Work Culture in China: Strategies & Tips to Manage Employees

Employees, their skills and work ethics are the primary driving force of any company. Despite this logic, work culture, a directly related factor, is oftentimes underestimated as an important criteria for a successful business. A work environment where employees are motivated and positive breeds the best work performance. Successful companies offer a positive working environment where employees can focus on their work. The million dollar question is: how do you implement such a work culture? Let alone, how do you implement a positive and efficient work culture in China? What are the differences between the work culture in China and Western work cultures?

These are very important questions for all foreign (and local) companies in China. In this article, we dive into the fundamentals of work culture, explain the characteristics of “work culture” in China, explore the novel work culture models in China and solve how to best manage Chinese employees.

work culture in china

What is work culture?

Work culture encompasses all social characteristics of a company. This includes hierarchy, communications, company policies, reward structures, onboarding processes, HR, company traditions, offices, etc… It is what makes the company unique and is the sum of values, traditions, attitudes and behaviors in the workplace.

Work culture is partly shaped by the employees within your organization and in turn, your work culture will also shape the kind of employees your organization attracts. For this reason, it’s crucial to have an understanding of your target employee, much like your target audience. The type of work culture you want to establish will affect the types of employees who will join your company and play a major role in talent retention.

So, now that we know why work culture is important, let’s explore what criteria make a universally “good” work culture. Working environments differ from company to company, however an ideal work culture will help with the following:

  • Attract more talent: for many to-be-employees nowadays, salary is part of the equation when considering a job. Working conditions, opportunities and benefits are increasingly becoming dominant factors in attracting highly sought after employees.
  • Improve talents retention rates: the happier and more fulfilled the employees, the more they want to stay in the company.
  • Improve employee performance: an employee who is challenged, rewarded and feels good in the company is an employee who is focused and committed to growing together with the company.

Establishing a positive work culture must be done at a strategic level and is the management that gives a guideline regarding the work culture.

Between the east and west, the work culture is extremely different.

Keep reading to know more…

Differences between Chinese & Western work cultures

The China work culture is slightly different than that of the United States, or other parts of the world. These sometimes not-so-subtle differences can cause friction between bosses and colleagues of different backgrounds.

Hierarchy in China is very important

China is a society of rigid hierarchy, so it is not a surprise that this is reflected in the workplace. Generally speaking, employees in China will not question guidelines or instructions given by the boss or supervisor, unless they have a certain level of understanding of the subject matter. The way of the Chinese apprentice is to listen to your mentor and carry out the duties to the best of your abilities. Sharing opinions or making suggestions is best done after you reach a certain level of capabilities and trust.

In this regard, expecting entry-level employees to suggest outside-the-box ideas may put some employees in a state of cultural contradiction. Again, this is a mere generalization, and experienced employees are expected to be decision makers.

Overtime

In most western countries, working hours are fixed, usually 8 hours a day, and overtime is an exception that happens out of necessity.

In China, overtime is seen as a normal occurrence in many companies as it is a sign of hard work and dedication. Working beyond normal working hours, especially in tech companies, is considered the norm. In China, overtime is basically comes with the job/company. However, times change and nowadays many Chinese workers choose to distance themselves from companies with an overtime culture and opt for jobs at companies with regular working hours.

To be clear, the Chinese government does have a law that mandates that employees are made to work only for 8 hours per day. This is simply not enforced.

This brings us to the next point.

Napping is acceptable

While in companies in the West, sleeping in the workplace is punishable and undoubtedly not well seen by managers and colleagues, in China napping is accepted and even seen as a good thing! The employee is tired, because he/she works really hard!

So, it is normal to see colleagues sleeping after lunch for 20-30 minutes or looking at Chinese social media and then going back to work. Companies and managers usually do not complain about them because it is seen as a tradeoff for making them work for long hours.

Business relationships (Guanxi) are very important in China

Guanxi is an important concept in China. It can be translated as a well maintained “network, connection”, and it is also common to see this in the workplace.

Usually, when colleagues do you a favor, you should repay back. And it is also important to show that you are integrated into the team, and willing to be part of it, working together to achieve results.

It is not uncommon to see co-workers hanging out together after work, traveling, or exchanging gifts. Not participating in their invitations can make you appear too self-centered. And in a society where collectivism is more important than individualism, you better ensure that people do not view you as selfish or prudish.

The importance of titles in China

Hierarchy in China has a major influence on the behavior of employees with managers.

In Western culture there is less emphasis on the importance of titles, and there is a tendency to put team members on the same level, while in China there is more of a sense of respect for job titles. During meetings, employees tend to respect the manager’s vision and ideas and they respect the job title that the person has.

Humility on the workplace

A concept connected to the collectivism of Chinese society is that of humility.

Humility in China has been part of the culture for thousands of years. In the country, group success is exalted more than individual success. And employees tend to be humble when they achieve excellent results within the team, also because they do not want to lose the so-called “face” in front of their colleagues.

In Western culture, humility is almost seen as a sign of weakness, and there is a tendency to show the success that the individual has achieved.

996 Work Culture in China

The 996 wording was introduced in China after Alibaba founder Jack Ma incentivized employees to work harder and longer for better results.

996 means working from 9 in the morning to 9 in the evening for 6 days a week.

Jack Ma’s words highlighted the fact that, especially in the technology sector, working overtime is what has allowed many companies to achieve very high levels of growth in a short time.

Employees at most tech companies are either encouraged or required to put in long, unpaid hours to show their commitment to their jobs and loyalty to the company.

The slowdown in China has resulted in a hiring freeze in the tech sector with more layoffs than usual. This has brought companies, especially in the tech sector, to squeeze more work out of employees or lower costs by cutting down on benefits and bonuses.

This also brought to some form of resentment among workers. A group of developers used the platform Github to complain about this 996-work culture, writing a list of 150 companies that adopted this work culture.

The Chinese law is actually very clear about this and it states that the standard working time is 8 hours per day, 40 hours per week.

Businesses must restrict overtime to 36 hours a month.  And an employer may extend working hours due to the business needs, after consulting with the employee union and the employee.

Chinese Management in the Workplace

When you decide to open a company in China or decide to work in China, an important aspect to consider is the role of management in the workplace.

Especially with the growing globalization, there is a need not to remain anchored to a single style of leadership, but we need to better understand the differences between western management and managerial style in the east, especially in China, to better adapt with our employees and partners.

Do not question publicly your managers or colleagues

As we have previously analyzed, China is a highly hierarchical country, where the employee usually does not show his disappointment or disagreement with the direct superior, especially in public.

The concept of “face” is deeply rooted in Chinese culture, and employees, but also Chinese managers, do not go against and do not point the finger at showing the mistakes made by the employee, so as not to lose the so-called “face”. Usually, errors and opinions are shown privately.

Confidentiality

The protection of information regarding customers or processes within the company and between the various departments is considered very important in China.

In the western mindset, that is considered as a lack of transparency, but in China, it is considered disrespectful to ask other departments for information if they do not trust you first.

If you push colleagues too hard to share information, you can end up with very vague answers and put yourself in a bad light towards managers.

The concept of harmony

In Western culture, managers and employees are very often incentivized to give suggestions and opinions to find solutions to problems.

And it is common to see an individual who during meetings shows some possible suggestions.

In China, this attitude is often perceived as a signal of showing off, and it is an attitude that can create disharmony in the team.

Being the first to have an idea that can help the company sometimes has social implications and can cause colleagues to envy.

Especially for many western managers, this can be an obstacle if they want to get suggestions and opinions from employees.

Chinese communication style is more indirect

Communication in Chinese offices and between different departments is different from the western work environment.

The concept of guanxi is also important in the workplace and communication usually has the aim of building relationships, unlike the western one, where communication is mainly used to exchange information.

Leaders in China usually speak less directly, and it is sometimes difficult for Westerners to get more information.

It is common, especially in meetings, to witness situations in which employees remain silent. In these cases, the best approach is to speak privately to the various employees and managers to get more information.

Tips to Manage Your Chinese Employees

Managing Chinese employees can be a problematic process, especially for a foreigner who runs a company or an HR department.

Connected with the management style, we want to introduce some tips here to better manage Chinese employees.

Connect

As a collectivist culture, Chinese people put a tremendous emphasis on relationships and group dynamics at work—especially when compared with Western countries.

It is extremely important to build relationships with your employees and the best way to form good working relationships is to put the time in to get to know your employees.

Put the effort in really caring about your employees, in this way they will see that you honestly care about them and you are not only just trying to profit off their hard work.

If you must punish your employees, do it privately

Remembering the concept of “face”, a good rule concerning the management of employees is that of praising in public but punishing in private.

The meaning of this is that it is not a good idea to make employees feel embarrassed in front of other colleagues. If there is a need to punish them or just have a suggestion or opinion from the employees, it is important to do it in private.

Help workers find their voice

Most employees in China consider debate to be distasteful and are not taught to argue for their ideas. Plus, the indirect communication style can be detrimental when you want to hear their suggestions and opinions.

One way to make your employees share ideas is to use the group as a motivation. In this way, employees can consider their contribution as an obligation to the group and allow the latter to improve and grow further.

How to Hire Employees in China

For foreign companies, hiring employees in China is not always easy.

The government has strict rules regarding the employment of workers based in China.

You must remember one important aspect:

For foreign companies, it is illegal to directly hire employees in China.

As per Chinese law, only companies based in China may be employers. If you do not have a company in China, the best option is to hire employees from a China-based staffing agency.

These companies are also known as PEO, and they allow foreign companies to hire employees without having a company in China, outsourcing all employer liabilities (employment contracts, payroll, mandatory benefits, income taxation, etc.).

As of today, using PEO / employment solutions represent the best option to hire Chinese employees without a company in China, whether it be in terms of legality, convenience, or financially wise.

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