I was meeting a friend for dinner after work and we agreed to meet at the subway station close to her work in Beijing’s CBD (Central Business District). When I arrived just past 6 pm, I almost had to fight my way out of the subway station. Hordes of people were swarming from the close-by office towers towards the subway station for their ride home. This stream continued steadily for at least half an hour, when my friend showed up (fashionably late, as always).
The Chinese expression for huge masses of people is rén shān rén hǎi 人山人海 – People mountain people sea. It certainly felt like a sea of people pouring into the streets and subway.
Drop the pen at 6 pm
Office hours in Beijing seem to be much more rigid than anything I have experienced in the US or Europe. Typical work hours are 9 am to 6 pm, and there seem to be very little flexibility. I understand that for manufacturing or customer service jobs, or other jobs that require a presence at certain times or are performed in shifts. But here it seems to apply to all kind of office jobs.
Even lunch breaks follow a schedule. One foreigner told me that his boss often walks through the office shortly after the official lunch break to make sure everyone returned on time.
Why are work hours in Beijing so rigid?
A general component of the Chinese management style is that employees follow the instructions they are given. In the West, office employees are expected to complete the tasks and projects they are assigned. But if they want to finish something first and go to lunch later, or the other way around, is usually up to them. They take ownership and responsibility for completing the work. Chinese employees, especially on the lower levels, often don’t have that sense of ownership for their work. They just follow directions.
A friend of mine speculated that clear rules and the oversight or enforcement are simply needed here. She told me that when her two big bosses are out of the office, many of her Chinese colleagues just completely slack of. They come in very late, take super long lunch breaks and swipe each other’s key cards to cover it up.
Impact on rush hour
As you can imagine, when thousands, probably millions of people in Beijing need to be in the office or drop the pen at about the same time of the day, the public transportation system and traffic in general is stretched to its limit.
Office hours here are later than the stereotypical 8-5 of many Western countries. For most people it is 9-6, but some start and work later than that. A typical commute in Beijing can take an hour or longer in each direction. So the main morning rush hour in Beijing starts before 8 am and lasts until after 9 am. The evening is busiest starting at 6 pm. If your work allows you some flexibility, you can avoid the worst of the rush hour by being a bit earlier than the masses.
I’m curious if other folks in Beijing, or China in general, have the same experience with rigid work hours. Please share yours in the comments.
If you want to read more about the people and culture element of working in China, check out this Practical Guide – Managing in China. The Practical Guide describes many typical work situations and provides real life examples to illustrate the cultural differences in the workplace. It also gives practical tips and insights to help Western professionals be successful when working in China.