For millions of Chinese dot-com workers, to work or not to work overtime presents an endless struggle. The dilemma, which has come into sight along with China’s internet boom, boils down to a win-lose trade-off between overtime pay and statutory rest days, and has become a heated topic giving rise to a host of memes on the internet.
Apart from the notorious “966 culture” — working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week — there are also latent working schemes that are less visible or not so frequently mentioned, e.g., the “big/small week” scheme, where employees work six days a week, every other week. This arrangement used to be the preference of many big tech companies in China, such as ByteDance, the developer of video-sharing app TikTok, Meituan, a Chinese online-to-offline local life service platform, and Kuaishou, a content-sharing social media platform, and others.
Not anymore. Starting from last month, Kuaishou, ByteDance and Meituan announced in succession that they were to abandon their “big/small week” policy, marking a significant about-face in working schemes. While it is still unclear whether other tech companies, big or small, will follow suit, what is clear is that those tech giants have finally budged on their unhealthy practice.
The reaction upon the release of the news, however, has been mixed. The move has been overwhelmingly well-received by experts and outsiders, as they deem this new normal more conducive to the mental and physical fitness of employees and helpful to cultivate a less excruciating workplace environment.
“I think this is a good change, and I guess other companies will probably follow the trend,” said Su Yong, head of the Institute of Oriental Management at Fudan University.
Professor Su pointed out during an interview that the underlying reason for the abolition of the “big/small week” scheme is that the tech companies now face intensified supervision by the government as labor laws and regulations get stricter and stricter. “It is under the pressure from the entire society, including their employees, that those tech companies decided to scrap the practice,” Su said.
As for why the “996 culture,” as well as the “big/small week,” can enjoy such popularity among the internet industry, Professor Su explained that excessive competitive pressure within the internet business has forced dot-com companies to jump on the bandwagon. “They might think if we don’t do the same thing then we appear to lack the spirit of enterprise. That’s why tech companies look to each other and agree on such schemes,” Su added.
The story of Kuaishou and ByteDance represents a microcosm of the whole “adopting together, abandoning together” concept. In 2017, Kuaishou had already exceeded 100 million active users, just as Douyin, the mainland Chinese version of TikTok also developed by ByteDance, was launched. But over a short period of time, Douyin’s number of users surpassed that of Kuaishou, prompting the firm’s co-founders Su Hua and Cheng Yixiao to issue an internal letter criticizing the company’s loose management and working attitudes. Ever since, the company has held up efficiency and speed as its working philosophy. It is because ByteDance had exercised the “big/small week” arrangement for quite a long time that Kuaishou made the decision to adopt a similar method, starting last January.
The fame of tech glomerates such as ByteDance and Kuaishou, with the attractive salaries they offer, also serves to justify the practice, even though abundant cases have proved that these tormenting working schemes are detrimental to the mental and physical health of employees, and can even lead to death. On 29 December 2020, a 22-year-old employee of Pinduoduo, one of China’s largest online retailers, suffered a sudden death on her way home at 1:30 a.m. after working overtime. Her tragic death brought about a society-wide discussion and condemnation of the toxic working culture, also prompting calls to remove working schemes like the “996 culture” and “big/small week” arrangement.
That’s why netizens are pouring so much empathy and support into these tech companies’ latest moves. “I think a complete weekend is their right. I mean, since when is resting one day a week become the new normal and a privilege?” one asked on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. “Lol, isn’t that the right thing they should have done a long time ago? The weekend is not the day for work! Why should it become an employee benefit given by those capitalists?” another comment read.
Well, like pretty much everything, not everyone is happy about the change. After ByteDance made the announcement that it will cancel its “big/small week” practice after August 1 this year, plenty of its employees have complained on social media, expressing worries that this policy change could potentially trim their incomes. An internal survey of the company showed that nearly one-third of those surveyed opposed the cancellation of the “big/small week”. “Ahhhhh, please do not do that! That 15% of salary means everything to me!!!” one ByteDance employee grumbled on Weibo. Some went online to share a popular emoji portraying a beggar holding a giant bowl and saying “I work for ByteDance, please help me [not to cancel the “big/small week”]!”
As the tech giants gradually wean off the “big/small week” arrangement, some worry that problems like working overtime will persist, while other malpractices such as the “996 culture” will continue to thrive.
The recent trend in China of the “lying flat” philosophy (meaning to hold a relaxed Buddha-like mindset towards working) is a perfect example of China’s young generations being averse to the pressing rhythm of daily work, as well as a silent protest of the twisted working environment that forces them to work arduously at the expense of their health. The abolition of the “big/small week” working scheme by tech companies in China signals a positive trend. Yet, it is just the first step. To thoroughly ameliorate the working environment, much more needs to be done apart from merely returning the long-lost weekend to whom they originally belong.