LONDON: My first reaction to Chinese technology workers’ protests about long working hours was: How quaint. My second: How old-fashioned.
The “anti-996” campaign is blacklisting companies such as Alibaba and JD.com where, it claims, shifts of 9am to 9pm, six days a week, are common. Alibaba has not commented. JD.com said it did not oblige staff to work such hours but it encouraged everyone to “fully invest themselves”.
The protest is quaint, because in white-collar offices, whether law firms, software companies or news organisations, a 955 lifestyle has long given way to something more flexible, or, in the current jargon, agile.
It’s old-fashioned because working hours have been a flashpoint almost since managers started organising workers for greater productivity 200 years ago.
NO PERSONAL CALLS WHILE WORKING PLEASE
The welcome pack I received when I joined the Financial Times (FT) in 1988 included the stern instruction that as the FT “relies upon the telephone system to do much of its daily business ... you must not make or receive personal phone calls whilst at work”.
Call centres still impose such strictures, for similar reasons, but almost everywhere else, the idea that an employer could police such a rule, let alone extend it to outlaw online shopping, tweeting and holiday-booking in work time, seems absurd.
On the other hand, companies also nudge staff to “fully invest themselves”, using the same devices and online tools, well beyond their contracted hours. (And this is before considering the way the gig economy up-ends traditional concepts of working hours.)
Employers also know how to ensure their staff’s presence, virtual or otherwise. Search online for “clocking in” and see how many biometric, sensor- and app-based solutions for monitoring attendance you find.
These are alternatives to the old punch-card system, which was itself a way of regulating the system pioneered by people like Robert Owen, the enlightened mill-owner, to ensure a crude work-life balance in the early 19th century.
Since then, from Karl Marx, via Henry Ford, to Dolly Parton, this perhaps arbitrary separation has evolved, always in a stuttering two-step between organised labour, bosses and policymakers and regulators, towards the nine-to-five, five-day week that barely anybody now enjoys.
This history makes the Chinese protests particularly interesting, and provocative.
LONG HOURS ONLY LEAD TO SMALL IMPROVEMENTS
The organisers are rallying support via a project on GitHub, the Microsoft-owned collaboration platform for coders and developers.
It is called 996.icu, because by working such hours, as the English version puts it, “you might need to stay in an Intensive Care Unit someday”. In a possibly vain effort to avoid censorship and repercussions, they insist this is not a political protest.
China’s labour laws stipulate an eight-hour day and 44-hour week, but, as elsewhere, there are loopholes and exemptions. The burden of deciding how and when to enforce the rules, and when to allow or encourage “voluntary” non-compliance, falls inevitably on to managers and workers.
Owen in the early 19th century and Ford in the early 20th, when he introduced a 40-hour, five-day week for car workers, recognised they would get less, not more from factory labourers who overworked.
Modern research backs that insight. Morten Hansen, author of Great at Work, promotes a “do less, then obsess” strategy. He found that adding extra hours over 40 a week led to only small performance improvements.
Work more than 65 hours a week and performance declines. Separate research by Lieke ten Brummelhuis and Nancy Rothbard sought to disentangle working time from workaholism.
They determined that it was unhealthy compulsion to work that pushed people towards the ICU, irrespective of how many hours they actually put in.
Employers of those Chinese tech workers should take heed, and so should their competitors. They tread a fine line between merely encouraging workers’ willingness to work longer hours and obliging them to do so.
A MORE INTENSE PRESSURE
I don’t doubt that start-ups and even established companies gain by being able to motivate workers to put in intensive bursts of work on specific projects or at critical moments.
But the working time rulebook is only one part of the equation that protects those workers.
In fact, as the 21st century advances, staff are likely to feel a more intense pressure to put in extra hours and to demonstrate usefulness, as machines take on humdrum tasks.
READ: Why nobody will thank you for soldiering on at work, a commentary
Scoff at the singularity, if you like.
But it will require some determined regulators and some truly enlightened managers to persuade nervous white-collar workers that a 996 shift system is worse than the 000 pattern that full automation could usher in.