For China's overworked IT professionals, coronavirus lockdown means longer days

"During remote work, the obvious disadvantage is that everyone will unconsciously work overtime and get used to it," one games developer said.

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By Dawn Liu and Vivi Wu

BEIJING — For Chinese information technology workers who already had to grapple with punishing work schedules, coronavirus lockdowns across the country have meant increased workloads, higher expectations from bosses and colleagues and ever more blurred boundaries between work and personal life.

China's IT industry already had a notorious "996" work culture, in which people work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week. But some describe the current working-from-home mode as closer to "007" — 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And the extra overtime is unpaid.

China has suffered more than 81,500 coronavirus cases since December, with more than 3,300 deaths. The city of Wuhan, where the virus is thought to have originated, has only just begun ending a two-month lockdown.

"During remote work, the obvious disadvantage is that everyone will unconsciously work overtime and get used to it," said Li Haoning, 25, a game developer working for the mobile games company Century Game in Beijing.

As hundreds of millions of people turn to the internet for work, school, shopping and entertainment, the demand for IT workers' time has increased.

But in a home office setting, workers' efficiency is compromised by distractions and troubled virtual working systems.

"I used to work 10 hours a day, among which 9.5 hours were effective time," said Wang Wei, 35, a software engineer with a phone chip company in Beijing.

Now he's working 12 hours a day at home, but only eight or nine hours are effective, Wang said. "My 3-year-old daughter constantly came over to disrupt my thoughts."

Li said, "When I'm in the office, I can go directly to my colleague to discuss a plan, but it becomes inefficient via online texting."

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These workers are having to deal with life and work integrated as one. Their homes have become their offices, and going out is difficult because of strict controls on people's movement to contain the coronavirus.

"I have breakfast around 9:30 in the morning, and then after breakfast the dining table turns into my work desk," Wang said.

"At 10 a.m. I'm usually woken up by a teleconference call where I report my work progress," Li said. "I will have a cup of coffee during the conference, and it's almost lunchtime when the conference is over."

Remote working also means IT workers need to make themselves available at any time.

Zhu Lichao, 26, a programmer for ByteDance, said it's hard to know exactly when he can get off work.

"My boss checks on me every day, and my colleagues call me more often," he said.

Li, the game developer, faces the same challenge. "Some colleagues will still call me to confirm working requests at 11 p.m.," he said.

China has been encouraging workers to work from home to reduce the risk of contracting the coronavirus. In some cities, smaller enterprises that have suspended operations are subsidized by local governments to train their employees in online working skills.

On Feb. 3, the first workday after the Chinese New Year holiday, nearly 200 million employees across China were working on DingTalk, a communication platform developed by Alibaba, China's biggest e-commerce company.

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IT was in the five busiest sectors in the first week after the holiday, according to statistics from Enterprise WeChat, a remote work platform developed by another Chinese tech giant, Tencent.

It's not uncommon for Chinese employees to work overtime without extra pay, although China's labor laws say no one should work more than 40 hours a week, with no more than 36 hours' overtime.

"It's important for people to change their concept about work," said Zhou Huaping, 24, a lawyer based in Guangzhou, referring to both employees and employers.

"The situation won't get better if people are willing to pursue economic benefits at the expense of their or other people's rights," Zhou said. "In the longer term, this doesn't help companies motivate or keep the talents."