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Some of China’s '996' tech tribe quit, seek less stress (reuters.com)
158 points by eplanit 6 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 85 comments

Personally I can't do more than 2-3 hours of genuine "deep work" per day. That is high quality, focused, immersed thinking on a difficult problem and writing code.

IMO people who work a large number of hours each week get cognitively slowed. They can't tell they've slowed down (partly because they don't have a control to compare against) and so think that if you do 80 hours per week you'll do twice as much as if you do 40 hours per week. You won't, you'll do less.

Executives who think the best way to measure business performance is by how much your employees are sat at their desks are idiots.

For me it's often in spurts. Some days I get nothing done but then there are other days when I can go 12 hours straight. Worst for me are days with one meeting in the morning, one before lunch and then one in the afternoon. These days are effectively lost because I lose my train of thought and spend the whole day struggling getting things back together in my head. Such days are negative in productivity.

This. Even a 15 minute meeting can have very a disruptive effect on my thinking process if it comes at the wrong moment.

I can do way more as long as it's not all the time, and the work's interesting. Think 80hrs writing some software, followed by a lighter week that's mostly cooking involved meals, or gardening, or prototyping board games, or building furniture. Maybe no code written for another 5-6 weeks. That'd be my "natural"—absent economic pressure—relationship with projects and with writing software. Maybe a week a month or less, but very heavy and focused when in that mode. Then heavy and focused on something else for a while.

But yeah, my "real work" limit for a day's probably like 4hrs tops in any kind of sustained way. I've rarely seen a job that can manage to keep even that much real work slung my way on a regular basis, though. And at this point I provide 90+% of my value just by knowing the right thing or having the right insight, and communicating that info. That top-of-the-value-pyramid work is maybe a handful of minutes a week, on a good week. Most of my salary's justified by a few hours a year—it's just hard to know which hours it'll be.

Normally I can only do about 4hr/day of productive work, but with my ADD meds I can do 6-8 (big surprise: amphetamines allow you to work more). I do work longer hours, but I don't try to squeeze every ounce of mental energy; I spend the extra time catching up on all of the planning and documentation that doesn't involve intense mental focus. In my middle age I've actually started enjoying the planning and documentation process; to me, it's part of the craft, and what makes the difference between good software and great software. Trying to code for 12 hours straight is counter-productive, but spending an extra four hours tidying up really does add a lot of value.

I agree. I work for one of the big four tech companies and we are all on prescription drugs to enhance our work productivity. Although it's not enforced, anyone who isn't popping uppers and downers just can't keep up in this industry and falls out.

There's one guy here on 18! Yes, you read that right, prescription drugs. He is so smart and productive and it shows! Fancy car and house. He's smarter than everyone here.

I'm only on 9 prescription drugs. I hope one day to be as rich and smart as him when I work my way up to 18.

You're joking right? This sounds like Brave New World.

He must be backed up on the other end for days and you half that time stockpile some docusate

Henry Ford was an early, outspoken (and reviled) advocate of the 40-hour work week. Not because he was concerned about his employees' welfare--he absolutely wasn't--but because he tried running factories at everything from 20 to 80 hours a week and found that 40 was the sweet spot. Anything beyond that and you're actually losing total productivity per week.

And that's for assembly-line work. It's mostly rote. It stands to reason that the number is lower for knowledge workers.

I think initially you get 50% more productivity with 50% extra hours in the work week. After a week or two though you’re lucky to break even and get the 40h worth of productivity. After another week or two it’s all but guaranteed that overall productivity is actually lower, you’re just destroying your health and possibly screwing up the work.

I'm not sure that's true. I doubt most people can't maintain productive focus for 12 hours of a work day.

Really gotta define what sort of work. As a knowledge worker, I'm really only in the zone for maybe half my day now - I doubt that increasing the work day would get more highly productive time out of me.

Maybe manual labour jobs may be better for that, but even there I doubt it, and they'll have physical exhaustion before I hit mental exhaustion, if only because it's much easier for me to be present at my work and NOT be largely productive (jokes about people leaning on shovels not withstanding).

I doubt most people can maintain productive focus for 12h every day more than a few consecutive weeks. They may at the beginning but fatigue sets in and by the end they are less productive than after a good 8h day. I’ve seen it in others, I went through it myself. Perhaps in some fields it’s different but I doubt it.

Even playing games 12h every day means you start making more and more mistakes than a fresh gamer. I’d say normal work will be even more tiring and stressful given the higher stakes. Especially for a knowledge worker.

I work for a company that expects 6h of focused work daily.

Coming from a large corporation with highly diluted responsibility - among other disincentives to actually work - it took some time to adapt to this model, but I think it's a fair arrangement.

I wouldn't cargo cult everything leaders like Jack Ma propose just because they're highly successful.

Sure some 996er's at a company at say, the senior management level can be worth it since you do actually get more work done. Abliet incredibly inefficiently while getting paid the entire time.

I don't see how its efficient to have the core of your business being nothing but employees who are working at decreased efficiency yet are getting paid the same wages. Theres some benefit in cutting down on communication/management overhead but more employees seems like a better idea overall...

It's also simply a practical reality not everybody in society CAN work like this.

>>> Sure some 996er's at a company at say, the senior management level can be worth it since you do actually get more work done.

Working 12 hours/day is actually more productive for management. Most people look at it from a coder/developer perspective, where more hours does not mean more work given how mentally exhausting the task is and how non-linear the gains are.

(I do not make my technical staff work more than 50 hours a week, and have forced many to take time off / stop working X hours in the office.)

But speaking as a founder/President of a company that has 40 employees, and someone who basically does 40 hours a week of management tasks alone before I do any of my "real job," there is no way I can make my schedule efficient enough to do all my work in 40 hours over 5-6 days. It just cannot happen. I've delegated literally everything I can (I've probably overdelegated to be honest), but senior management just tends to have way more dependencies and a full schedule of corporate partnerships, external sales, marketing, HR tasks, advisery services across various departments, and observation of work and meetings and blah blah blah. I have to work 60 hours/week to get my work done and push the ball forward while I mentor my direct reports and train them. (Typically work 4x12, 1x8, 1x4 WFH).

Yes, a technical worker crushing 996 demonstrably sees exponential dropoff (though I think someone working 80 hours a week still gets more done than someone working 40 hours per week, they just don't get 2x done, probably more like 1.2x), but management is a much different scenario.

They would be salaried - I suspect if these 996 legally had to be paid overtime the practice would quickly stop.

they are seen as cogs in a machine, when they break replace them. like the matrix

I recall hearing/reading that a lot of the time in the office is passive/suboptimal. The productivity gain is that you have the people there in standby. The gain is that the important work that do happen is not blocked by people being off work since you can pull them in instantly compared to "Only Bob knows X and he left for the day, lets schedule a meeting tomorrow"

Or you could just schedule people to arrive at the same time but have them work shorter hours.

That would cause an impossibly tight schedule for everyone and no actual work would have time to happen

The way I see it is: Bursts of work combined with prolonged pauses because of others' schedules and other issues with coordination

Or stagger shifts so that there's always someone at the ready.

Intuitively and introspectively I agree with you.

But then I ask myself, where are all the successful 30-hour week companies? Why is it that nearly every single successful organization has a culture of long hours?

I personally know that I can't sustainably work 10+ hours a day. But the observed results in the real world seem to say something different.

It's hard to square that circle, and I'm genuinely interested in anyone who has insight on this.

It all hinges on what you mean by "success." Is it profitability + growth? Burning through employees like jet fuel can work pretty well.

If you want a humane answer, you might have to reframe the question.

That's because even though productivity does not scale linearly with hours it can continue to go up. That little bit extra can make a big difference where the margins between success and failure are small.

One explanation would be that the causation is the opposite: watching the business succeed makes people excited and so they start doing longer hours because they mistakenly hope that will make things go better.

Working at a reasonable, sustainable, pace requires big discipline. It's hard for a computer game studio with a release coming in 12 weeks to stick to 40 hours because that will get them 12 great weeks. They'll tend to slide into 80 hour weeks in panic but end up doing less.

I think two real issues are that you can't compare against a control version of the company and you can't tell you are slowing down because you are tired.

Another issue is management. Most managers think hours in means more productivity out, it's hard for them to not fall into that seeing as it is so widely held as true.

Working long hours together serves purposes besides productivity, like signaling commitment and building social cohesion. "Unproductive" hardship is common in social organizations, e.g. fraternity hazing, military bootcamp, various vows of abstinence by monks, marathons for charitable causes.

Investors have demands and you can't fulfill them if you're working 30 hours a week. A stressful company might have a mountain of technical debt, but they'll also get billions of dollars of investment money that will help them solve that problem. By the time the more relaxed company has an MVP, it's already too late and investors are much less willing to help them play catch up.

Looking at the games industry where passion stands for self exploitation. If you don't push back most employers will take everything they can get.

But the question is, what do they get?

Would they develop products faster if the employees worked less?

What if they don’t? What if crunch works, at least in the short term, for the employer? Does any criticism of crunch time necessarily hinge on productivity? Does the health and well-being of individual employees warrant sufficient concern by itself to scale back working hours?

The pattern seems to be :

* Get a new job at game studio * Start off OK-ish, then get pushed to crunch more and more as release date nears and then slips (probably by design) * Release game * lay off most staff * They're broke for a while but the time without work is nice * Repeat

I can't find a source but I understand the average length of a career in the industry is 5-6 years. Also, I couldn't help but notice at my last place that those of us doing more general work (python, data engineering, etc.) were a hell of a lot more relaxed than those with video-game-specific skillsets (Unity3d).

This article seems to indicate that they would at least develop better games if the employees were not subjected to "crunch". https://gamasutra.com/blogs/PaulTozour/20150120/234443/The_G...

>Executives who think the best way to measure business performance is by how much your employees are sat at their desks are idiots.

From what bloggers say online, this is how Japan works in general.

It's funny how the notion of diminishing returns is never mentioned with regards to work performed.

Right. Diminishing returns are a force multiplier in the gross hours of work equation. It’s the whole reason why some managers incentive “butts in seats” vs. “quality of output.”

For the last month I have tracked my productivity with a spreadsheet. I punch out between breaks, lunch, Reddit, etc.

On a typical day I average 2-3 hours. Hitting 4-5 hours or more I feel burnt out.

Dustin Moskovitz cites decades old research to back it up. You can only work overtime for about two weeks before it starts getting inefficient and you get diminishing returns for the hours you put in.


None of this has anything to do with maximising actual objective performance - I suspect its just a way of executives competing by having their teams work longer and longer hours to show how "tough" they are.

True. Those same executives who are working the '80 hour week' include lunch, cocktail parties, dinners, etc. into their hours, as for them schmoozing = work.

Executives who think the best way to measure business control is by how much your employees are sat at their desks are succeeding.

996 doesn't necessarily mean working 72 hours nonstop. You can still do 2-3 hours works then breaks, then another 2-3 hours works.

That sounds even worse...

how ?

Because it eats up more of your day. For me, anyway, short breaks aren't really helpful -- they just serve to derail my "flow" and cause lost time as I ramp back up afterwords. I'd much prefer working straight through and then have a larger single block of time off.

If I'm excited and grinding towards one goal then it's hard to get myself to stop.

But often I'm solving architecture or features and I get blocked trying to solve or make risky decisions. That's the time to go for a walk. Then the relaxed brain drifts around the problem and solutions pop up.

Yeah, this is an offer to not be any more useful AND never see the wife and kids.

Yea its not for everyone.

Can anyone from China who has worked a 996 provide an account of what the work is like?

Do they have heavy PMP-managed work with meeting paralysis or is it just sitting at your desk and being expected to magically perform, or is it just sitting around doing nothing and not being able to leave?

All of those are their own types of hell, but they're all different. What are they doing in those 12 hours?

As I see my colleagues in China; they are mostly wasting time to stay the longest in the office. I know a few guys who have some shares, that either do not go home or go home for 3-4 hours only. They arrive at 6 am, leave at 8 pm and then go to KTV to do sales which basically means drink like a maniac. And then either back to the office or home for a quick nap. Their boss does not directly tell them to but he does go crazy when they underdeliver or deliver past deadlines, so they show they did anything. Not sure if it helps or not. Some of them seem happy and content doing that life and show no signs os stress even at 40y/o, some are walking dead.

The happy ones seem to be the ones that are well paid and get to sit and write code, while the unhappy ones deal with red tape and meetings. Which is what usually happens in my experience in the west as well.

Not a direct answer, but most Chinese had undergone tougher hours and more dreadful win-or-your-life-is-screwed college examination pressure during high school. I was in a class where the morning session started from 5:30am and the day ends around 9pm(and we have full Sat and Sunday morning). Just imagine how mentally tough Chinese is when 1 point left you 10+k behind in regional ranking.

So honestly 996 means nothing for a lot of people (esp new grads). Even though there are protests now, I’m pessimistic it’ll shake anything eventually

Cumulative stress is cumulative. One doesn't recover from burnout with more burning.

you need to experience it yourself or see someone close to you going through a burnout to understand how crippling it is.

Some people I know where unable to get anyway near code for years after a burnout.

Another person gained deep seated anxiety that they are unable to get rid of.

Right. The idea that someone can become tougher by subjecting themselves to stress is silly (or at least misguided). That path leads to burnout which is crippling. It doesn't lead to tougher people who can keep burning themselves even more. They just hit a wall where they aren't capable of much of anything.

I mostly agree, I do think the limit is higher for Chinese, but it’s not infinite

I worked for a Silicon Valley company. And now I am an employee of the Chinese 'A' company. There are endless features we have to develop. As a developer, I also need to concern about the business value of our project. Basically, I should handle two times of work than before.

That’s true. I heard Chinese internet CTOs saying this about a feature that took a year to launch in NA when they do recruiting in CA:

“We can deliver this in two weeks with the same team size”

Surely that should raise massive red flags and you should realize almost immediately that this is problematic - basically don't do business with them?

What's worse, they just treat us as 'Resources'. One single developer should take care of several projects.(ノ`⊿´)ノ

So? In the UK I and another developer delivered in a month what another part of the companies would take 18 months.

And we where physically not allowed to be in the office (BT Princess street) outside normal working hours because embarrassing security cockups six months before involving the Queens unlisted numbers :-)

I once sat a desk next to another developer. He finished a UI control in 3 days, and then found out it completely replaced a legacy control that took multiple developers six months to finish.

And then shortly thereafter we both got laid off, and the slower folks kept their jobs.

It is a mistake to believe that the only requirements are the ones that the developers get to see.

Well We had a main Board member as a sponsor and another Board member "Bruce Bond" who was very interested.

I have some experience but the things is obviously I don't work 12 hours a day continuously. I took plenty of breaks as needed. Also help is I live very close to the office and the pay was good. Overall I saw it as a positive experience.

I know a lot of Korean and Chinese school kids who cram study until late and night and that is just normal. I suspect 996 isn't that weird to many young Chinese developers because that is what they've done their whole lives. 9pm is probably an earlier end than when they were doing homework.

Even in the US now children are getting more and more homework and stressed out about getting into the most prestigious universities. If that is normal when growing up, spending all your time in the office is just more of the same, except you get paid more than everyone else so society loves you too.

In Korea they actually passed a law banning private prep classes after midnight. And there are "raids" to stop the students from studying! The mentality there is very different from the US

On a somewhat related note, I'd love a set of those pictured sleep capsules at my office. I've taken to running to my car to catch a quick 20 minute snooze during my lunch break, but it's way too bright, I'm uncomfortably sleeping sitting slightly upright, and I've got to have the windows open in a noisy car park. Having a cool, dark, dedicated sleeping pod would be much more civilised.

Having an office with a door that closes solves that problem too. I have one and take naps on the floor with a yoga mat and a pillow I bring from home on my lunch break. It's sad that most workplaces are still "open." Even when I was a grad student I took naps on my library cubicle. Cubicles would be a step up from the warehouse setup of most workplaces.

That would be wonderful, but my company has fully embraced the 'open office' idea. Even upper management have offices that are completely windowed. All this setup seems to achieve is to provide on open door for people to ask questions that could be done over email, interrupting work flow every couple of minutes so no one gets anything done.

The best chance I'd have of finding a place to nap in private would be finding a crate of packing peanuts in dispatch and hoping I get shipped off to France.

I worked at Ant Financial for a time (startup acquihire) and spent some time working in offices in both Beijing and Hangzhou. As an American 996 was surprising but also doesn't quite live up to it's name, or at least not at Ant afaik.

In practice the typical "996" day would usually go something like this: - ~9:30 - 10am Arrive, commutes could vary as you might imagine - 10 - 11:30am Morning meetings, usually a team stand-up or two - 12 - 1:30pm Lunch, typically 1.5 hours - 1:30 - 7pm Most work is done during this period, with some meetings later in the day - 7 - ~8:30pm Team dinner, sometimes in the office and sometimes at a nearby restaurant* - 8:30 - 9/10pm People start to leave

* - I was a visitor in the China offices so that could've affected how long we spent at dinner or how often we actually left the office for it

On top of the large breaks it was fairly common that the work day was filled with breaks and naps and such, so I didn't really observe people actually working for much longer than most western offices but it did tend to increase the bonds of teams by keeping them together for the entire day. As for working Saturdays... I asked various colleagues about it and was told that it was rare, only when it was absolutely necessary to ship something on a set schedule.

Another thing I found interesting was that our office in the US had Tue/Thur work from home days and when folks from the China offices would visit they were just as surprised as I was when I first heard about 996. Some of them asked me how I would get any work done from home or how management could enforce it. In general I saw that management in China placed a lot of value in office time even though the levels of productivity seemed to match it even less than in western offices.

> heavyweights such as Sequoia Capital’s Mike Moritz highlighted it as a competitive advantage over the United States.

It's an issue when the so-called tech heavyweights don't understand the basics of worker productivity in the industry.

What if 996 work hours do, on average across a large population, make workers more productive? When they burn out, they are easy to replace. Would this justify such a work schedule?

EDIT: This post is not in support of 996. Does anyone do Socratic dialogue in comment threads anymore?

At some point productivity just isn't worth it when it leaves you workers with like...one day a week to live. What a bleak and pointless existence.

Yes, that's what I was driving at.

I question the whole premise of this article. The use of "some" in the title also seems incorrect when just one person actually quit. The person also quit to go to an industry where all she has to do is charge rent, in other words, she quit to go do nothing. I think that another perfectly reasonable explanation is that her quitting had nothing to do with the stress of whatever '996' job she had. She quit because she didn't want to work.

High-paying and comfortable jobs(government jobs, state-owned companies; for example you need to bribe like 30K usd to stay in the military and get promoted) in China are reserved for people with connections, even then they hardly have to do anything if show up at all, there's a hierarchy, those who don't need to work and those who have to work extra.

So while the examples in this story sound good, but majority of people don't really have a choice.

The funny part is that one VC firm proudly names their podcast “996 podcast”: https://996.ggvc.com/category/podcast/

Talk about out of touch

I love how there's tons of hype from leaders to have employees work more hours but not so much hype to PAY THEM MORE.

It's just your DUTY?

It makes sense when you understand that those at the top really don't view the rest of us in the same terms that they view each other. We're not accorded the same hopes, dreams, desires, needs, etc. They're special; we're not. Everything they do, morally speaking, proceeds from that premise.

This is the biggest reason why I didn't return to China after university even though I really wanted to. 996 is clearly violating the labor law, but big companies' spokesmen can publically admit they will enforce 996 without any major backslash.

The fact that 996 has become a norm among business lines is REALLY terrifying.

Is stress the right word? I get stressed when I can’t figure out how I’m going to get my bills paid or when I’m stuck in traffic and there’s a meeting I’m trying to get to. Working long hours isn’t _stressful_, it’s exhausting. I’ve done the unreasonable peer-pressure driven long work hours thing before and I just want to go to sleep and I’m frustrated that everybody is just demanding more and more out of me.

Sounds like stress to me.

Is 996 completely new though? Wall Street folks, associates at law firms, and employees at early startups in SV all work crazy hours.

3 anecdotes and a single untargeted statistic isn't much. Reuters should dig deeper.

This' another example of the current wide-spread anti-China sentiment. It suggests only Chinese firms inflict such inhuman work demand on their employees. Totally not true. Stressful work condition is the norm in Silicon Valley, it's the norm on Wall Street for years. Investment bankers start their day at 5:30am and don't go home till 10pm. Some need to follow foreign markets and stay even later than that.

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