996 is a term to describe the common working hours at Chinese tech companies. People use the term loosely to refer to a 9am to 9pm work schedule, six days a week. These are not the official working hours of every Chinese company, but the term highlights the fact that the average Chinese tech employee spends longer hours at the office compared to a US worker (not to mention Europe). Having experienced Chinese tech working hours for almost three months now, I want to share a more personal account of what this work schedule has been like for me.
My actual schedule, as I joke with my friends in Beijing, is not 9-9-6, but actually closer to 10-10-5.5, 10am to 10pm and working Sundays every other weekend. The work hours are long and tough, but not impossible. To be frank, these are the hours I would expect if I was in the US working at an early stage startup.
So let me take you through my average workday in Beijing:
9:30am - I hail a Didi to go to work. If traffic is bad or if there’s a long queue, I sometimes hail the cab in advance.
9:55am - I arrive at the office just in time for breakfast. Facilities and administration employees like receptionists and caterers already working. Passing by the front desk, I often walk by a cohort of new employees waiting in the lobby for their first-day orientation. If I arrive before 10am, I rush to make the breakfast buffet before it closes. In the morning, the cafeteria is relatively empty. Many of my coworkers skip breakfast at the office. If I run into someone I know at the cafeteria, we’ll sit together and eat together. Otherwise, I usually eat alone.
10:15am - After finishing breakfast, I grab coffee from the micro-kitchen and I’m ready to work. I’m not the first one to arrive to the office. Some interns usually arrive before me. Most of my coworkers, including the more senior people, come in around 10:15-10:45. If someone plans to come later than 11, they usually ping the group letting us know, but there’s no hard and fast rule about it. There isn’t a clock in, clock out system for logging hours either. From 10:30am onwards, I have a solid block of work time until lunch. I use this time to catch up on chats, log progress from the day before, and comb through tasks for the day.
12pm. Lunch time. Most people line up at the cafeteria right at 12pm, except I use this time to go to the gym. I eat later around 1 or 1:15pm. The time window is tight because the cafeteria closes at 1:30pm sharp. After lunch, it’s common in many parts of China to take a nap. Yes, I mean nap time as in kindergarten. Some people sleep at their desks. Some put on eye masks and lean back into their chairs. Some will even reserve a conference room for nap time. Finding a room is not an issue because people know not to hold meetings from 12-2pm.
2pm to 7pm is another big chunk of work time. PMs will hold meetings, engineers will ping other engineers with questions—basically, business as usual. People take breaks during the afternoon, of course. Some people might go outside for a walk and clear their heads, and others might go get coffee (or more likely bubble tea). Around 4pm every work day, our office has “afternoon tea” where you can help yourself to pastries, fruit and other snacks. Ordering delivery (外卖) is also common. I have seen everything delivered to the office from KFC to bubble tea to fresh fruit.
7pm to 8pm is dinner time at the cafeteria. I don’t really worry about eating alone since my team always eats together. There is usually a big line for when the cafeteria opens at dinner. Once we’ve gotten our food, my team eats pretty quickly–10 minutes tops. That’s why I joke that most of the conversation time you have at the cafeteria is in line for the buffet. After dinner, R&D staff, as in engineers, designers, and PMs, will stay at the office, but many other staff members leave around this time.
8pm - “late”. At work, 8pm is a perfectly reasonable time to schedule meetings, whether its for a project sync, or a weekly wrap-up. Some of my coworkers joke that after dinner is when engineering work actually gets done because all the product debates have been resolved and engineers can now focus on their work. 8pm is also considered a reasonable time to cut a release or ship a new version. 10pm however, would be too late in the day to push to prod. Some of my coworkers leave around 9pm or later, and others will stay later. Many tech companies will pay for your taxi cab (Didi) home if you work past 10pm. In the Beijing companies I have visited, there aren’t fixed working hours; it’s more of a suggestion. If engineers are staying late, it’s because they need to get work done by a certain deadline. To put it another way, work hours are flexible and high variance. I have left work before 7pm and after 11pm depending on the day.
The schedule above is just my perspective on Chinese working hours. I should note that these hours are unique to Chinese Internet companies and there aren’t common hours in other industries in China, or in the Chinese offices of foreign companies.
I am often asked by coworkers whether I can handle the working hours. They will often tell me that I don’t need to stay late or work weekends, as long as I get my work done. In reality, it’s hard to keep independent working hours from others on your team, especially when you are blocked on others to finish your work. For now, the hours are long but bearable. I have less time to take on side projects or to learn/do things outside of work. It’s a trade-off I’m consciously making. I don’t have a stance on these working hours yet, but I’ll be curious to revisit this question in half a year’s time.