One of the things about companies working shorter hours is that while they pay a lot of attention to tightening up their processes, making meetings more efficient, keeping email from running roughshod over your day and attention, and so on, it’s rarely just about improving operations. Rather, these functional things often are expressions of a deeper effort to create more balanced and psychologically sustainable ways of working.
For example, Norwich, England-based creative agency MADE moved to a 6-hour workday in late 2017. Like lots of places, they wanted people to have more time to be more creative, to give people better work-life balance, and so on, but they talk about it in terms of “lagom,” a Swedish word meaning “just the right amount:”
This one little word has been at the very heart of every change we have made as an agency. It is more than a word; it is a behaviour, a mind set, a framework, it’s a contemporary idea that we really think the UK could prosper from embracing…. it’s not about making big changes, but rather making improvements to the small things which make a big difference.
As business manager Emily West explains elsewhere,
the art of Lagom is about making more conscious and mindful decisions to cut down on waste (both time and physical amount), to ensure life is uncluttered and productive and, crucially, to find that balance between not too much and not too little.
I often see in these companies that small changes can reflect big intentions, and that incremental changes can under the right circumstances have outsized impacts. In business innovation as in geology, catastrophists– those lovers of big paradigm-shattering disruptive innovations, of continent-sinking floods and earthquakes– get more attention, but gradualists– the people who see real change as proceeding from slow, modest improvements, like grand geological features produced from the long-term effect of natural forces– often are better at describing how the world works.
So in their case, what’s the key? The biggest thing they do for workers– and for each other– is to remove
unnecessary distractions, focus their minds on their jobs in short, intense bursts and give them more time outside of work instead.
We find an hour and a half of concentrated time (no phones, social media, even emails) in the morning and the afternoon has helped our productivity increase tenfold, allowing the flexibility and possibility to leave the office at 4pm, giving us time to attend appointments, do our shopping, see our family and friends, rest and enjoy ourselves after a productive day of work. We genuinely think that’s as good as well-being initiatives get.
It doesn’t sound like a huge thing, but it has a huge impact.
Emily West also talked about the 6-hour day at an event in Norwich in late 2018, a year after the company made the switch:
Norwich, by the way, has become a bit of a hub for shorter hours. A video agency called Curveball Media switched to a 6-hour day in 2016, and accountancy Farnell Clarke made the switch a few months ago. The town’s got a bit of a rebellious history– the entire town was once excommunicated in the 1200s after a riot between townspeople and monks– so perhaps there’s something in the water that makes people challenge authority.
This weekend I printed out a draft of the next book. It’s just under 50,000 words, out of about 70,000. I’ve still got plenty to write, but I’m making good progress.
With each of my recent books, I’ve found that at a certain point, it’s essential to have a physical copy of the manuscript. I absolutely love computers aa writing tools. When I was in grad school I spent a lot of money to buy a then-cutting edge Macintosh with a whole megabyte of RAM, and ever since then have probably devoted more energy to choosing and thinking about note-taking and writing software than just about anything else I own. One of there reasons I’m able to write fairly quickly is that I have a system that works pretty well for me: Evernote for note-taking, Scrivener for book drafts and organizational stuff, and at the very end stage, Word for printing things out and handling revisions suggested by my editor.
But there’s still a point where it’s useful to have a physical copy of the manuscript. For me, it’s a good way to have a sense of the overall shape of the project: I can see it more clearly on paper than I can on the screen, despite Scrivener’s strengths for organizing and reorganizing big projects. I also find that I’m more effective doing line edits on paper, and constructing transitions between paragraphs and other sections.
It does mean having to keep track of when I’ve carried changes I make on the printed page on the electronic file, but I find it’s not so onerous an additional task. It’s also definitely the case that at a certain point a manuscript gets too heavy with changes and has to be thrown out in favor of a fresh copy, but that’s always the case no matter what medium you work in.
After I punched holes in the paper, I put the manuscript in a binder I’ve had since roughly my postdoc days.
(I don’t have a lot of artifacts from my professional life, and this is undoubtedly one of the oldest, and one of the most useful. I assume Marx would approve.)
I have one more big interview I’d love to arrange, and a couple smaller ones, but essentially I’m done with the research. So it’s a pretty straight shot to the finish line from here: fill in the sections that I haven’t written, work the current material into shape, get it all to feel like one long long argument, and then I’m done.
January 19, 2019 / askpang / Comments Off on Greetings from Seoul, where I’m researching four-day weeks in Asian companies
I’m in Seoul for the next several days, doing some publicity stuff for REST (my dad tells me that the translation is really top-notch), and also doing some interviews and fieldwork for my next book on four-day weeks.
One of the things I’ve noticed in discussions of the four-day week is that most of the discussion centers around companies in Europe, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand (whoever Perpetual Guardian hired to do their PR, they really delivered value for money!). Likewise, the policy discussions mainly cite European trade unions and talking heads.
One of the things I’ve found in my research, though, is that some of the biggest companies shortening their workdays and workweeks are in Japan and Korea. In Japan, I’ve found big tech companies doing 30-hour weeks, little ryokans (traditional inns) operating on a 4-day week schedule, and a big manufacturing company that switches to 4-day weeks during the summer.
Likewise in Korea, there are a whole host of hip tech startups, cosmetics companies, and publishers that have shortened their working hours. (Tech and cosmetics are big industries in Korea, and people still read a lot here.)
Coming over here to see how they do it feels important, for a couple reasons.
First, I really think I’m tracking a global movement that is in its infancy, doesn’t really have a strong collective sense of itself, but in the next few years could become a really serious thing. And because of the size and number of companies, you can’t study this without studying Japan and Korea. The world’s biggest company that does 30-hour weeks is in Japan, and some of the most successful startups working shorter hours are in Korea. Talking about European companies is a good start, but it’s not the end.
Second, for American audiences, when you talk about companies in Sweden and Netherlands, this is what they imagine:
When nations that have powerful unions, strong social welfare, and a words for “cozy evenings by the fire wearing hand-knit socks” opt for working less, it’s both totally unsurprising, and remote. It’s hard for American companies to imagine following the Nordic model in… just about anything. However, when you talk about it being done by companies that are in countries whose languages have words for “working yourself to death,” those same audiences are more likely to sit up and take notice.
Third, while of course there are some serious differences in corporate and national cultures, Japanese and Korean companies are adopting shorter workweeks for pretty much the same reasons that their counterparts in London and Copenhagen are; they do the same things to make them work; and they see the same benefits. So I can make the case that shortening the workweek, for all its variations by nation and industry, follows some underlying rules no matter where you are. (Rules that, needless to say, I’ll lay out in my book!)
Finally, because of geographical and cultural proximity, China is more likely to learn from the Korean and Japanese companies than from companies in the West. There’s already some discussion in China of aiming for a 4-day week by 2030; and if they do, that’ll be a titanic move in the global economy, not to mention a huge change in the lives of a billion-plus people.
So that’s why I’m here. To get this part of the story. Of course, I’m also here for the street food!
According to a story in the China Daily, “the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences proposed revising the national work schedule in 2030 to nine hours a day and four days a week.”
For a long time I thought that the 4-day week was mainly a Western, and particularly European, phenomenon, but clearly there’s more to it than that. I recently wrote about Japanese company Zozo and its 30-hour week, and there are a number of other Japanese companies that offer 10-hour, 4-day weeks for employees.
And of course, some of the most overworked countries in the world are in Asia, and they recognize that the costs are now outweighing the benefits. China shifted to a 5-day workweek in the 1990s, South Korea recently passed legislation limiting the workweek to 52 hours (with very mixed results), and the Japanese have struggled for years with this. So it makes sense that these experiments would be happening in Asian countries, too.
China should experiment with a four-day (36 hours) workweek in large and medium-sized State-owned enterprises in East China from 2020 to 2025, the newly released report said.
From 2025 onwards, a four-day (36 hours) workweek can be implemented in certain industries in the central and eastern regions.
And from 2030 onwards, Chinese people should be able to take three days of rest for every four working days.
However, the China Daily article also notes that the comments on social media haven’t all been positive; in fact, the general reaction has been skeptical. Why is that?
The answer lies in their anxieties about an uncertain future. As capital gets increasingly more accumulated, ordinary workers, blue-collar and white-collar alike, face the sad and cold fact that unemployment is likely to rise. Many people face the risk of losing their jobs to artificial intelligence and automation.
That’s why many people are rather worried about their futures.
To solve this, the key lies in promoting the idea of “rest”. The right to rest and the right to labor must be protected together so that people can be more certain about their future.
Thinking about work and rest together. Now that’s an idea I can get behind.
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa says working less, not more, is the reason why he’s been able to build an $8.4 billion company, become a major force in the art world and land a ticket on Elon Musk’s rocket to the moon…. [Maezawa] goes to the office three to four days a week, for a maximum of six hours at a time. The short workday is the reason for the success of Zozo, where he also encourages employees to work more efficiently and find inspiration outside the office.
And he’s not the only one at the company who works less than the Japanese average of 168 hours per week.
“Our employees began working differently under the program: they stopped wasteful activities, wasteful conversations, wasteful meetings. As a result, they could concentrate more, be more productive, and actually go home after six hours,” Maezawa told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo, where he held a news conference to answer questions about the lunar trip.
Zozo, which changed its name this month from Start Today, embraced six-hour workdays in 2012, a spokeswoman said, adding that each department tweaks its implementation. She said the idea of working intensely over fewer hours is a core principle of the company’s culture. As of March, the company had about 1,000 employees.
I haven’t yet been able to reach people at the company, but I definitely want to learn more about their six-hour day. With a thousand employees, they may be the biggest company in the world who’s adopted a six-hour day.
September 15, 2018 / askpang / Comments Off on “It was really unfair that we were being pushed out of the business that we love… because some other people long before us had constructed a system that was broken:” elite restaurants are taking rest seriously
A few months ago, I came across an article about an Edinburgh restaurant that shifted to a four-day schedule. A couple days ago, I saw the article again in my notes, and thought to myself, I wonder if there any other restaurants adopting shorter hours?
I wrote a little bit about Ferran Adria and his legendary restaurant El Bulli in REST, and restaurants are an interesting case study for me because of the working-class yet elite culture, the long hours, the perfectionist workaholism, and the demand (among a certain kind of restaurant at least) to be constantly innovative. (Other people do such a great job of talking about working moms and families, I have to stick to my lane, which seems to be Nobel and Michelin star winners.)
Anyway, a little bit of digging turned up a very interesting fact: there’s a global movement among restaurants to shorten working hours.
The mechanics are different than the other companies I’ve been studying, in part because the restaurant industry is so extreme in its work habits. The environment can run to the difficult, exploitative, and abusive, which makes it easy for people to be exploited. Kitchens at elite restaurants are demanding, competitive places, and competing over how long you can work is common. There’s a long history of elite chefs essentially being educated in kitchens– Jamie Oliver, Noma chef Rene Redzepi, and Attica chef Ben Shewry all left school at 15 and went to work– and the assumption is the more you do and the more hours you work, the steeper your learning curve.
As a result, six-day weeks and twelve-hour days are common. So moving to a five-day week or a 48-hour week may not seem like a lot, but among chefs it’s pretty radical.
Not surprisingly, you see the trend most clearly at elite restaurants, which are already known for reinventing cooking and dining, can sell out their reservation books in minutes (yes, there are people who will arrange a vacation to Denmark or Sweden around a dinner at Noma or Fäviken); but they’re also places that can have even more extreme cults of personality– the celebrity chef is now part brand, part genius, part viral TED talk– and attract sous chefs who want to launch their own careers, so they could just as easily make exploitation and long hours central to their business model.
But you also see it as less well-known places, like Edinburgh’s Aisle, the Raby Hunt in Darlington, Sat Bains in Nottingham, Enoteca Sociale in Toronto, and Model Milk in Calgary– a mix of places that have solid location reputations, and ones with a Michelin star or two.
The subject of working hours also got onto the agenda at Food on the Edge 2017, a Galway Ireland conference about the restaurant industry. Here’s Esben Holmoe Bang talking about how his Oslo restaurant Maaemo (one of the restaurants that people organize vacations around) moved to a three-day workweek:
They started shortening the workweek after labor inspectors got on their case about working hours (they made the mistake of accurately accounting for their hours, rather than being as creative with their accounting as they are with their cuisine), and went to a four-day week. At first, Bang says, “I was very nervous, because I think cooking is about connecting to what you do. And if you’re not there, you’re definitely not connected to what you do.”
But he quickly saw that
They were happy when they walked through the door. They were energized, excited. And we said, Wait, wait a minute. Maybe we’re onto something here.
Interestingly, some of his employees were skeptical, especially when they moved from a four-day week to three days: they said, “Look, we travel to come to Norway and work this restaurant… What’s the point if we were only going to be here three days a week?”
But they all discovered that there were benefits:
If we thought they were energized on the four day, on the three days were looking like ******* Duracell rabbits coming through the door. You know, they were coming in, guys were coming in full of energy, wanting to crush it every single day….
So we started making sure we organize trips to farms to this to go out to visit fishermen travel around Norway, because most of our staff travel to Norway from somewhere. So we started doing trips, kill some reindeers, drink some reindeer blood, you know do all those things…. The staff had time to do it. And they wanted to do it because we try to do it before and the people work five, six days a week. And they say right on your day off, man. We’re gonna say let’s go milk some cows, man…. So now, there’s this, there’s this hunger for more, which I think is amazing.
Not only did they have more energy on the job, they also had more opportunity to do things that taught them about Norway and Norwegian culture and cuisine– which is really important when you work at a restaurant that sees itself as reinventing a region’s cuisine.
More broadly, the experience has made him rethink some of the basics of the culture of cooking:
I think it’s a crazy notion that we, as cooks, focus so much on sustainability, but we kind of forget ourselves in it….
I can’t, you can’t, I can’t demand of people to like, forget their lives, basically forget who they are, and all they can identify with is this dream that I created, basically, you know what I mean?…
All I want to say is this obsession of ours, let’s make it healthy guys, you know, let’s not kill ourselves in the process. Let’s make sure we can last the long run. Let’s not do our five years or 10 years, or whatever it is, and then we got back problems, or we got psychological problems so we have to stay out of the business, which happens so much. Let’s try and see if we can make this business sustainable for ourselves.
The next day, Magnus Nilsson, the founder of Faviken, talked about how he reduced working hours at his company by growing the staff:
Nilsson talks about his own desire to have a more balanced life than some chefs, but I thought this part, where he talks about realizing that they had to change how they worked or everyone was going to burn out, was really striking:
Karin and Jesper, who were the people who’d worked longest with me, they were beginning to see problems with the way we ran our business. We saw that it was just not going to be able to continue the way it was, partly because we didn’t want it to, because we wanted another part of life as well, but also because it wasn’t sustainable with the staff. It just wasn’t.
When we really decided we had to change, and we had this meeting where we sat down and tried to visualize where we were going to be in 5 years, none of us, none of the three people who mattered most to faviken, could see ourselves working at faviken, the way did then five years down the line. That’s when we really understood that we had to change.
It started from kind of selfish reasons— we wanted to make change for ourselves, to better our everyday life and our existence— but we quickly realized that running a place like Faviken, it would be a terrible thing if you ran a profitable business where you exploit your team in order to make it better for yourself to the degree we wanted to do. [ed: This is a stunningly Nordic perspective; in America, we would call this attitude “everything they teach in business school.”] So we kind of turned it around and said, all of the changes we wanted to do they have to apply to everyone, they have to be the same premises.
We really felt it was really unfair that we were being pushed out of the business that we love, and that we were pretty good at after having trained many years, simply because some other people long before us had constructed a system that was broken, and that we really couldn’t affect in the way we wanted to.
Nilsson also talks about the creative benefits of this approach. He compares Faviken to the sushi restaurant in the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and how Jiro dedicated himself to perfecting a very specific kind of food– essentially mastering a well-known way of preparing food. This, Nilsson says, isn’t how he cooks, and he needs a different kind of life to do the work he really wants to do:
Creativity is the subconscious human process when our minds put bits and pieces of what we have with us together into new combinations that might prove useful somehow. And if you isolate yourself, and you limit yourself, and limit the amount of impressions that you can take in, then naturally the toolbox for creative combinations and new things to happen will be smaller. And I felt that aside from the human side, i didn’t want this to happen either.
To create the kinds of surprising new dishes that he’s famous for, in other words, he can’t just stay in the kitchen; he needs time to do other things, like work in the garden and travel.
The idea that serious chefs will use their extra time to do things that help them learn about food, or broaden their knowledge, and that saner hours can make them better chefs, is also echoed by Ben Shewry, the head chef at Attica in Melbourne, Australia. (This New York Times article explains what makes Attica special.) He talks about moving to a 48-hour week in an Instagram post in 2017:
We’ve built the restaurant on the values of questioning everything, EVERYTHING. This year I feel we took a major leap forward in the development of our culture by putting the young men and woman who work in our kitchens on a 48 hour weekly roster. 4 days on, 3 days off.
Are the old ways of flogging yourself and having no life outside of the kitchen right? In my opinion no. Do I regret working the hours I have? No, however there wasn’t another option.
Changing the roster structure to accomodate the fact that cooks are humans, not machines and indeed can have lives as well has been cathartic for not only the team but also the business. We get an elite 48 hours out of each one of them and all of our cooks can work on multiple sections at any given moment, becoming multi skilled in the process.
It might sound like an odd thing to say but many Chefs don’t learn how to cook properly at fine dining restaurants. You get stuck on a section, you pick a ton of herbs and plate tons of beautiful looking food but often you don’t get into the real depths of cooking hard. It is very important to me that our cooks to leave here with the ability to cook properly.
So this is a really positive development, and I hope to see it spread.
Across the country, parents are struggling to balance their busy work routine with their children’s school schedule. Both parents work in half of married-couple families, and 70 percent of them work from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., a reality that leaves most families to contend with at least a two-hour gap between when school ends and when the workday ends…. This mismatch between school and workday, a relic of a bygone era and outdated family norms, has left parents and school districts scrambling to find a solution.
Filling this gap can cost families thousands of dollars a year in tuition to after-school programs or payments to child care providers. It can force women to shift to part-time work rather than full-time.
“We often think about this as a problem every family faces, and it just happens over and over again in this systemic way: The mother cuts back on her hours for when school is closed,” said Catherine Brown, an education-policy researcher at the Center for American Progress. “Why do we have a wage gap? Partially it’s because of this, I believe.”
A 6-hour day can start at 8 and end at 2, which in many places makes it possible for parents to drop off their kids, and pick them up. In interviews I’ve conducted with people at companies that have gone to a 6-hour day, this often comes up as a significant benefit.
What this piece makes me realize is that they don’t talk about it as an expression of a fuzzy sentiment that “I want to spend more time with my young children;” they recognize that shorter hours solve a really serious problem that lots of young parents have.
[Pictures are from my kids’ time at Peninsula School in Menlo Park.]
Koreans have had some of the longest working hours in the developed world: longer than the workaholic United States, Europe, and even Japan (which is often Korea’s benchmark in economic and business matters). While this solid work ethic has been important for the country’s economic growth, it’s had its downsides, and for years advocates have argued that limiting working hours would improve productivity, family life, and quality of life.
Long hours can also enable bad behavior among bosses. As a recent New York Timesarticle explains,
South Koreans often suffer from a work culture they call gapjil. This word describes the imperious sense of entitlement that authority figures feel over their employees, whom they expect to wait on them and cater to their whims.
The most famous example is the “nut rage” incident, in which the daughter of the chairman of Korean Air threw a tantrum over how she was served nuts on a flight.
Recently the government acted to rein in working hours, passing a law that went into effect on July 1 that shortens the maximum workweek from 68 hours to 52 hours. The aim was to boost productivity and expand employment. President Moon Jae-in pointed to studies showing that
labor productivity [would rise] with every percentage point of weekly work hours reduced. During his campaign, he pledged to create 500,000 new jobs by enforcing a 52-hour workweek.
But as this Guardian article explains, the way the government has gone about doing it is having some unfortunate unintended consequences.
For their part, white-collar and office workers
have rejoiced at the new law. Some have long complained of a culture that expected employees to stay late despite a lack of work.
Others say bosses would routinely assign extra tasks outside normal hours, leading many employees to procrastinate all day since they knew they had to stay late regardless of workload.
I’ve heard from junior people at companies like Samsung and LG that “you don’t leave until the boss leaves, and the boss never leaves,” and that the long hours don’t translate into more work, but rather higher rates of presenteeism. When you know you’re going to be at the office until 9 for no particularly good reason, you’re more likely to engage in what Frederick Winslow Taylor referred to as “soldiering.”
But the new regulation intended to combat long hours in Seoul’s steel and glass office towers has backfired for many doing manual or irregular labour, with people flocking to poorly regulated industries and facing pay cuts.
Something like a third of Korean workers labor in jobs with irregular hours, and the new limits– and threats of jail terms for employers who violate them– have led to substantial cuts in pay for these workers.
As a result, lots of them are taking second or even third jobs to make up the loss of wages.
[W]orking-class people have largely mocked the new law for forcing them to take second or third jobs, saying: “Instead of a life with dinner, there’s a new life where you have to skip dinner.”
About 20,000 people have flocked to become on-demand chauffeurs since the new law passed, according to Kim Jong-yong, head of the Korean Association of Relief Drivers.
It’s not clear that if this was something that the government just didn’t anticipate, or what; but it sounds like a real problem is unfolding, and it illustrates how policies meant to shorten working hours and improving the lives of workers need to pay close attention to their effects on both salaried and hourly workers, and not overlook irregular workers.
Companies trying to work with these policies maybe haven’t always thought through the implementation very carefully. Indeed, the head of the German-Korean Chamber of Commerce recently warned that this could hurt exports. Not to put too much faith in national stereotypes, but when you have a German technocrat warning that you’re being too inflexible, you might have a problem.
South Korean workers are leaving their offices and factories earlier thanks to a mandated shorter workweek, which seems to be bad news for restaurants and bars….
Supermarkets and online grocers, on the other hand, have benefited from workers spending more time at home. “We do not have exact numbers yet, but sales of fresh foods like fish and meat are rising,” said a Lotte Group executive. Demand has grown now that people are going home earlier than before and making their own dinners.
E-commerce website operator eBay Gmarket reports that for the July 1-9 period, sales of imported meat jumped 88% on the year and kimchi rose 36%. Sales of coupons for restaurants, meanwhile, dropped 25%.
“There has been no change in daytime customers, but a big drop-off at night,” said the 50-year-old owner of a shop that sells food from South Jeolla Province. July sales so far have plunged 20% to 30% on the year. “I am thinking of installing a ticket machine for orders to reduce staff,” he added.
Last week I was on BBC Radio 4’s morning show talking about REST and the need to change work and careers in a world where life expectancies are going up. Since then, I’ve seen several other pieces about this subject.
In the Globe and Mail, Linda Nazareth asks, “Should we consider delaying full-time work until 40?” As Paul Johnson has pointed out in our BBC Radio 4 conversation, you could see retirement as a system in which we bank the time we’ve saved by improved productivity at work, and spend it at the end of our lives. But, as Nazareth points out, longer lives should make us rethink retirement, and not just along the lines of raising retirement ages:
if everyone’s lifespan is getting longer (and hopefully healthier), maybe we should think about how traditional work lives could change. Some figure this should simply mean everyone working a couple of more decades, which would give them more income in the years when they are indeed retired….
Another model suggests that we think of work more creatively, not as something that we do intensively for several decades but rather as something that we dip in and out of over the course of our lives.
In conversations about the challenges of work-life balance, I’ve argued that one of the big problems we all face (but women in particular) is that we work in a system in which we’re expected to invest most intensively in our careers at exactly the same time we start families. And forget about prioritizing one over the other: we’re supporsed to work like we don’t have kids, while raising kids like we don’t have jobs.
I’m hardly the only one to notice this: in her article, Nazareth draws in part on the work of Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, whose work on extending careers could help ease these pressures was the subject of a recent article in Quartz by Corinne Purtill:
For people smack in the mad mid-life rush of managing full-time careers, dependent children, and aging parents, nothing feels so short in supply as time.
But there is time to get it all done, says psychologist Laura Carstensen…. The only problem is that we’ve arranged life all wrong.
A woman who is 40 years old today can expect to live another 45 years, on average, while 5% will live to see their 100th birthday. The average 40-year-old man will live another 42. For many people, most of those years will be healthy enough to continue work that doesn’t involve intense physical labor. So why are we still packing all of our career and family obligations into a few frantic decades?
Rather than a four-decade professional sprint that ends abruptly at 65, Carstensen argues, we should be planning for marathon careers that last longer but have more breaks along the way for learning, family needs, and obligations outside the workplace.
I wrote about how Australian historian Inga Clendinnen pioneered this kind of model decades ago, and that her example suggests that we think of work-life balance as something that plays out over years and decades, and that our lives would be better and easier (or at least we would be more forgiving and realistic about our lives) if we didn’t expect every day to be a jewel of work-life balance.
I also suspect that shorter working hours could help with this, by allowing more time for important but competing activities, and by offering a model of work that would support longer, more sustainable careers.
So I was just on BBC Radio 4’s morning show (it’s night here in California, but 8 hours ahead in London, people are having their coffee and checking the weather). I was on with Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, talking about careers, aging, retirement, and the challenge of making work suitable for populations that have longer life expectancy (and increasingly, social safety nets and retirement systems that suck).
This was a bit of a last-minute thing: I got a message from a producer this morning asking if I was available, we did a sound check a couple hours later, and they rang me up a couple minutes before the segment ran.
I find that I perform better in these situations when I don’t just rely on my natural brilliance and extemporaneous speaking ability, but actually do some prep– which for me means writing some note about the subject beforehand. (I’ve written other posts about doing radio.)
Here’s what I wrote out and was trying to get across:
People who have very long and productive careers often alternate periods of intensive focused activity, with periods for recovery and reflection. This is true at the weekly level (i.e., detaching from work and having hobbies or other things that occupy your time), and at the level of years (having sabbaticals or other longer breaks).
This is a more sustainable pattern because, as recent work by neuroscientists and psychologists has shown, humans effectively focus for 4-5 hours a day. We’re also more creative when we have time built into our schedules for both hard work and deliberate rest. Finally, we vastly underestimate how much checking email after-hours erodes our ability to recover and recharge, and both our technologies and professional norms make that problem worse.
Whether consciously or not, parents who take time off with their young children, professionals who burn out after a decade in a high-pressure job, “digital nomads” who spend their 20s doing projects while traveling the world, etc. are all trying to find alternatives that play around with more extended periods of time off, or remix work and other things.
But companies have yet to make sense of these experiments, and instead see the traditional linear career as the norm, and these experiments as concessions or deviations. They also see long hours as a sign of dedication and productivity, and have generally been unwilling to share increased productivity with workers in the form of either higher wages or shorter hours. Finally, we see this problem of work-life balance mainly as one to be solved by individuals, not as an organizational design or policy challenge.
However, there are companies (mainly in software, advertising, and financial services) that have shown that it’s possible right now to shift to a 4-day week, or a 6-hour day, simply by using existing technology more productively, making meeting more efficient, and redesigning the workday to give people longer periods of focused, uninterrupted time.
Companies moving to 4-day weeks show that ever-longer hours are not inevitable, nor are they necessary for a company to make money and do good work. And if we can move to a 4-day week just by using our time and technology more wisely, this suggests that by designing new technologies like robots and AI with an eye to helping workers become more skilled and productive, and sharing the resulting time savings with workers, a 3-day week— or Keynes’ vision of a 15-hour workweek— could be closer to hand than we think.
The challenge we face now is to figure out how we can put these parts together: to do things like shorten the work day, rebuild the wall between work and private time, and design careers that allow for longer breaks and sabbaticals.
It’s not that you find the paragraph that best fits the question the presenter asks and then read it, but rather, the point of the exercise is to get you thinking about a subject, and give you a starting-point.
You’ll also notice the post-it that says “Answer JUST the Question.” This is a constant issue with me: I tend to want to answer a question and then discuss the implications, or a related point, and in a short-format radio show, you have to curb than instinct, and let the presenter guide the conversation. (BBC presenters, in my experience, are really outstanding, so it’s best to let them lead.)
Having a serious microphone is also a MUST for things like this. I love my Yeti Blue mic, and adding the wind guard and stand has only improved both the audio quality and ease of use.
I think I’m slowly getting better at these things. It’s not something that comes effortlessly, but it is possible to improve!
Now to bed, as I have to be up very early tomorrow!