ByteDance finally reads the room and cancels six-day work weeks

Society & Culture

ByteDance, the hard-charging Chinese tech giant that created TikTok, has ended an overtime policy after a month of dithering, and after one of its biggest rivals took concrete steps to end its corporate culture of overwork.

People walk past a logo of Bytedance, the China-based company which owns the short video app TikTok, or Douyin, at its office in Beijing, China July 7, 2020. Thomas Suen / Reuters

In a notable departure from its long-standing corporate culture of encouraging overwork, ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok and its domestic version, Douyin, will stop requiring employees to work an extra day every two weeks, following a similar move by its local rival Kuaishou last month.

In an announcement (in Chinese) made today, ByteDance said that the decision to formally end its grueling overtime schedule, which currently makes it compulsory for employees to work one Sunday every alternate weekend, will take effect starting on August 1. However, the company didn’t completely close the door on overtime work, as it added that employees would still be allowed to work extended hours “depending on their individual or teams’ needs.” 

The practice of mixing five-day work weeks and six-day work weeks, commonly known as the “big week/small week policy” and widely accepted in China’s tech industry, has been in place at ByteDance since its founding in 2012. Under this arrangement, workers are paid double their regular daily rate when working on weekends and triple during legal holidays, a bonus that some young professionals would rather than better work-life balance.

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Although China’s labor law prohibits employees from working more than eight hours a day and 44 hours a week, with overtime being capped at 36 hours a month, ByteDance has never faced legal repercussions for its overwork policy. The practice went largely unchallenged for years but was pushed into the spotlight in recent years as China’s hypercompetitive work culture, especially in the tech world, has become a frequent source of public concern and criticism.

ByteDance was aware of the shift in public opinion. During an all-hands meeting on June 17, its new CEO, Liáng Rǔbō 梁汝波, revealed that the firm had been reconsidering its big week/small week policy amid internal calls for change. However, citing a company-wide survey, Liang announced that the proposed cancellation of the policy had failed to garner a majority vote inside the company, so no change would be made to work schedules.

But the validity of the survey was questioned by some ByteDance employees opposed to the practice, who said that they were left out of the voting process. They speculated that the survey was nothing but a “performative stunt” pulled off by their employer to drag its feet on substantial measures to change its corporate culture. This is the view that was most popular, or at least most noticeable, on the Chinese internet. ByteDance’s superficial effort to combat employee burnout, as many online critics called it, was cast in an even more embarrassing light after its domestic competitor Kuaishou announced the end of a similar policy in June. So now the powerhouse company behind TikTok has been forced to act. Now can it lead the tech industry by the power of example?