Does 996 Actually Work?

by | May 20, 2019

By Kwan Cheung

Alibaba’s charismatic founder, Jack Ma has recently endorsed China’s typical work culture of 12-hour work days, 6 days a week, referred to as ‘996’ (9am-9pm, 6 days a week).  His statement has been divisive, received with both praise and anger.  

While many other Chinese tech companies accept and operate the ‘996’ system for their employees, many commentators and social media users have  criticised it as they believe it enforces overtime upon lower paid workers making them overworked and actually unproductive.


(Space)X Factor

However, Jack Ma is not the first high-profile entrepreneur to advocate hard-work and long hours to create a successful career; Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk controversially stated that people need to work from around 80 to over 100 hours per week to “change the world.” and “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week”.

Both Ma and Musk are both very successful businessmen and no one would question their devotion to their companies nor their work ethic.  Their approach to work and their dedication by working these demanding hours has undoubtedly been a major factor in their proven successes; they have toiled away working past the point where others would have probably called it a day.

This surely isn’t the only reason for their success though?  In addition to sheer hard-work, along the way they must have utilised their unique combination of education, experience, skills, resources, risk-taking (and perhaps a little luck) to get to where they are today too.  As all these factors are different person-to-person, it’s far too oversimplified to say just work hard for 12 hours a day and one day you’ll be successful; we’re all starting from different positions.


Different Strokes


That leads us to another question; what does ‘successful’ even look like? If your idea of success if to create the next Alibaba or Tesla, then working similarly long hours might in fact be a requirement.  However, ‘success’ is so very subjective. Amassing a personal fortune of $40 billion is certainly one definition, but another might be to retire by age 50, another might be to find a rewarding career which allows them to pick their kids up from school every day.  The path to reach these visions of ‘success’ will be just as different. For some, it may mean working ‘996’, for others though, it may actually mean reducing your hours rather than increasing them to reach their goal.

Certainly for our Varios, a successful career for them has been through a more flexible approach to work than working set hours on a set amount of days per week.  Vario Zoe Harris decided working long hours wasn’t her vision of success: “Working full-time as a lawyer, the hours can be long.  As a Vario, I can dictate my hours and my work-life balance is fantastic.” For others, like Lola Dawson, working flexibly gives her more empowerment; “You essentially have a lot of control over your life which is something most people don’t get until retirement.”


Age Is More Than Just a Number

A big reason why Jack Ma and Elon Musk’s recent comments have been derided by some is because they are both giants of industry; they’re at the top of the tree, not the bottom branches or workers on the ‘shop floor’.  However another significant reason why they have received criticism is probably the fact their views are very much against the current zeitgeist of work life balance being paramount to a successful career, more important than even salary. Millennials in particular, regularly rate work life balance as a higher priority than other factors including job security.  Gen Z (born 1995 and later) have an even greater contrasting mindset to work than previous generations; they believe that productivity isn’t necessarily achieved through the number of hours worked or the banal rigidity of the traditional ‘working week’, but rather through actual measurable output.  This isn’t probably surprising as the generation which has grown up with remote technology and big data, but they are more pragmatic than the press would have you believe.


Working Culture

In addition to generational differences, the 996 system refers specifically to the Chinese work market, which is a vastly different culture to that of the West. China, like Japan, South Korea and other Asian countries is synonymous with extremely hard-working and ambitious workers, many of whom work very long hours compared to their Western counterparts.  Many people hearing this will never have heard about the ‘996’ working practice before Ma’s statement, so will come as a shock, whereas in China, particularly workers within tech companies will probably already be working ‘996’.

In fact, the very definition of ‘working hours’ seems to differ between East and West;  In the West working 9am – 9pm would be 12 hours focused on working, whereas in Chinese tech firms, where presenteeism is still hugely important, it means being in the office, but all that time might not necessarily required to be spent working (playing games, online shopping may be permitted depending on the company).

So in conclusion is Jack Ma right to publicly endorse 996? His attitudes towards work have helped him create one of the world’s most successful businesses and also turn him into one of Asia’s richest people, so the 996 strategy has clearly worked for him and would probably help others who wish to follow in his footsteps of creating a billion-dollar tech company. However, as we have discussed here, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to work.  We all have different visions of success and we need to work out for ourselves the best means of attaining them.


If you feel your current work schedule isn’t working in your best interests, perhaps a career as a freelance lawyer with Vario could be for you.  Take our Possibilities Poll to see if life as a Vario could help you find success.

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