The 996 of Alibaba’s Growing Pains

6 min read.

Credit: Bloomberg

When the National Bureau of Statistics reported on the average daily ‘free time’ that Chinese employees have recently, the post went viral on Weibo. Compared to last year, the average Chinese employee has 25 minutes less each day this year. Outside of work and sleep, they only have 2.42 hours for themselves every day. Over half of the 100,000 respondents surveyed also claim they have been sleeping less.

Medical journals have consistently linked poor health to long work hours. An elaborate study with over 600,000 individuals, published in 2015 by The Lancet medical journal, revealed that people who work for more than 55 hours a week face an increased risk of stroke and coronary heart disease, compared with those who work between 35 and 40 hours a week.

China’s much envied achievements in the technology sector come at the expense of overworked young tech workers who have succumbed to the notorious 996 or 007 work schedules. 996 refers to “9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week”, which under many unfortunate circumstances, may stretch to “midnight to midnight, 7 days a week”, hence the birth of the concept of 007.

The 996 work schedule is common today at many Chinese tech giants and startup companies. A report by Financial Times cites findings from a 2016 study by Didi Chuxing, China’s largest ride-hailing platform, which tracked urban white collar workers based on taxi bookings from business districts to residential areas between 9pm and midnight on working days. The data showed that employees of internet, finance and media companies were their top late night riders.

China’s basic labor law prohibits more than 36 hours of overtime each month for most workers. However, the law enforcement is arbitrary, leaving plenty of room for employers to establish corporate cultures, which depending on how one takes it, either insinuate or motivate employees to work overtime voluntarily.

The startup mentality 

Alibaba’s campus in Hangzhou, China, in festive mood during the 24-hour Singles’ Day shopping event. 
Credit: Bloomberg

Talk about work culture with any Aliren, as Alibaba’s employees are known, there is a chance that the conversation will veer toward the internet giant’s prevailing startup mentality, and you can see a hint of pride creeping into their eyes. After all, many of these employees have had startup experience, if not founders themselves. Despite being worth upward of USD 700 billion in market capitalization, Alibaba is still a massive growth engine, which comprises numerous business units with a multitude of vertical departments within them that are as driven as the ambitious startups working out of Beijing’s Zhongguancun, the Silicon Valley of China.

It is hardly surprising that for some of these employees, a 996 work culture is like second nature. The furore over 996 resurfaced recently after ex-Alibaba and Huawei employees attempted to fulfill the 996 schedule at their new workplace, Microsoft, to the horror of existing employees who are used to the more balanced work hours at a foreign tech company. Most foreign enterprises require that employees apply to work over time with valid reasons. Weekly overtime hours are limited, and the company provides overtime pay and other compensation in accordance to China’s labor law. 

The prevalence of a 996 work culture first drew international ire last year when an anonymous disgruntled employee posted under the screen name “996icu” on GitHub, an online community where programmers around the world share code and software tools. The screen name drips of sarcasm, as it associates Alibaba with an intensive care unit (ICU), where such insane working hours take place for the employees.

The bright red homepage of 996.ICU, which has become a popular repository of workers’ rights campaign materials on GitHub.
Credit: GitHub

The 996.ICU GitHub repository, which is a project file folder, had been “starred” over 230,000 times during the uproar, as fed-up tech workers contributed to the project. Outside GitHub, the tech community leveraged memes, stickers and T-shirts provided a voice to these silent overworked peers. Some even pushed for a holiday to celebrate exhausted software developers. There is also a list of things people can do to support the movement. The last item on the list: “Go home at 6 pm without feeling sorry.”

Where the movement should have triggered a reflection on overtime policies in the industry, China’s own tech leaders had come forth to defend long work hours, with Jack Ma, Alibaba’s famous founder, calling them “a huge blessing”. 

“If you don’t like it, every minute [of work] is torture,” he explained, adding that it would be unsustainable for people to remain in 996 jobs that they did not enjoy. Similarly, Richard Liu, the founder of JD, commented that employees had become slack in recent years, adding that those who frittered away their days were “no brothers of mine”.

No wonder Alibaba and JD have both made it into the blacklist on GitHub — a list of tech companies where the hours are longest, which also includes smartphone maker Huawei and Bytedance, the social media giant behind TikTok. As if providing fellow tech workers with a way out, a whitelist of exemplar 955 companies (9 am to 5 pm, 5 days a week) have also been drawn up — Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Chinese social website Douban have all made it on this list.

At the bottom of its home page, the 996.ICU group signs off: “Developers’ lives matter.”

Live seriously, work happily 

Alibaba prides itself on its strong corporate culture. Every new employee’s onboarding procedure includes a week-long orientation where corporate culture and core values factor strongly. As the leader in a highly dynamic internet environment, Alibaba’s culture and values must remain versatile and adaptable to shifting environmental forces, especially when they have become restrictive to growth. After all, “change is a constant” is one of its core values. 

The original set of values — the fundamental beliefs upon which the company’s business and behaviors are based — were created when Alibaba was a mere startup working out of Jack Ma’s home in Hangzhou. Management knew early on that both themselves and their staff needed more motivation to run a business than just generating profits. For many years, the six core values, which everyone in the organization, even Jack Ma himself, has sworn by, revolve around putting customers first, fostering teamwork, embracing change, working with integrity, passion and commitment. There has been no mention of work-life balance at all.

Despite Ma’s highly criticised endorsement of a 996 work culture, Alibaba seems to be moving toward a more flexible and employee-friendly environment, especially after the current CEO Daniel Zhang took over the reins last year. On Alibaba’s 20th Anniversary on 10 September 2019, the company announced an updated set of core values aimed at strengthening the company’s culture and uniting employees in the digital age. Zhang added that workers might interpret the company’s newly articulated values in their own ways.

Credit: Alizila

The first of the original values — “customers first” — is being carried forward, as well as the sentiment behind some of the others, according to Alizila, Alibaba’s corporate magazine. The sixth value is new: “Live seriously, work happily”. The full company statement explains: “Work is for now, but life is forever. We want our employees to treat life seriously when they work and enjoy work as one enjoys life. We respect the work-life balance decisions of every individual.”

In any event, simply including worker well-being in its core values is a significant first step toward the company’s mission of evolving Alibaba into a truly global enterprise. Paramount to fulfilling the ethos of “live seriously, work happily” is freeing employees from the rigors of 996.

One of them is the much dreaded weekly work report. It is mandatory for employees to submit to their supervisors with elaborate details on the weekly progress of projects, as well as personal thoughts on a variety of issues. Depending on the complexity and number of projects that one handles, a weekly work report could consume up to half a day of an employee’s time to complete, which usually happens over the weekend. The original intention has been good, as it allows supervisors to keep pace of their team members’ work and concerns. However, a growing sentiment prevails over time that suggests the document is nothing more than a control mechanism disguised as a progress report.

As it hampers efficiency and disrupts employees’ rest time, Alibaba has now officially eliminated the weekly report, among a few other things.

An internal memo communicates: “We are after work efficiency — unnecessary work rituals will only increase the burden of employees. In future, we will no longer enforce weekly work reports. We will also abolish the use of PPT, if it were just a formal presentation that lacks depth in thought and content. Above all, we discourage unproductive overtime work.” 

Alibaba’s affiliated company, Ant Financial, has followed suit in a move that hopefully, could encourage more companies in the industry to take the wellbeing of employees more seriously, by improving efficiency to increase productivity.

Moving out of the shadows of 996

As China’s economy transitions from rapid growth to quality development, the internet sector will also be moving along similar trajectories. In the near future, China and her internet sector will inevitably remain in the growth stage, creating many opportunities for employees on only one condition — that they also work hard for them.

To achieve this, corporate policies must evolve to become more result-oriented but also more human-centered, with an emphasis on efficiency, productivity and employee well-being. Human resource policies must empathize with people’s need to enjoy life, helping employees to balance work commitment with their private lives. Employees will not have to sacrifice one for the other but will be able to enjoy the best of both worlds. In fact, flexible work arrangement is a great motivator that could unleash employees’ potential while allowing companies to attract talents. 

Alibaba’s results of the 2020 Singles’ Day shopping event.
Credit: CNBC

Jack Ma projects that Alibaba will be serving two billion customers and creating up to 100 million jobs by 2036 if the company were to continue its current growth pace. To build a sustainable organization that can realize this vision, Alibaba will have to continually evolve its corporate culture and values to create meaningful work and a conducive environment for the ambitious talents who are eager to join the company, not only in China but globally.