Kuaishou shows ByteDance that fighting overwork isn’t that hard

Society & Culture

One of China’s biggest video apps, Kuaishou, once installed sensors in toilets to monitor how long employees took in the bathroom. Now the company has put an end to six day work weeks for tech staff, shortly after ByteDance — which owns China’s dominant short video platform — decided to continue the practice.

kuaishou
Sheng Xiexiao / Reuters

Less than a week after ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of TikTok and Douyin, told its employees that working on weekends remained mandatory despite internal calls for change, its local competitor Kuaishou announced today that it would reverse a policy that required employees to work an extra day every two weeks.

The practice, commonly known as “big week/small week policy” and widely accepted in China’s tech industry, was first fully implemented at Kuaishou in January. After six months of “experimenting” with enforcing the rule, the Tencent-backed company said (in Chinese) that it would scrap six-day workweeks starting July 1.

Under the new policy, Kuaishou employees are still allowed to work extended hours “depending on their actual needs.” They will be paid double their regular daily rate when working on weekends and triple during legal holidays, according to Kuaishou, the nine-year-old owner of China’s most popular short-video service after ByteDance’s Douyin.

Back in December, when Kuaishou was operating at full steam in preparation for its stock market debut in Hong Kong, the company asked all employees to work on every other Sunday. At an all-hands meeting, Liú Fēng 刘峰, the head of its human resources department, rationalized the decision by saying that “Sunday was considered the beginning of the week” in Western countries, and that around 70% of the company’s employees had already adopted the “big week/small week policy” under orders from their supervisors. 

“For the sake of closer cooperation between all teams, Kuaishou will extend the practice to the entire company,” Liu reportedly stated (in Chinese), suggesting that employees should take advantage of the extra days in the office to work on “weekly reports and presentations.” 

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While some employees welcomed the change, which they said would increase their incomes, Kuaishou’s new work schedule faced heavy criticism on Chinese social media, where related hashtags racked up millions of views and negative comments were rampant. “Some people in foreign countries see Sunday as the start of the week due to their religious beliefs. Monday is the official international standard. What does religion have to do with Kuaishou’s desire to exploit employees?” a Weibo user quipped (in Chinese) back then.

Is work-life balance becoming a thing? 

Like most Chinese tech companies, working staff overtime is a critical part of Kuaishou’s identity. Launched in 2011, the firm started out as a mobile app called GIF Kuaishou, which let users create animated images. A year after its founding, the company removed GIF from its name and invented the first short-video social media platform in China. In recent years, Kuaishou has been playing catch-up with ByteDance’s Douyin, which has 600 million daily active users versus Kuaishou’s 262.4 million users.

The pressure to find its place in a Douyin-dominated market propelled Kuaishou to impose a crunch on its employees in the past. Perhaps the most outrageous act by the company was to install digital timers above toilet cubicles in its office buildings. Although it insisted that the devices were “intended to help with long lines and overcrowding in bathrooms,” critics believed that they were used to increase employees’ productivity by monitoring the length of their bathroom breaks.

Kuaishou’s reversal of its “big week/small week policy” has been met with a groundswell of positive feedback on the Chinese internet, with many praising it for following the lead of Tencent in combating employee burnout and taking a stance against the overwork culture in China’s tech sector.

And all of this also throws ByteDance’s superficial efforts to appear to care about the well-being of its employees in an even more embarrassing light. Earlier this month, ByteDance conducted a company-wide survey asking employees how they felt about its big week/small week practice. On June 17, Liáng Rǔbō 梁汝波, the new CEO of the global tech powerhouse, disclosed the results of the poll, saying that because only one-third of its workforce opposed the policy, the company decided to maintain the status quo. 

But the objectivity of the survey was questioned by some ByteDance employees, who later revealed that they were unaware of the voting and speculated thatit was just a “performative stunt” pulled off by the company to push back on internal complaints about its corporate culture.