A lot of words come to mind when thinking about business in China: “Booming”, “Exports”, “Walmart”, “Cheap Labor”, “Outsourcing” – You’ll notice “Efficient” isn’t one of them, and this doesn’t just apply to manufacturing. Over these next few days we’ll be looking at the Chinese workplace, and a few interesting jobs, that seem to be unique to China.
When I first arrived in China I noticed that even the smallest shops were staffed with dozens of employees. My Chinese friends explained that this was because Chinese businesses wanted their customers to have excellent service. I was skeptical as to whether or not this was true after my first trip to a Beijing Starbucks. There were at least 6 employees standing behind the counter and it took me a few minutes to even get their attention, most of them were busy looking at their cell-phones or were actively avoiding eye contact. Once I got my drink I had to search for a clean table, since many of the others were still covered in garbage from the last customers. Also, I was the only customer.
This isn’t a once in a while experience either, this is a daily sight. In almost every supermarket or convenience store you have to struggle to get past the groups of idle employees just to do your shopping.
This is not to say that Chinese people are lazy; there just isn’t enough work to do for that many employees.
So why not just hire fewer employees?
As I talked about earlier, wages in China are very low. So for the manager operating the store the cost of a few extra employees is a marginal expense that seems to create the impression that this store has excellent service.
I think this attitude has become so pervasive in the service industries that it has now crept into virtually every sector. For example, in the administrative section of the hospital we have far more staff than work to be done. One of my co-workers regularly naps for most of the afternoon or shops online; while the other one watches TV shows or chats with her friends (who also work here). In Chinese colleges the teachers’ office looks very similar to my office at the hospital, with a dozen or so people happily tending to their Chinese Facebook pages.
A fun side note: Another limit on efficiency is the somewhat sacred nap time. In the summer we stop working between noon and 2:30 so that everyone can take a nap. During this time even many of our best surgeons can be found snoring in their offices. To me it seems like life would be a lot better if we took a short lunch and headed home early, but suggesting this to my co-workers has only resulted in angry glares. “But I would be too tired to work,” one of them says.
Until wages rise in China to the point that labor becomes an actual expense (and they are just beginning to), I find it hard to believe that China will be a leader in establishing new business practices. The US response to the financial crisis was to fire workers and improve efficiency, and while it sounds cold-hearted, it is part of why our economy is so strong. In the meantime China created dozens of jobs without any work to be done. Which model do you think creates a stronger foundation for future growth?
Tomorrow we’ll be looking at some of China’s made up jobs that keep the masses employed