Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Category: Working hours (page 1 of 3)

Now U.S. labor unions are talking about a 4-day week

Unions in the UK have been talking about the 4-day week for some time, and now American unions are starting to take notice, Alexia Fernández Campbell reports in Vox.

Now labor unions are making the case for even less work: dropping days worked down to four.

That’s one of the changes unions are proposing as part of their vision for the future of work, which is outlined in a report to be released Friday by the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of labor unions in the US….

As technology makes workers more productive, unions argue, why not give them three-day weekends? Not 40 hours compressed into four days. Labor unions are proposing a 32-hour workweek, with employees earning no less than they did before.

It may seem radical, a change that businesses would resist. But Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, assures me it’s not.

“We are very serious about this,” Trumka told me. “If we’re going to free up jobs for more people, then we have to go there.”

The AFL-CIO has published a new report on The Future of Work and Unions. Here’s the section on working hours:

Predictions that artificial intelligence and other new technologies will make workers far more productive in the future have generated interest in the prospect of a “leisure dividend” that allows for the reduction of overall work hours. The key question is whether this “leisure dividend” will be shared broadly by working people.

Even if the predicted spike in worker productivity never materializes, there is a very strong case for redistributing work hours today—that is, for limiting the excessive hours worked by some people, thereby making more work hours available to those who want to work more, and giving all workers more “time sovereignty” over our working life.

The movement for an eight-hour day, followed by the demand for a 40-hour week, was driven by the U.S. labor movement. The authors of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 intended to redistribute work by giving businesses an incentive to reduce excessive hours for some workers and reallocate them to the unemployed and underemployed.

Passage of the FLSA ushered in a period of about four decades in which average weekly work hours steadily fell. In recent decades, however, progress has stalled, and U.S. workers work more hours per year than workers in most other developed countries. At the same time, there has been a recurrence of the problem of insufficient work hours for some and irregular schedules for many, especially for workers in the retail and fast food industries.

In a paper presented to our commission, Prof. Juliet Schor of Boston College, author of The Overworked American (1992), argues that reducing overall working time has the potential to produce a “triple dividend”: (1) spreading work hours to more employees, thus minimizing unemployment; (2) lowering stress levels, increasing leisure time and improving workers’ quality of life; and (3) reducing adverse impact on the environment.

Our commission’s Service and Retail and the Federal Sector Subcommittees recommend strengthening the labor movement by mobilizing around such big issues as shorter work days and workweeks with no reduction in pay for workers. Work hours can be reduced by bargaining or legislating a four-day workweek; earlier retirement; stronger overtime protections; paid holidays; paid vacations; partial unemployment benefits for workers whose hours are reduced (“short-time compensation”); and the “right to disconnect” from digital devices and work. Most of these policies would redistribute work hours to those who have too little work.

Insufficient work hours also can be addressed specifically by legislating or bargaining minimum work hours and giving part-time workers first claim on available work. Unpredictable schedules can be addressed by bargaining or legislating premium pay for on-call scheduling (schedule changes that occur without sufficient warning) and shifts that offer insufficient hours, as well as more worker control over scheduling (“time sovereignty”). Reforms to make scheduling fairer and improve work-life balance will be especially important in meeting the needs of workers, particularly working parents, enabling more of them to pursue their careers. If working people can bargain or legislate more time sovereignty and a “leisure dividend” without any reduction in our pay, this could be a key mechanism to help ensure the benefits of technological progress are shared broadly by working people.

I don’t talk much about unions or government policy in my forthcoming book SHORTER (US | UK), because for the companies I’m looking at, the move has been driven from the top (but very much involves everyone’s participation). So far, it’s happened in industries that are suffering labor shortages, losing experienced people to burnout or work-life imbalance, and see a way to convert technological innovations and productivity increases into time savings for workers, not just higher profits for companies.

These companies are very important as prototypes, in effect: they show that shorter hours can be implemented, today, without wrecking companies. But at some point, in order to move shorter workweeks from the innovators and early adopters into the mainstream, I think it’s going to be necessary to involve policymakers and unions.

Die 5-Stunden-Revolution

While SHORTER (US | UK) moves through production (I get the copyedits next week, and have a bunch of revisions to put in), there’s another book about shortening working hours that’s out: Lasse Rheingans’ Die 5-Stunden-Revolution, or “The 5 hour revolution.”

Lasse moved his company to a 5-hour day a couple years ago, a move that garnered a lot of attention.

It’s not yet out in English, but if you read German, it’s worth checking out. However, if you don’t read German, you can listen to my interview with Lasse, or read about his work when SHORTER comes out in March.

Planet Money on “Japan’s Worker Shortage” and working hours

Scenes from Tokyo

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.

How much do we need to work to be happy?

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.

Clockwise and the challenge of taming meetings in favor of focused time

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.

One of my favorite clocks— a screen with a video of someone painting the minute hands, then wiping them off, then painting the next minute, on and on.

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.

The Corpus Clock

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.

Scenes from Tokyo

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.

There’s no Reverse Parkinson’s Law

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.

It’s not just about efficiency: MADE Agency’s 6-hour day

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.

The next phase of writing

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.

Printing out the first draft of my next book, on the four-day week.

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.

My ancient binder, with a postcard from one of my best friends and fellow historians, ca 1992.

(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.

Sounds easy, right?

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!

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences proposes a 4-day, 36-hour workweek

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.

According to the Shenzhen Daily, the CASS has a pretty detailed timeline for how this would work:

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.

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