996 and Beijing’s crazy work ethic

‘What are you doing this weekend?’ is normally an innocent question. Except when my project manager asked me this question, usually around 8pm on a Friday night. Every time I had the grand vision of looking him straight in the eye and confidently saying ‘not working’. Yet somehow, I always ended up agreeing to come in on Saturday, or Sunday, or both to complete some ‘urgent’ task that had somehow been overlooked all week.

Looking back on my six-month internship now, days roll into weeks and weeks into weekends, weeks into months, and all these months roll together to create one everlasting day. There are moments in this everlasting day that I am especially proud of, plenty of achievements and friendships, and skills that I’ve learnt. But what will stick with me most is the unbelievably hectic work ethic and just how unhealthy it was for me, and how this experience taught me what I value most.

Perhaps I have been far too spoilt by living and working in Australia where you can reasonably expect to work from 9am to 5:30, and usually be paid for any overtime you do and aren’t expected to work on the weekends.

Showing up at 10am at the office in Beijing was considered early, because quite a lot of the architects didn’t show up until lunchtime (which is quite reasonable when you regularly work until 2am). Lunchtime was always my favourite time of the day because all the interns ate lunch together, and even though I got tired of eating from the same restaurant every day, I got to spend time with some incredible people.

After lunch is when the office really kicked into gear and the late arrivals got to work. My afternoons were spent doing non-urgent work; cleaning up models, plans or researching. Team meetings were usually held at about 5pm onwards, meaning my ‘urgent tasks’ for the day were allocated at about 6:30pm, to be completed before tomorrow.

For quite a long time I fought quite hard to make sure I always left before 10pm. But it was always a struggle and I felt incredibly guilty – my leaving ‘early’ without completing the ‘urgent’ task meant that it was passed onto someone else and they would have to stay even later to complete my work as well as their own. On those days when I did manage to leave before 10pm, as I was saying goodbye to the other interns they would all exclaim: ‘Wow! You’re leaving so early!’.

Towards the end of my internship I started coming in at 10:30am having just rolled out of bed (morning exercise long abandoned), considered it a good day if I was able to leave at 10pm, an average day if I left before midnight, and a bad day if I stayed any later than 2am. If a project was nearing completion it wasn’t abnormal to stay until 4am for several days in a row, only going home to shower, sleep for an hour or two before coming back into the office to do all last night’s work all over again. People tell me that this is what being an architect is like, but I will spend the rest of my career defying that expectation, because I know it is possible to have a life and be an architect.

As we interns were sitting around the dining table, the local Chinese interns would joke about Beijing’s 996 work ethic: 9am to 9pm 6 days and how nice it would be to work those hours! Those of us from Western countries would say we couldn’t wait to get back to 955. And everyone would agree that our 947 internship would either be the making of us, or we would never return to architecture again. At the moment, I think it’s about a 70/30 split between those of us still passionate about architecture, and those who are thinking about changing to a 996 career.

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