Business Technology

Monday 22 October 2018

China may mean end of weekend

There’s a growing trend for people to mix work and family life. Photo: Stock Image
There’s a growing trend for people to mix work and family life. Photo: Stock Image
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

You, the reader, are an over-privileged, whiny snowflake with an inflated sense of work-life balance which is being exposed by modern Chinese workers.

Or so one of Silicon Valley's most important figures says.

In an extraordinary op-ed in the Financial Times, Sequoia Capital partner Michael Moritz witheringly compared US and European workers to Chinese ones.

While we neurotically fuss "over the appropriate length of paternity leave or work-life balances", the Chinese are stoically working six-to-seven day weeks, often 12- to-14-hour days, he says.

"Doing business in China is easier than doing business in California."

Lest you think Moritz is some sort of outlier, think again. This is a guy who's been around. His firm has been the lead investor in many of the biggest Silicon Valley companies, including Google, LinkedIn and Yahoo. He sits on the board of Stripe, the €10bn payments company of Limerick brothers Patrick and John Collison.

It's hard to think of a venture capitalist who represents mainstream tech culture more than this man (who is Welsh, not American).

So when he points to the way things should be done, it's hard not to sit up and take note.

"If a Chinese company schedules tasks for the weekend, nobody complains about missing a Little League game or skipping a basketball outing with friends," he says.

"Little wonder it is a common sight at a Chinese company to see many people with their heads resting on their desks taking a nap in the early afternoon."

Sounds great, eh?

Yet to dismiss Moritz's views is foolish. He is highlighting a salient point - that rival business ecosystems are willing to go to greater physical lengths than we are to achieve corporate goals. Anyone who can't see the connection between this and rising tension (leading to protectionist populism) with economic instability in western economies may not be looking close enough.

Still, as a contribution to the general debate on work-life balance, it makes for grim reading.

Family life in this brave new world is gradually being unapologetically demoted. In China, mothers and fathers seeking career advancement often see children "for just a few minutes a day", if at all. There is no allowance for physical fitness which "can chew up eight to 10 hours a week" in western countries, Moritz notes disapprovingly.

So is this what lies ahead of all of us in our own jobs? Not necessarily, say other successful entrepreneurs.

"It's a bad idea to design an office for people to live in," says Des Traynor, co-founder of Intercom, one of Silicon Valley's fastest-growing companies. "I think there's a lot of value in being able to mentally separate your living space from your workplace."

Intercom, which is heading to a €1bn company valuation and divides its 350 staff almost equally between Dublin and San Francisco, likes its star workers to have decent personal lives. "You can come back in and do your best work," said Traynor.

Traynor made his remarks in a wide-ranging discussion for this weekend's 'Big Tech Show' podcast.

In my experience, many other tech founders agree with his rationale.

Yet if we're honest, our work practices are continuing to evolve into something closer to 'always on'. It is now normal to work at home during 'personal' time during the evening or at weekends. This might be in the proofreading of a report, the preparation of a presentation or just checking work emails.

Commuting time is now also work time. Who among us declines to take a work call or answer a text on the train or bus?

Whether we like it or not, to be strictly unavailable simply isn't normal anymore.

The situation is further complicated by relationships with colleagues and bosses that leak into social media. If you're Facebook friends with someone or you follow one another on Twitter, you're that bit more casually contactable.

It's even worse with WhatsApp.

One well-known telecoms boss in Dublin regularly contacts staff over WhatsApp during unsociable hours. Others use LinkedIn inmail.

So maybe Moritz is right - maybe this is just the way that our work-life balance is evolving.

"The Chinese approach may seem unhealthy and unappealing to westerners," says Moritz. "And as China's gross domestic product rises, the collective thirst for improvement may start to wane. But for now it's a fact of life. As the Chinese technology companies push ever harder outside the mainland, the habits of western companies will start to seem antique."

I am conscious that some readers may be workaholics by choice.

I remember interviewing former Evernote chief executive Phil Libin some years ago about his personal approach to a work-life balance.

"The idea is not that you need to work long hours," he said, talking of how work is evolving. "The main idea is that your job should be the main thing that you identify with. Evernote's core user is someone who has poor understanding of life-work balance, someone who's always doing both. It's someone like me, who constantly strives for work-life integration."

Libin didn't mean this as being prescriptive for society. Rather, he was describing his own sensibility on the topic.

But up to now, being a workaholic was usually something of a choice.

Moritz may be flagging a new, less voluntary, always-on era.

To hear more from Intercom co-founder Des Traynor on how Intercom is dealing with growth at such a fast pace, listen to the latest episode of The Big Tech Show, on iTunes, Soundcloud or www.independent.ie/podcasts.

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