This week: #996 working long hours, predicting work and who dies on Game of Thrones. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
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Intro This is The Future, This Week on Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter, and I'm Kai Riemer. Every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful and things that change the world. Okay, let's start. Let's start!
Kai Today on The Future, This Week: #996 working long, predicting work and who dies on Game of Thrones.
Sandra I'm Sandra Peter, I'm the Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai I'm Kai Riemer, a professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group.
Sandra So Kai, what happened in the future this week?
Kai Work. The future of work, or stories about work happened in the future this week. #996, the controversy around long working hours in China has been all over the media. And we're also looking at some developments around using AI and data in the workplace.
Sandra And AI predicting who dies on Game of Thrones.
Kai So our first story comes from the South China Morning Post. And it's titled "Quantity or quality. China's 996 work culture comes under scrutiny".
Sandra So first of all what is 996? And this refers to the unofficial work schedule in China. So going from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. And this has been a widely spread practice across Chinese tech companies, companies encouraging people to work on a 996 schedule. Which means nine to nine, six days a week, that's working more than 70 hours a week, every week. And this has been in the Chinese media for quite a while. The early reports were back in September 2016, where there were reports of employees working in tech companies over weekends, and not being paid. And then, end of last year, and again flaring up in the middle of March this year, and in April in the Chinese media, have been a number of companies come to the front. And chief among those have been two tech companies, one of them has been JD.com and Richard Liu who has also been in the media for other reasons, talking about these practices and encouraging workers to do that. And then the story has finally been picked up by the Western media, very late on, when Jack Ma, the founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, who has spoken out on social media coming actually, in support of the 996 work practice.
Kai So he called it a 'blessing' to work a 12 hour work day six days a week. And interestingly, its only recently that the Western media such as the BBC have picked up the story. And before we actually unpack this, we want to offer an interesting observation, and that is that the reports in the Western media have been fairly factual and short, focusing on Jack Ma, who is a known person in the West. Pretty much only pointing out what he said, whereas in some of the English language Chinese media such as the South China Morning Post, which we picked for this story, and Pandaily another Chinese outlet, have been much more elaborate and much more critical of the practice. So there seems to be a real controversy afoot in the Chinese media and on Chinese social media. And the discourse has gone so far as to spill over on to now Microsoft-owned open source developer platform GitHub, where a forum titled '996.icu' was established. Referring to incidents where people work long hours 996, and then land in the hospital, hence ICU - Intensive Care Unit.
Sandra So this is the practice that the founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma, wrote his lengthy blog post on social media about. And this was a few days ago on the 14th of April, when he went to Weibo and he praised the practice saying "if we find things we like, 996 is not a problem. If you don't like your work, every minute is a torture", he said. "I personally think that 996 is a huge blessing. How do you achieve the success you want without paying the extra effort and time?". And this has been along the same lines as Richard Liu's comments, the CEO of JD.com, another one of the really large tech companies in China. Who said that whilst he would never force employees to work a 996 schedule, every staff of JD.com must have a competitive spirit. "Those who fool around all day long, are not my brothers. I am responsible for the 180, 000 families behind the 180,000 brothers, so I cannot cover for those 1 percent who fool around. I have no choice".
Kai So Richard Liu actually came out with much harsher words than Jack Ma. He distinguished 'the brothers' (there's no sisters, apparently), and the slackers, basically. And the article in Pandaily points out a number of categories of workers that Liu want to weed out from his company: those who fail to sacrifice, those who are not performing, those with low outcome salary ratios, and also, very controversially, older employees with family obligations that gets in the way of devoting yourself fully to the company.
Sandra And to put this in context, JD.com has been losing money for about 12 years in a row now. So these remarks of Liu's were also accompanied by the fact that they have announced that they will replace the couriers fixed-base salaries with only commission-based compensation. And alongside that, reduce the employee housing funds from 12 percent to 7 percent. And let's remember, it still exceeds the government requirement of 5 percent. But, sending logistics staff to be completely reliant on commissions, is a result of what he says are not sustainable business practices. And this has been the number one trending topic on platforms like Weibo and Baidu, but has received no coverage in Western media.
Kai So there has been a huge backlash on social media against those comments, and also the practice of working 996. And it has been pointed out that, while Liu demands loyalty from 'the brothers', the employees, that same loyalty is not shown by the company when they rigorously weed out those who do not comply with those 996 demands.
Sandra So, of course this spilled into a broader debate around both work/life balance, and the productivity that is required from workers in tech companies in China, and not only. So we thought we would have a look at these practices in a broader context. China is by no means the only place where 996 is a practice, and actually looking at where people work the longest, China doesn't even make the top five. A UBS study for instance, found that workers who worked the most, were in other emerging markets cities, places such as Mumbai, Hanoi, Mexico City, New Delhi and Bogota.
Kai And a Quartz India article points out that 996 is no big deal in the Indian context, and in fact comparisons on yearly work hours, point to the fact that in Mumbai workers work up to 3315 hours, which compares with just over 2000 hours in Beijing. Which is still a lot, obviously, by Western standards, but that China is by no means alone with the phenomenon of long working hours, especially in tech sectors, of which India obviously has a fairly big one.
Sandra And at this point, let's not forget that this is not just a practice in emerging economies. Silicon Valley has long been one of the exporters of the never-ending work day. First it has been the proponent through the startup culture where people sleep in sleeping bags under their desk, do not take holidays, work non-stop on their businesses. We spoke previously on the podcast about companies like Google and Facebook building something akin to campuses, self-contained places where employees work, where employees can sleep, where there are catered for, they never have to leave their workplace. But also through very visible proponents of this lifestyle. Much like Jack Ma in China, in Silicon Valley we have Elon Musk, whose much-touted 120 hour work week really glamorises workaholism. He's long been celebrated for having a impeccable work ethic, but that means a day that is broken down into five minute intervals, everything is optimised. He sleeps on a couch in his own office, but he has dedicated his life to the success of Tesla.
Kai And let's not forget, we've covered this couch on the podcast as well, right.
Sandra It's a Musk.
Kai Exactly. We haven't done those in a while.
Sandra Elon Musk also sent out a letter in January earlier this year, an email to all the employees when they said well fulltime staff will be cut by about 7 percent, yet the people who are left behind will have to work much harder to make Tesla a success. And again this relied on the fact that Tesla is up against massive entrenched competition. And he said that Tesla must work much, much, harder than other manufacturers to survive, while building affordable, sustainable products. As he said building "clean energy products at scale [necessarily] requires extreme effort and relentless creativity, but succeeding in our mission is essential to ensure that the future is good, so we must do everything to advance the cause".
Kai So in that respect Elon Musk's call for working hard, working long hours, is no different to the ones we've heard from Richard Liu or Jack Ma, just that it doesn't have a fancy hashtag, right? But the work ethos in Silicon Valley is certainly similar to that described, arguably at a larger scale, within the Chinese sector. Well we also want to highlight that working long hours, leaving work late, is quite common in other sectors across Western countries, such as in consulting, in law, other professional services. And even in academia people tend to work long hours, even though they might not be present in the office. So we want to take a look at the phenomenon of working longer hours from a couple of different angles. We're going to go back to the article in the South China Morning Post, which was titled "Quantity or quality", which points to the heart of the matter. And the argument made in the article, which basically started off by saying that for quite a while China was able to compete with the West because of low wages, and just having more workers doing the work, and therefore competing on what was called a four-to-one ratio, four employees in China competing with one employee in the West, but increasingly with higher wages, competition happens on the same footing, and so the concern in the article is that long work hours are not necessarily conducive to high productivity, to creativity, and the kind of work needed to compete in an innovation economy.
Sandra There are also not very conducive to people having the time to actually spend the money that they generate at work. Henry Ford, who first advocated the five day working week back in the heyday of industrialization, who actually realised that having a break of two days, 'the weekend', as we now know it, would allow people to spend the money that they earned working for him, actually buying his product and making him even more successful.
Kai So as we said previously, God invented the six day work week and Henry Ford invented the five day work week.
Sandra And on this podcast we actually covered another possibility, which was the four day work week. This was back in November last year, and this was an article written by a guy called Rory Sutherland in the UK, who was covering a UK Labour politician, John McDonnell, who said actually we should be considering a four day work week. Have people working longer for four days, so the 99 type of argument, but have them working only for four days a week, and much longer into retirement.
Kai The argument was that as we are living longer, because of retirement for many people is often such a traumatising cut into their life, they lose purpose in life, they lose their daily routine. Often times friendships and social contacts.
Sandra And companies also lose their most experienced employees who have a wealth of knowledge that they could be sharing with junior colleagues.
Kai We should consider working the same number of hours over a lifetime but stretch those hours over longer periods into our 70s for example, which incidentally leads to the effect that we would work less during the week, hence having more downtime to relax, to recuperate, which would be beneficial to the kind of more innovative, creative work that, and here comes the automation argument, will be more important as we go forward, and which harks back to the argument that is now made on the back of 996, which is that just being at work for longer hours, #Presentism, doesn't necessarily mean that we're achieving a lot, because people are exhausted, they might not have the leisure to have new ideas, to think about things, because they feel the peer-pressure that they have to be seen to be working these hours.
Sandra So we'll include our previous detailed conversation about the four hour work week in the shownotes, because interestingly there we talk about both anecdotal and scientific evidence to show that the four day work week has real productivity benefits: it improves wellbeing, it improves relationships, it improves innovation, and so on and so forth.
Kai So why are the technology captains in China pushing 996? Why are they not going back to less hours, if the evidence points towards being more innovative if people have more downtime?
Sandra To me, and we've had this conversation before, I think it's really a problem of coordination. For that to happen you would actually need collective action. It's very difficult for just a few workers, even if that's a lot of workers, but for not all the workers to require this it will be perceived as being lazy or trying to slack off, we’ve seen Richard Liu's comments. And it's also very difficult for certain institutions to go at it, while the norm in other companies is to do 996. So it is really as much a cultural shift as it would be a regulatory shift, it would involve collective action or coordination on behalf of the employees.
Kai And it's also a contextual matter, just reducing the hours in the current system doesn't necessarily mean you're being more innovative over time. But it might in the short term reduce the output that people are producing, and if you're in a cut-throat competition, as perceived by these companies, and resonated in the comments by Richard Liu, the risk of going back in work hours might actually be too great in the short term. So this change will have to happen gradually and it will have to actually come from something like collective action or regulation, because each individual firm would find it too risky to enact this.
Sandra And the second story we've picked for today from the Guardian, actually points to one reason that this will become actually increasingly difficult to do. The second story is titled "UK businesses using artificial intelligence to monitor staff activity", and it reports on the Isaak system.
Kai Isaak is a so-called HR, or People Analytics software system, that collects a whole bunch of data about employees, and feeds it into a machine learning algorithm to make certain predictions. And will come up with a whole bunch of analytics around which people perform the best, which people who work the longest hours, are people writing emails? And it's actually couched in a very positive light. The company has the slogan 'transform workplace wellbeing', and they talk about understanding people's email-responsive, looking at who might experience email overload, or signals of being overworked. So the message is all in a very positive, improving the workers’ health and wellbeing kind of way.
Sandra The article reports on the fact that the system will show bosses who are your collaborative workers, who are your influencers, who are your changemakers. But think about this, I will have real-time insights into each employee and the work they do in the organisation, and their position in your network. Now that data is not seen by the employee, it's only available to their boss, who can then make judgments about how hard the employee is working, or how much they are slacking off, or how much better they could be doing within a certain amount of time.
Kai So the point here is that, the way in which the company talks about its product makes a fair few assumptions about how the product will be used because the information that might point out which workers are at risk of being overworked, could equally be used to judge which people are slacking off. And so the overworking might actually be a good signal, right? People are working hard, 996. Whereas people who do not send enough emails, who do not log enough activity in the keyboard key-logging data, might be seen to be slacking off because they're not actually doing work, they might just be sitting around and thinking about the world.
Sandra So there is a real risk here that all of us will be under increasing pressure to show off, to show that we're doing work, to be seen as busy, not to have any inactive time, or to be seen as working late and so on.
Kai And so what we want to point out is that this is actually a continuation of the earlier argument, in the sense that these systems, when used across a workplace, can lead to what we might call a 'digital panopticon', where people know that they're being logged, they don't know what happens to this data, but it will lead to behaviour change, so people will have to appear busy. It might lead to a whole new level of busy-work, and reports from companies using the software point to the fact that people are skipping breaks, they engage in computer work because they know that their keystrokes are being logged, at the expense of engaging in other activities such as talking to people, collaborating by way of walking around the office, having those serendipitous moments that we've discussed in the context of coworking spaces and being innovative and creative at work. So here we might actually have an AI data analytics-driven approach which incidentally might have similar effects to the practice of long working hours.
Sandra And let's not forget all of this companies will thus make decisions about what gets tracked, and implicitly then make decisions about what counts as work. If me walking around talking to you, or asking questions, or even daydreaming is not measured, then that doesn't count as work, that is slacking off.
Kai So for example if I wanted to come up with a metric that measures collaboration how do I do this? So I could look at how much do I contribute to conversations on an enterprise social network, such as Yammer, or Microsoft teams or Slack. I could measure how many people I communicate with via email, but it would be hard to measure how many people I have conversations with in my lunch break, or that I walk around in the office. So, knowing this, I might change my behaviour and now just randomly post things in these platforms because that gets me a better engagement or collaboration score. So it goes back to 'whatever gets measured gets done'.
Sandra And interestingly some companies have even attempted to measure those serendipitous moments, through Fitbits, or I think it was one of the big car manufacturers that had the employees wear badges around so that you would know who they spent lunch with, and whether they socialised during lunch. So the surveillance and measurement of your activities can even intrude in those moments. And not surprisingly, we've seen that through a couple of other articles that reported on IBM using artificial intelligence to predict when employees will quit. And in this case they were using a range of signals that were not disclosed, so they might be things on social media that you're posting, there might be things that you're posting on LinkedIn.
Kai How much you engage in your social network, or how many e-mails you write. And while IBM itself says they are not at this point monitoring email conversations, you can see where this argument is going. So people who disengage at work, might be more at risk of leaving in the next little while.
Sandra So the CEO of IBM said that the program has to date saved IBM almost three hundred million dollars by being able to retain many of their employees, let's remember IBM employs roughly 350 000 people.
Kai And obviously, when someone is flagged at risk of leaving, and this practice is called 'predictive attrition', so it has a fancy name, then the company would look at the performance of the individual and their predicted net worth to the company, so it's an economic argument, and if the company decides that it must retain this person, because remember hiring people is costly, losing talent is costly. Then there's obvious cost savings in maybe offering a promotion, or a salary raise, and keeping the employee that is at risk of defecting.
Sandra So where we wanted to end up with this conversation today is that often these conversations in the media have been defined in terms of practices at work, how many hours we work, what systems we use to improve the wellbeing of employees in the workplace, or to retain employees. But what we're actually seeing underneath this is actually a discussion about what work is, and when work is.
Kai And so #FutureofWork. When we talk about the future of work we often talk narrowly about what technologies are we going to use to measure work, how are we going to work, where are we going to work, co-work spaces, WeWork, and the lot. But what we think is one of the most important discussions is what work actually is. Because in all of the stories that we've discussed today, there are implicit assumptions of what counts as work. #996 points to the fact that being at work is work, being there, spending long hours, is actually what defines work. Whereas the four day work week goes to the point that there is a qualitative issue with work. That work is something that gets done, that doesn't necessarily tie in with being at work. And the measurement argument points to the fact that we have these implicit assumptions about what work is, but that all of this is pretty much in flux, and will be the conversation going forward.
Sandra But we really couldn't let this week go without saying one other thing that's happened in The Future, This Week, which was that Game of Thrones has returned with the final series. And in that we actually came across a story about algorithms predicting attrition not at work, but in Game of Thrones.
Kai So our third story, a quick future bite.
Sandra From HypeBeast, is titled "An algorithm predicted which characters will die during the final Game of Thrones season".
Kai So it's not exactly a spoiler alert because the company has been very tight-lipped. We do not know what's going to happen. Even the, none of the actors were able to divulge anything about how the Game of Thrones final season will end. But here's an AI to foretell the future.
Sandra So here is, based on machine learning, who will die, who will get the short end of the stick. With a 93.5 percent chance...
Kai Ta da!
Sandra Bronn is predicted to die. “The Mountain" has an 80.3 percent chance of dying, followed by a Sansa and Bran Stark with 73.3 and 57.8 percent chance of dying.
Kai Oh shit. And who's safe?
Sandra The safest, based on this algorithm, is Daenerys Targaryen with a .9 percent chance of death. And Tyrion, you'll be glad to know, will also make it with a 2.5 percent chance of death. And even Jaime Lannister is in the running with an only 4 percent chance of dying.
Kai Which leaves us with two things to say. First of all, no word on Jon Snow. Why is this?
Sandra Is it because he's already dead?
Kai That might well be the case. I also want to point out that machine learning algorithms, as we've pointed out in the past, are really good making predictions from the past to the future, to extrapolate. But Game of Thrones has shown us time and time again that the author does not really care, and kills off quite randomly those characters that we least expect will die. So, I guess there are still suspense.
Sandra We will revisit this in the following weeks, and...
Kai This is all we have time for today. See you soon.
Sandra On The Future.
Kai Next week.
Sandra This week?
Kai Yes, but next week.
Sandra On The Future, This Week. Next week. Thanks for listening.
Kai Thanks for listening.
Outro This was the Future, This Week made possible by the Sydney Business Insights team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week, right here with us, our sound editor Megan Wedge who makes us sound good, and keeps us honest. Our theme music was composed and played live on a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online on Flipboard, Twitter or sbi.sydney.edu.au. If you have any news that you want us to discuss, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.