Strong work ethic is still the key to suc­cess

China Daily European Weekly - - Comment - Barry He The au­thor is a Lon­don-based colum­nist. Con­tact the writer at ed­i­tor @mail.chi­nadai­lyuk.com

In highly com­pet­i­tive global en­vi­ron­ment, gru­el­ing hours may be a form of nat­u­ral se­lec­tion for top dogs of the busi­ness world

In­no­va­tive ideas and ser­vices start as ex­cit­ing and ab­stract ideas. How­ever full of pos­si­bil­ity they may be, they are of­ten doomed to re­main a loose con­cept. In to­day’s hy­per­com­pet­i­tive world, they re­quire soul-de­stroy­ing lev­els of hard work and at­ten­tion to grow and flour­ish into tan­gi­ble re­wards.

Last month, tech bil­lion­aire Elon Musk stated that his “ex­cru­ci­at­ing” work­ing hours had af­fected his per­sonal life and health. This univer­sal ques­tion of work/life bal­ance has also been some­what a prom­i­nent is­sue in Asia, and es­pe­cially so in China’s tech startup in­dus­try to­day.

West­ern com­pa­nies, on top of other dif­fi­cul­ties, face fierce com­pe­ti­tion try­ing to break into China, and China’s ag­gres­sive work ethic may have some­thing to do with it.

Hard work and dis­ci­pline are fa­mously in­te­gral to the Chi­nese dream. How­ever, many Chi­nese CEOs are still try­ing to find a bal­ance that works for them. Stud­ies have shown that work­ing over­time is ques­tion­able for a worker’s health and also does lit­tle to im­prove pro­duc­tiv­ity and ef­fi­ciency if work isn’t done prop­erly.

Chi­nese work­ers in the past have gen­er­ally worked longer hours than their US or UK coun­ter­parts. His­tor­i­cally, this has been due to the fact that in the 20th cen­tury, China’s pro­duc­tion ef­fi­ciency was still catch­ing up with the West. As China is end­ing this de­vel­op­men- tal stage of chas­ing GDP growth and in­creas­ing to­tal pro­duc­tion, ac­cord­ing to some la­bor economists, longer work­ing hours may per­sist for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

So where does this leave the cap­tains of Chi­nese tech star­tups, strug­gling to stay afloat in the tech­nol­ogy sea? In­fa­mously, in the early days of Jack Ma’s ca­reer, Alibaba se­nior man­age­ment pro­moted the use of back braces for en­gi­neers to pre­vent their spines from col­laps­ing af­ter such long, gru­el­ing hours. Many Chi­nese in­ter­net com­pa­nies have also ini­ti­ated the “996” sched­ule, which re­quires em­ploy­ees to work from 9 am till 9 pm six days a week. Com­pa­nies such as Xiaomi and 58.com have adopted this prac­tice within the past few years.

Some ar­gue that these poli­cies pro­vide an en­hanced sense of pride, team spirit and ca­ma­raderie. The idea of a com­mon end goal for the suc­cess of the team is startup rhetoric that has been trick­ling down from line man­agers for sev­eral decades. Ex­cited as young, hun­gry grad­u­ates may be, how­ever, peo­ple are only hu­man and, in­evitably, this work ethic causes is­sues higher up in the com­mand chain.

Eric Tao, CEO of Bei­jing-based video com­mu­ni­ca­tions startup Holla, spoke frankly to the South China Morn­ing Post about such con­cerns: “As CEO of the com­pany, I can’t un­der­per­form this week and make up for it by out­per­form­ing next week.” Other CEOs voice sim­i­lar con­cerns, stat­ing that they have trou­ble sleep­ing, stay­ing awake from mid­night till dawn, un­able to stop the repet­i­tive and dis­tress­ing wor­ries of a com­pany’s un­cer­tain fu­ture.

Un­for­tu­nately for Tao, hard work will al­ways be re­quired. Self-made bil­lion­aire Zhou Qun­fei, for ex­am­ple, has re­flected on the many years she spent la­bor­ing on the fac­tory floor be­fore mak­ing bil­lions through found­ing Lens Tech­nol­ogy. China has the largest num­ber of self-made fe­male bil­lion­aires of any coun­try in the world. Suc­cess­ful Chi­nese CEOs swear by hard work and gru­el­ing hours to achieve the dream they want so badly. If some­one wants it more than you, they will sim­ply work harder for it. Only in China could a com­pany de­sign and re­lease a new smart­phone overnight, or ag­gres­sively ex­pand and open 10,000 new re­tail stores in a month.

The re­al­ity of the com­pet­i­tive world may re­quire this work ethic as a form of nat­u­ral se­lec­tion for the top dogs of the busi­ness world. How­ever, peo­ple man­ag­ing ap­proaches such as 996 and of­fice hour bravado may need stream­lin­ing to pre­vent peo­ple from burn­ing out.

As time goes on and China’s tech­nol­ogy sec­tor strives to es­tab­lish it­self at the top, com­pa­nies will be look­ing for in­no­va­tive ways to keep CEOs and work­ers pro­duc­tive and cre­ate a work­ing en­vi­ron­ment that at­tracts the top tal­ent from around the world. In the next few years, it might not even be un­com­mon for Sil­i­con Val­ley-type of­fice en­vi­ron­ments to be­come more com­mon, with more lax of­fice dress codes and flex­i­ble work­ing hours. For the time be­ing, how­ever, for CEOs like Tao it is full steam ahead.

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