Strong work ethic is still the key to success
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.