odd with the agenda of the government in the longer term.

In the end, as any nation progresses towards innovation and creativity, work life balance will emerge and I won’t be surprised in a few years, the 9-9-6 work ethic becomes a future euphemism for Chinese economic development.