Article: Jack Ma’s endorsement of a 12-hour workday: Blessing or curse?

Employee Relations

Jack Ma’s endorsement of a 12-hour workday: Blessing or curse?

While on one side there is a debate to include commuting hours in work hours, on the other hand, are opposing views by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma who continues to endorse a 9 am to 9 pm working day, and a six-day week.
Jack Ma’s endorsement of a 12-hour workday: Blessing or curse?

The world-be it the world of work or in general-loves a controversy. Just a month ago, a survey report released by IWG Global Workspace revealed that 61% of office-goers in India want their commute time to be included in their working hours. And now a month later, almost at the same time, the world of work has been stirred by yet another controversy. One of China's richest men and most renowned entrepreneurial faces, Jack Ma, spoke in favor of the controversial culture of 12-hour workdays in China’s tech industry, stating that employees who worked longer hours will get the "rewards of hard work."

The Chinese work practice known as "996" refers to working from 9 am to 9 pm six days a week. Ma said in a blog post on Chinese social media site Weibo, “If we find things we like, 996 is not a problem. If you don't like [your work], every minute is torture.”

The internet billionaire said he had never regretted working 12-hour days. He added, “I personally think that 996 is a huge blessing. How do you achieve the success you want without paying extra effort and time?"

Of course, Ma added a disclaimer that he did not intend to defend the practice of working long hours, but wanted to "pay tribute" to employees who did.

“The real 996 is not simply overtime work," he said, adding that everyone has the right to choose their own lifestyles but those who work shorter hours "won't taste the happiness and rewards of hard work.”

So Ma’s message to prospective employees of Alibaba was clear-they should be prepared to work 12 hours a day if they want to succeed. "Or why bother joining? We don't lack those who work eight hours comfortably," he said.

The future of work- 996 or flexi?

Ma's comments are significant for their timing given the whole world is moving in the direction of flexi hours, a better work-life balance, shorter commute times, and greater flexibility. 

When it comes to flexible working, referring back to the IWG survey, which was based on the insights of over 15,000 professionals from different industries in more than 80 countries, flexibility is defined as being able to choose which location (city, type of office etc.)  to work from at least some of the time, being able to make some decisions regarding one’s working hours, being able to choose where one works from at least some of the time, and being able to manage one’s workload independently.


The survey also revealed that globally, nearly half or 42% of the professionals think that official working hours should include time spent on their journey, as it does not constitute free time in their day. Although a third of workers report they try to make the best of their commute by performing some work tasks (48%) or simply reading a book (33%), two out of five define commuting as ‘the worst’ part of their day. 

Interestingly, the majority of workers also reported that they think most people will no longer have to commute daily by 2035, with South African respondents highly optimistic on this front (79%).

In such a scenario, Ma’s comments about the grueling 966 work practice seem a bit too extreme. While Ma is not directly advocating the practice, his endorsement is a signal that this is what will be rewarded at the company. 

Globally, however, businesses are moving towards more affording greater flexibility to people such as cut down on commuting as flexible working is seen to improve the work-life balance by 78 percent globally and 86 percent in India.


The study also showed that 77 percent companies in the world and 81 percent companies in India are changing the way they do things and introducing flexible working in order to retain their top talents and expand their pool of high performing employees. 

To be noted is the fact that one-third of employees in the world or 32 percent globally and 49 percent in India said that flexible working is so important for them that they would give it a higher priority than a more prestigious job role.

Do Ma’s comments contrast with the reality of the world that is being shaped by new norms of productivity, agility, where winning the war for top talent is important? It’s a world wherein diversity and inclusion is important and flexible working helps returning mothers remain in the workforce as well as workers that are past pensioning age.  It is a world where more and more people are working outside their main offices for over half a week (As per the IWG survey, half of all our respondents claim to work outside their main office location for at least half of the week.) It’s a world where businesses are becoming more competitive and efficient on account of flexibility: fully 85% of respondents report that their business is more productive as a result of introducing flexible working.

Passion Vs. Productivity

In such a world, a one size fits all approach of the 966 work practice might not be the ideal solution. Which Ma clearly points out too, he does not want to defend the practice of working long hours and that everyone has the right to choose their own lifestyle. But is it correct to generalize that those who work shorter hours won't taste the happiness and rewards of hard work? What about Germans who work fewer hours compared (1,363 hours/year) to their other European counterparts such as the Greeks (2,035 hours/ year) and yet manage to rake in one of the highest GDP per capita in EU? (Germany’s GDP stood at $52,801 compared to $29,057 of Greece in 2018.) 

As a society, we are slowly moving away from the practice of equating longer working hours with greater productivity and Ma’s comments have again stoked that same age-old debate. Passion should not be confused with productivity-while Ma’s comments come from his own experience as a passionate entrepreneur, his endorsement of the 996 practice could send out a wrong signal to organizations on measuring productivity as a function of the number of hours spent at the workplace. 

Of course, there is no denying that fact that in order to excel, you need to put in the extra time. The keyword here being-‘to excel’. Let’s not confuse it with being productive. 996 is definitely the key mantra to become excellent and successful at something one really loves-be it work or sports or arts. However, it cannot be pushed upon as de reguer on everyone as it is unsustainable in the long run. Case in point being Elon Musk who famously said, “Nobody changed the world on 40 hours a week”, had to finally admit that working long hours (80 hours to 120 hours in his case) had taken a toll him on physically,  emotionally and personally. While we definitely need more people like Elon Musk to change the world, we would also want them without a meltdown.

Image Credits: IWG

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Topics: Employee Relations, Culture

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