Jeremy Hunt went running with Matt Chorley on the Red Box Politics Podcast, and talked about running and problem-solving. (And, in the interests of balance, here’s an episode featuring an interview with Boris Johnson.)
Jeff Stein at the Washington Post has a piece about the 4-day week and the lack of interest in it among American progressives and unions:
In Europe, signs abound of interest in continuing to cut working hours. The four-day week has won backing from some of the biggest unions in Ireland and Britain, while plans to dramatically cut working hours have been embraced by large unions in Germany, the Netherlands and France….
But so far, the idea has failed to gain significant attention from the American left or labor movement. Jon Steinman, who worked at the Office of Congressional Ethics, said he is starting an advocacy group in the United States to push a four-day week, although the organization is still in its infancy.
The Democratic Socialists of America and the Justice Democrats, two left-wing groups that have pushed Democrats left, have not backed the idea yet. None of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have embraced the idea, despite similarly ambitious proposals for a federal jobs guarantee or a universal basic income.
NPR’s Planet Money has a piece on efforts in Japan to allow people to work less:
Some companies in Japan are going bankrupt because of the country’s critical labor shortage. Officials point to a declining birthrate — which has led to a shortage of workers — and an infamously demanding workplace culture that is discouraging some people from entering the job market at all. This past April, Japan’s legislative body introduced a novel solution to these two problems: a law requiring workers to work less.
[The Japanese government hopes that] a cap on overtime could alter Japan’s work culture, bring new people — particularly women — into the workplace, and solve the country’s labor shortage.
You can listen to the episode below (if my efforts to embed an audio player worked):
Or you can read the transcript.
As I’ve written before, number of Japanese companies have been experimenting with different kinds of 4-day weeks: some big employers like 7-Eleven and Uniqlo offer workers the option of doing four 10-hour days per week, in an effort to give workers longer stretches of unbroken free time. Japanese e-commerce company Zozo is actually the world’s biggest company running on a 30-hour week.
Yahoo Finance has a piece about Shake Shack’s experiment with 4-day, 10-hour days, which started earlier this year and appears to be expanding.
The better burger joint began testing a four-day workweek for its restaurant employees at several of its Las Vegas locations earlier this year. Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti tells Yahoo Finance the test has since expanded to some of its restaurants on the West Coast.
While there is a cost component to a four-day workweek, Garutti says it’s the right thing to do for often overworked restaurant workers with families. And in this tight labor market, keeping employees healthy and happy is important to ensuring they don’t grab a gig elsewhere.
“I have been working in restaurants since I was 13, the restaurant business is super hard on families as our people work a lot of hours,” Garutti explains. “Why does it have to be that way is the question we have asked. We don’t know if it will work, it’s something we are testing at our West Coast shacks. We want to see if we can attract, retain and develop more people by changing how we think about how the restaurant business works.”
“I have had some new moms in the company come to me and say I have one less day of childcare. I have one less commute, this is amazing,” adds Garutti.
There are a number of world-class restaurants that have moved to 4-day weeks, and the movement has been slowly spreading from places whose reservations fill up in hours, to casual dining establishments. It’s good to see it moving to fast food, where some of the noisiest answers to “how to do we keep our workforce” have been along the lines of “screw them all, the robots are coming, bitch.”
One of the objections I sometimes get to the 4-day workweek runs something like this: Since we know that unemployment makes people unhappy, doesn’t this mean that reducing the length of the workweek will make people somewhat less happy?
This assumes that there’s a linear relationship between work time and well-being. If 0 hours/week creates very little well-being, and 40 hours/week creates N amount of well-being, might it be the case that 30 hours creates (3/4)N well-being?
There’s a group at Cambridge that’s been looking at exactly this question, and they have a new article asking “How much paid work is needed for mental health and well-being?” Here’s the article abstract:
Daiga Kamerāde, Senhu Wang, Brendan Burchell, Sarah Ursula Balderson, Adam Coutts, “A shorter working week for everyone: How much paid work is needed for mental health and well-being?” Social Science & Medicine, In press, corrected proof, Available online 18 June 2019, Article 112353.
There are predictions that in future rapid technological development could result in a significant shortage of paid work. A possible option currently debated by academics, policy makers, trade unions, employers and mass media, is a shorter working week for everyone. In this context, two important research questions that have not been asked so far are: what is the minimum amount of paid employment needed to deliver some or all of the well-being and mental health benefits that employment has been shown to bring? And what is the optimum number of working hours at which the mental health of workers is at its highest? To answer these questions, this study used the UK Household Longitudinal Study (2009–2018) data from individuals aged between 16 and 64. The analytical sample was 156,734 person-wave observations from 84,993 unique persons of whom 71,113 had two or more measurement times. Fixed effects regressions were applied to examine how changes in work hours were linked to changes in mental well-being within each individual over time. This study found that even a small number of working hours (between one and 8 h a week) generates significant mental health and well-being benefits for previously unemployed or economically inactive individuals. The findings suggest there is no single optimum number of working hours at which well-being and mental health are at their highest – for most groups of workers there was little variation in wellbeing between the lowest (1–8 h) through to the highest (44–48 h) category of working hours. These findings provide important and timely empirical evidence for future of work planning, shorter working week policies and have implications for theorising the future models of organising work in society.
So it looks like there’s not a linear relationship between working hours and well-being. Rather, well-being rises quickly for the first 8 hours, then stabilizes. So just as a month-long vacation doesn’t provide much more happiness than a week-long vacation, a full week of work doesn’t provide more well-being than a day of work.
Or as the article’s conclusion puts it,
there is no optimum number of working hours at which well-being and mental health are significantly at their highest. This study finds no evidence that the current full-time standard of working 36–40 h a week is the optimal for mental health and well-being, when job characteristics, such as hourly pay, occupational group and contract permanency are controlled… [T]he average effective dose of employment for mental health and well-being is only about the equivalent of one day per week.
For my next book, Shorter: How The 4-Day Week Can Save the World (not the exact title necessarily), I talked a lot to companies about how they fit 5 days’ work into 4. All of them talk about getting meetings under control: making them shorter, corralling them into particular parts of the day (and never letting them escape), and making sure that the minimum viable number of people are there.
So I was interested to read about a new company / product, Clockwise, that is “using machine learning to make the calendars we already have work better.“ The basic idea is to use Clockwise to consolidate meeting times, so rather than have meetings scattered throughout everyone’s day, people can compress them into particular blocks of time, leaving them more “focus time”— that is, time to work uninterrupted on other tasks. As one of the investors explains,
Clockwise can figure out which meetings are movable (like weekly 1–1s) and which aren’t (like staff meetings), and can rework your weekly calendar to give you back time to think & time to work.
I’m not sure why some kinds of meetings aren’t movable (maybe they are only if everyone involved is using the product?), but it’s certainly an interesting approach. I would note a couple things, though.
First, most of the people I’ve interviewed talk both about improving meeting discipline— making them shorter, requiring agendas, etc.— and changing norms around interrupting other people. Focused time doesn’t just spring up like a jac-in-the-box; you have to make sure that people respect each other’s need for focus, and that you see your own good behavior as essential to the solution. (As traffic engineers say, you’re not in traffic, you are traffic; all that frustrated honking at everyone else who’s clogging up the roads while you’re rightfully trying to get somewhere obscures the fact that you’re part of the problem. Likewise, recognizing that everyone’s attention and time are valuable, and acting accordingly, is really important.)
If companies have shorter meetings, but the culture of the office says that it’s okay for people to interrupt each other a lot, you’re not going to get much improvement. You need to do both.
Second, while the animation shows meetings all migrating to the morning to reserve focus time in the afternoons, this runs counter to what everyone I’ve interviewed shoots for. All the companies that have migrated to 4-day weeks or 6-hour days reserve the mornings for focus time, and leave meetings until the afternoon (unless you’re in sales, and even then you try to get better control over your time). This is a small point, but given how many studies indicate that we’re more capable of focusing hard in the mornings, it might be good for people to have to override “afternoon meetings” as the default.
Finally, the other thing everyone does is make meetings a lot shorter. There’s no facility for this yet, but it would be an obvious thing to try to figure out how the system can learn enough about different types of meetings to suggest meetings lengths, rather than just default to 1 hour (which has become a default for reasons no one remembers any longer).
Anyway, it’s promising to see a company take this approach, and it’ll be interesting to see how it evolves.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev recently gave a speech that included mention of a four-day week:
“It’s quite possible that the future belongs to the four-day week as the foundation of the social labor contract,” Medvedev said as an example of what corporations may offer laborers in the future….
Speaking to the 108th Session of the International Labor Conference in Geneva, the chair of the Russian government said nations should brace themselves for major changes in how labor works due to technology.
So you can add him to Carlos Slim, Richard Branson, Jack Ma, and other Global Thought Leaders™ who have talked positively about a 4-day week.
There’s a debate going on in China over 996, the practice of working from 9 to 9, six days a week. (Some very tired yet still imaginative writers have suggested that the next thing will be 007, working from midnight to midnight, seven days a week.)
996 has been a part of Chinese startup culture for a while, but recently people have started pushing back, especially after the CEO of Youzan, a Hong Kong-based e-commerce company, announced that he was going to demand the company adopt those hours in 2019. A couple weeks ago, a leaked internal email from JD.com combined an announcement of layoffs with an exhortation to fight for more work, “regardless of performance, position, tenure, personal well-being issues or family reasons.” This came a month after another message that “asked employees to make ‘full contributions’ by working 12 hours a day at least five days a week.” More generally, it seems to be the case that as the economy starts to slow, and as tech companies have a harder time getting venture funding, etc., they’re trying to enforce longer working hours as a way of sustaining their valuations.
I couldn’t pass up the chance to add something to the debate, and so my piece on why 996 is stupid, and how and why companies should work 4-day weeks, is out in the South China Morning Post.
The recent debate over working hours at China’s tech companies hinges on a question: are long hours truly necessary, or are they simply exploitation?
Advocates of the 996 work schedule – 9am to 9pm, six days a week – say it places young professionals on a fast, steep learning curve, allowing them to unlock achievements they would have thought impossible. It shows companies which employees are most passionate about and devoted to their work. It is necessary for companies that want to do world-changing work. And in a highly competitive, always-on global economy and job market, long hours are the inevitable price of success.
Yet, every one of those statements is wrong.
I had originally written, “But to paraphrase Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, every one of those statements is wrong,” but I can see why they’d cut it.
Interestingly some of the debate in China over 996 has migrated to Github, interestingly, and it seems to have worried the government enough to get Github’s 996.icu repository banned in China. (Even more worrying, there are some reports that Twitter was blocking search results on 996, even for Western users.) Among Westerners following the debate, there’s an argument about whether this is something companies in the US and Europe need to emulate. Some make the case that Western companies need to double down on the workaholism, while Forbes contributor Stephanie Denning points out that for all its success, Alibaba seems less productive than eBay or Amazon, and James Stanier, an engineering VP for English startup Brandwatch, arguing in Medium that “We should work hard, but most importantly, we should go home.”
Now back to writing the book, so I can really make the case for the 4-day week!
In the interviews I’ve done with leaders and workers at companies that have implemented shorter workweeks, I often hear– in the smaller places at least– that they eat together.
At MADE Agency in Norwich, the office closes during lunch hour, and most of the staff goes out to eat together. At Pursuit Marketing, a Glasgow call center, people have breakfast together before diving into the day’s calls. When he decided to fight back against the culture of overwork and burnout in the restaurant industry, one of the changes René Redzepi implemented at Noma was to introduce
real staff meals where you sit down to eat together. We had to change our opening time from six to seven to allow for a one-hour dinner break, but it was worth it. For too long I’ve been eating out of a plastic container while standing next to my section, and I don’t want my cooks getting accustomed to the same thing.
This is one of those small-sounding changes that can make a big difference in organizations. Eating together is a way for people to spend time together in an environment where they can actually pay attention to one another; it can improve social bonding within groups; and if it’s paired with cooking, it becomes a cooperative activity that helps reinforce skills that groups can use in their work.
The canonical example of the last is the firehouse. In “Eating Together at the Firehouse,” Kevin Kniffin and his coauthors found that firehouse that cook and eat together perform better than those that do not. Here’s the research:
Over the course of 15 months, Kniffin and his colleagues conducted interviews and surveys in a large city’s fire department, which included more than 50 firehouses. The researchers asked the department’s 395 supervisors to rate on a scale of zero to 10 the performance of their platoon compared to other fire companies in which they’ve served. The supervisors were also asked how often the platoon eats together in a typical four-day work week. The platoons who ate together most often also got higher marks for their team performance. Conversely, the platoons that did not eat together got lower performance ratings.
In interviews, firefighters said daily group meals were a central activity during their shifts. Some firefighters who worked a shift that started at 6 p.m. often ate two dinners, one at home and a second at the firehouse. One firefighter said, in the company of his co-workers, “you don’t want to dis the wife” by turning down the food she prepared – implying that it was just as important to avoid disrespecting his co-workers. “To me, that’s a good example of the importance of the group. It’s comparable to his family,” said Kniffin, whose father was a longtime big-city firefighter.
In fact, the researchers noted firefighters expressed a certain embarrassment when asked about firehouses where they didn’t eat together. “It was basically a signal that something deeper was wrong with the way the group worked,” Kniffin said.
As Kniffin explained, “Eating together is a more intimate act than looking over an Excel spreadsheet together. That intimacy spills back over into work…. From an evolutionary anthropology perspective, eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue. That seems to continue in today’s workplaces.”
There’s actually a fascinating culinary culture among firefighters, strong enough so that “learn to cook” is a piece of professional advice that experienced firefighters give newbies. “Confidence in the kitchen will go a long way to make your life and career easier, and help you fit in no matter where you work and no matter who you work with,” one writer warns:
The standards are often very high, and you’ll be up against some tough culinary competition, so start learning to cook now, or work to improve and expand the cooking skills that you do have before you get the job.
When it comes to firehouse cooking, remember this: it takes 100 good meals to make up for one really bad one. And if the meal is bad enough, it can haunt you your entire career. My crew still talks about a terrible meal that I prepared more than 10 years ago.
And it’s not just groups that work together regularly, or have to perform as a team under life-and-death situations, who benefit from eating together. An interesting new study from the University of Chicago looks at “why sharing a plate leads to better negotiation outcomes“:
Here’s a new negotiating tactic: Enjoy a family-style meal with your counterpart before making your opening bid. When people in a business negotiation share not just a meal but a plate, they collaborate better and reach deals faster, according to new research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
The experiment consisted of two parts. Randomly-assigned pairs of students had a snack of chips and salsa, and either shared from the same bowls, or had their own.
The pairs then had to negotiate a solution to a labor dispute; if they didn’t settle the dispute in time, a strike would be called, making subsequent rounds increasingly costly.
Essentially, participants that shared food family-style negotiated more effectively and quickly than participants that ate separately:
Teams with shared bowls took nine strike days, on average, to reach a deal, four fewer than pairs that had eaten from separate bowls. This difference translated into significant dollar values, saving both parties a combined (if hypothetical) $1.5 million in losses.
This phenomenon, the researchers write, was unrelated to how two people in a negotiating team felt about each other. Rather, what mattered was how well they coordinated their eating.
The relationship between food, sociability, and organizational performance also serves (so to speak) as an important reminder that an awful lot of the work required to implement a 4-day week and make it a success does not require making dramatic changes in how the company works, or investing in cutting-edge productivity tools, or doing other very disruptive or alien things: it’s small changes that you can undertake at virtually no cost.
So my friends at the 4 Day Week Campaign have released a video about the 4-day workweek:
It’s a nicely-done piece of work, and if you want a 2-minute argument for the benefits of shorter workdays or workweeks, it’s a good one.
I do think it’s worth pointing out one thing that’s a bit more complex, which is that when you open up the black box of companies and see how they make 4-day weeks (or 6-hour days) work, you find that shorter hours increase productivity not because of Reverse Parkinson’s Law. It doesn’t happen automatically and effortlessly.
It happens because leaders and workers redesign the workplace so they can do the same work (for the same financial reward) in less time. It takes some time and effort to figure out how to cut out distractions and wasted time, increase productivity, and make better choices what to work on and how to work; and companies that work 4-day weeks work harder during those four days than companies that work five. But the upside is that, having done all that work, everyone gets more free time, more time to recover, and more time with friends and family.