Work Culture in China: Strategies & Tips to Manage Employees

A company can achieve the desired objectives mainly thanks to the skills of the employees who work for it.

But an aspect that is often underestimated is that related to the work environment. A work environment where employees are motivated and happy to work every day allows them to give their best to grow together with the company.

The company must offer a positive working environment where employees can focus on their work.

But what is the work culture and what are the differences in China compared to the Western work culture?

In this article, we explain the main characteristics of the work culture in China and provide tips on how to best manage Chinese employees.

What is the work culture?

Work culture is a very important aspect in every part of the world, and it differs from country to country.

But what is the work culture?

In this case, by culture we mean the personality and characteristics of a company. It is what makes the company unique and is the sum of values, traditions, attitudes, behaviors.

The work culture is of great importance in every company because depending on what type of work culture you want to establish, you will have different types of employees who will join the company and you will be able to improve or not employee retention.

So, why is work culture important and why it is also important to decide what type of culture we want to establish in the company?

A positive culture is significant, especially because:

  • It allows you to attract talent: for many people, the salary received at the end of the month is not the main thing to consider, but the work environment and if employees are treated fairly is equally relevant;
  • It allows you to improve the employee’s retention and their well-being: the happier and more fulfilled the employees, the more they want to stay in the company;
  • It contributes to improving employee performance: an employee who 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…

Work culture in China and differences with the Western culture

A Chinese workplace is slightly different than it is in the United States, or other parts of the world.

So, if you are planning to hire employees in China or start a business in the country, it is very important to understand how the Chinese workplace works.

Hierarchy in China is very important

China is a society of rigid hierarchy, so it is not a surprise that we find this also in the workplace.

With this kind of hierarchy, employees know that it is important to follow the guidelines and instructions given by the boss or supervisor.

It is better to first listen to your boss and then carry out the duties to the best of your abilities. And sharing opinions or making suggestions is best done after you reach a certain level of capabilities and trust, to avoid any appearance of criticism.

Overtime

In many western workplaces, working hours are fixed, usually 8 hours a day, and overtime is an exception that rarely happens.

In China, the situation is different. Working beyond normal working hours, especially in companies in the technology sector, is considered normal and many times companies, in the hiring phase, ask the interviewee if he/she is available to work overtime.

To be clear, the Chinese government does have a law that mandates that employees are made to work only for 8 hours per day.

Since overtime is common in the Chinese workplace, the afternoon nap is also typical among office workers.

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.

So, it is normal to see colleagues sleeping after lunch for 20-30 minutes 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.

Relationships (Guanxi) are very important in China

Guanxi is an important concept in China. It can be translated as “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 great 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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