Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Category: 4-day workweek (page 1 of 8)

Speaking at Life Lessons in London, February 2020

London Bridge and the Shard

I’m going back to London in February to speak at Life Lessons, a conference at the Barbican!

Wellbeing isn’t about lycra and fad diets. Its aim is not weight-loss for image-sake. Wellbeing is a way of life. It’s smart-thinking, sustainable living, community-building and frank-speaking. When well-informed, with an open-mind and with life lessons at our finger-tips, we can all live a happy, healthy and more inspired life.

Welcome to Life Lessons. A weekend of big talks from big thinkers. Where we dare to dream of a better future.

The speaker list is a cool mix, ranging from Richard Darwins to Ruby Wax to James Wallman.

Essentially, the talk will be the start of the publicity campaign for SHORTER (US | UK). I’ll be doing several other talks while I’m there. Watch this space for more updates.

Are articles about the 4-day week are turning into the new “this CEO gets up at 4 am for meditation and archery”?

Cockroach Labs
Cockroach Labs, where they have a 4-day week

Business Insider has another article about the 4-day workweek that casts shorter working hours (not incorrectly) as efforts to give people a chance to disconnect from work, and to reduce burnout:

it seems a growing number of companies are hoping to combat that trend by finding ways to improve work-life balance — most notably by experimenting with a four-day workweek. While the four-day workweek is still far from common, it certainly seems to be growing in popularity.

I’m now starting to see a shift in the way people write about the 4-day week. It’s still regarded as unusual (and in the grand scheme of things, it is), but it’s not treated as this totally nutty thing that some out-there companies are doing. Now, it’s more like something that is unusual, but delivers results.

In that respect the coverage is a bit more like those articles about CEOs who wake up at 4 am, and get more done by 7 than the rest of us do all day.

Cal Newport on shorter working hours and the future of knowledge work

Knowledge Workers of the World... Unplug!
Knowledge workers of the world, unplug!

Cal Newport has a piece in the New York Times about Lasse Rheingans, shorter working hours, and the future of work. Newport makes the point that our approach to knowledge work– the mix of always-on digitally-enabled communication, relative lack of filters, and cultural norms that treat overwork as normal and burnout as a necessary risk– really only took hold in the last couple decades; in fact, the term “knowledge work” was only coined in 1959, by Peter Drucker.

Scenes from London
Brunswick Centre, London

The digital tools that have become so ubiquitous in our lives and work really are pretty new. I got my first email address when I was at Stanford in 1991, having gone through nine years of college and grad school without one (and wi thout anyone ever assuming I had one, which is also telling). I built my first course Web page in 1995 or thereabouts, and got my first cellphone around 2000. So while these are woven into our days, to assume that we’ve already figured out how to use them really well, Newport argues, is

both arrogant and ahistoric. It’s the equivalent of striding into an early-20th-century automobile factory, where each car still required a half day’s worth of labor to produce, and boldly proclaiming, “I think we’ve figured this one out!”

If I’m right and we’re still early in this new phase of digital knowledge work, then more productive — and hopefully much more meaningful and much less draining — approaches to executing this work remain on the horizon. No one knows exactly what this future of knowledge work will look like, but I suspect, along with Mr. Rheingans, that among other transformations it will reject the idea that always-on electronic chatter is a good way to efficiently extract value from human minds….

If like many digital knowledge workers, you’re exhausted by endless work and flooded inboxes, the good news is that better and more sustainable ways of producing valuable output with your brain might be coming — if we can find enough visionaries willing to try out “radical” new ideas about how best to get things done.

I think this is right on, and I would build on it and argue that there are also some important cultural innovations that companies shortening their working hours. (I write about this at greater length in SHORTER (US|UK).)

First, they rewire the relationship between professionalism, effort and skill on one hand, and working hours on the other.

London
Signage, London

Today, in many workplaces we treat long hours as a measure of (or a proxy for) ability, commitment, and enthusiasm. Companies that have shortened their working hours, in contrast, believe that someone who can do the same work in 4 hours or 6 hours is a better worker than the person who needs 10; that you should aspire to be the first person rather than the second; and that a willingness to try to become that person signals an interest in your work, an ability to reflect on your processes and practices, and an experimental, growth mindset. Asking people to work shorter hours is a great way to discover who your most dedicated, passionate, competent workers are.

You can bet this is going into my next talk! Don’t know what #workmode is, but I spotted this windows near the University of Amsterdam.
Workmode, Amsterdam

The second change follows from the first. Figuring out how to work fewer hours redirects the passion for your work, the desire to do a good job and to be recognized for it, that leads you to work long hours, and turns it in a healthier and more sustainable direction. Shortening your workday doesn’t lead to overwork and burnout. It’s a way of making careers longer and more sustainable.

Not only does it encourage you to develop a style of working that lets you continue to do great work for more of your career (and let’s face it, there comes a point where you’re no longer physically able to work insane hours without paying a high price), the nature of the challenge is one that’s more open-ended. If you’re now good enough to do in 5 hours what used to take you 8 hours, what do you have to do to get it down to 4 hours? To 3 hours? Trying to work ever-longer hours is a formula for self-destruction; figuring out how you and your organization can work fewer hours is a formula for self-improvement and self-preservation.

Paddy Bettington on the political radicalism of shorter working hours

In the companies I’ve been studying that have moved to 4-day weeks, unions have played little or no role in setting working hour or working conditions. But unions historically have played a huge role in setting working hours, and that’s one reason unions in the UK and the Labour Party have advocated for a shorter week. Paddy Bettington, a founder of Labour 4 Day Week, explains this in his new essay “Why the Four-Day Week Matters:”

The five-day week, the eight-hour day, paid holiday, sick pay and maternity pay were all instituted by mass movements, trade unions and collective bargaining….

[W]hen John McDonnell announced Labour’s plans to move to a 32-hour week at this year’s conference, he was clear that the primary mechanism to achieve this would be freeing the unions to engage in collective bargaining once more.

In the coming months and years, the Labour Party will enter government and be forced to institute – and prioritise – the myriad elements of their political programme. The move to a 32-hour week mustn’t be seen by the left as a nicety dreamt up by policy wonks, but as an essential means to loosen the grip of capitalism and a necessary foundation of a socialist agenda.

In a previous essay, he made the case for union involvement in the push to 4-day weeks:

The four-day week is not a silver bullet, but does offer a simple way to tackle a range of issues that affect the entire country. It represents a way of redistributing efficiency gains of new technology – if we’re going to have more automated tasks, we need to make sure that workers see the benefit. It would address the unnecessary contradiction of underemployment and overwork existing side-by-side. It would allow undervalued domestic and care work – disproportionately undertaken by women in our economy – to be shared more equally. It would bring our typical working week in line with our more productive neighbours France and Germany. It can lessen the rampant work-consumption cycle that drives climate change. Most importantly, perhaps, it can offer people more control over their lives.

There are individual cases that show a shift is already happening: some companies from across the world employ a four-day week, of their own accord, and see positive results. But we can’t rely on the practices of a handful of enlightened companies. The transformation we want to bring about requires demand from below and responsive policy from above. Using existing democratic structures is key. The Labour Party and trade unions are not only the most effective (and obvious) institutions to play this role, but also the natural champions of such a policy.

Bettington’s right that unions in Europe and United States have played an important role historically in defining national policy and the rules under which large employers organized their workdays, and the pieces are a nice illustration of how working hours and labor power have been connected. And you can believe that when the Times comes out against it, one reason they do is is that they recognize that the campaign for a 4-day week could revitalize labor unions and attract voter to left-wing parties.

The politics of the 4-day workweek in the UK

On the Eye

In the UK, political parties are starting to argue about the merits and economics of the 4-day workweek as they head into a general election. The Labour Party, building on advocacy by UK trade unions, has announced that they want to move to a 4-day week in the next decade. Leading the charge on the conservative side is the Times: on Tuesday, their editorial page wrote,

Jeremy Corbyn’s aim to introduce a four-day working week would cost the taxpayer at least £17 billion a year because of the impact on the public sector wage bill, a new analysis has shown….

Research by the Centre for Policy Studies, a centre-right think tank, has found that reducing the hours of public sector employees, including doctors, nurses, teachers, firefighters and police officers, would impose a significant extra burden on the Treasury because the workforce would have to expand.

In an editorial titled “The Road to Serfdom” (we just can’t quit Hayek is seems), the Times said that “Labour’s unreality is exemplified too in its plan to introduce a four-day working week over ten years with no loss of pay.” So they’re keen to knock down the idea that the 4-day week is viable.

Here’s the core of the Centre for Policy Studies analysis [pdf]:

[I]f we simply reduce the hours worked by each public sector worker, this will impose a cost as you have to expand the workforce to obtain the same results. The total compensation paid to public sector workers was £183.8 billion in 2017 (the latest year available).4 If you assume a simple increase in costs due to lower hours and no increase in productivity, meaning more staff must be hired, the costs of bringing in a four-day work would at present be either £45 billion (assuming we go from 42.5 to 32 hours a week on average) or £26 billion (assuming we go from 37.3 hours to 32 hours a week on average).

However, let us assume that through a version of compressed hours, smarter working, and higher motivation, you might make significant productivity gains. This is incredibly optimistic, given the lack of formal evidence for such a sharp rise in productivity due to simply having lower hours. But if we adopt as our central estimate a 6% gain in productivity, worth half the hours lost, this could (on such heroic assumptions), be worth around a £9 billion increase in productivity, which could partly cancel out the cost of lower hours.

Even under this scenario, however, the shift to a 32-hour working week would mean a £17 billion hit to the public sector on today’s numbers.

Of course, I think any responsible analyst will say that trying to forecast about productivity and labor costs ten years out is basically an exercise in guesswork. However, there are a couple things that seem worth pointing out.

First, this assumes a lower productivity gain than I’ve seen in companies that have moved to 4-day weeks. Only one says that they’ve taken a hit on productivity; the rest talk about being as productive as they were when working 5 days (i.e., being 20% more productive), or being more productive (i.e., getting over 20%). Microsoft Japan reported an increase of almost 40% during their recent trial.

Second, it doesn’t try to figure in the indirect gains and savings that come from shortening the workweek, even at publicly-funded organizations. For example, when a Swedish nursing home moved its nursing staff to a 6-hour day, the program cost about 700k euro per year, but because they hired a bunch of people who hadn’t been working, they saved the government half that in unemployment insurance. At the Glebe, a retirement home in Virginia, a 6-hour workday for nursing staff cost about $145,000 a year, but saved more than $120,000 in overtime, fees to recruiting agencies, and fees to temp agencies– plus there were additional savings because care was better, so residents had fewer injuries, and needed fewer drugs and attention from doctors.

There are also indirect gains that come in the form of better worker health, fewer sick days, less burnout, and lower turnover / higher retention rates– all of which can be expensive for companies, and a burden on societies and economies. (Burnout alone costs the global economy $300 billion a year.) In the UK, KPMG estimates that the inability of professional or skilled women to reenter the job market after having children costs the economy more than £1 billion annually. You could also include lower spending by workers on things like gas and child care; and from reduced spending by the organization on health insurance, and utilities if offices are closed an extra day.

Third, there are plenty of governments that have implemented 4-day weeks, and shown that it’s possible to do this without cutting services. I was recently in Maine, and found a number of towns that have moved most of their government services to 4 days a week. Granted, these are pretty small towns, but they report that thanks to being about to put some government services– paying taxes, getting licenses and registrations, applying for things– online, and having elected officials be available via email or Skype (or just at the corner diner– I said these are small towns), they reduce the amount of time they need to spend in an office, without being less accessible. (As I recently noted, a Danish municipality is experimenting with 4-day weeks now.) The state government of Utah did this for a years under Jon Huntsman.

There’s another point work making. The CPS study says,

In general, most economists assume that as productivity rises, hours worked decline. This appeared to hold true throughout the 20th century. But there is much less evidence for the opposite argument – that if you reduce hours, productivity automatically increases.

Which is correct, but is not the actual experience of any company or organization that’s shortened its working hours. It’s not a merely automatic effect: productivity goes up because people use shorter hours as a chance to implement managerial reforms, process improvements, and changes in how people use technology– often while spending little or nothing– in order to improve productivity.

Now having said this, it’s definitely the case that you can mandate lower working hours in ways that are problematic; the Korean government’s experience is one cautionary tale, and the French experience has been kinda mixed, too.

But 4-day weeks should be treated as an investment, not an expense, and serious policymakers should try to forecast more comprehensively how they can impact an economy.

Talking about REST and SHORTER at Silicon Foundry, December 4

I’ll be talking about REST and SHORTER at Silicon Foundry in San Francisco on December 4.

Let's talk about distraction

The talk will range cross my last three books, THE DISTRACTION ADDICTION, REST, and SHORTER, laying out my argument for the importance of deliberate rest, explaining how we can develop practices that create more time for focused work, and how companies are redesigning their workdays to build more time for focus– and reduce their working hours at the same time.

Speaking at Somnex

You can pre-register here, but space is limited!

Visit to Cockroach Labs

New York City

On Tuesday I went to New York to meet with SHORTER’S American editor and publicity team about the release of the book. (Fortunately, events like the UK general election, in which the Labour Party is advocating for a 4-day workweek (and right-wing think tanks are saying would be terrible), the new Microsoft Japan report, Cal Newport’s New York Times piece, etc. are doing a great job of getting people talking about it!)

I also had a little time to stop in the global headquarters of Cockroach Labs, a startup located on 23rd Street.

Cockroach Labs

They do cloud-based SQL databases, which if you know anything about cloud computing or SQL databases is really cool. (I don’t, but living in Silicon Valley I have friends who are highly technical and think this is an interesting problem.) They also have a 4-day workweek, with the office staying open on Fridays to let people work on their own side projects. This may not sound like a great perk, but for software developers, many of whom are self-taught and are always aware that there are new and interesting technologies that they should learn about, it’s a powerful attractor.

As a result, the average age of company employees is 35, which means that they’re a young company with a surprisingly experienced workforce with the structural support needed to stay up-to-date in their specialties.

For a place on 23rd Street, the office was surprisingly green. The common area has a big wall of moss and ferns, which also serves to absorb sound.

Cockroach Labs

There are other plants throughout the office, which pick up on the green.

Cockroach Labs

This was an especially nice touch: moss on one side of the pillars (since moss only grows on one side of trees).

Cockroach Labs

It’s always great to see these places, because it stimulates questions that you wouldn’t think to ask via Skype, or lets you pick up details that you otherwise wouldn’t notice. For example, I was struck by how quiet the place was: even though it was open office, there was virtually no chatter (except for me). However, they get lunch brought into the kitchen four days a week, and during lunchtime everyone congregates and talks. Being more focused doesn’t make the place less friendly.

Cockroach Labs

There were lots of other interesting details, but I’ll save those for the talks.

While all the humans were very friendly and generous with their time, one of the office dogs was absolutely certain that I was up to no good, and that I needed to be watched carefully.

Cockroach Labs

Fortunately for (fur?) the company, Carl made sure that I wasn’t able to create any trouble.

Cockroach Labs

His friend Remy, in contrast, was a little less suspicious.

Cockroach Labs

Advance reading copy of SHORTER!

I was at Public Affairs today for some meetings (I’m reading the audiobook ofSHORTER (US | UK) and we’re starting to think about the marketing and publicity campaigns) and they happened to have just received some advance reading copies. So naturally I grabbed a couple!

The first advance reading copy of SHORTER, which just arrived at Public Affairs today (where I happened to be for a meeting). Very exciting to see the real book.

This is always a great moment, and normally I celebrate these kinds of things by going out to dinner or splurging on something, but since I spent the weekend in Maine with my son, I’m considering that trip the present.

Microsoft Japan’s 4-day week

DSCF8656

One of the concerns that some people raise about the 4-day workweek is that while it might work great at little places that are nimble and flexible, it’s not going to work at larger organizations that have a lot of diverse functions. Size isn’t actually the limit people think: as my book SHORTER (US | UK) explains, there are companies in Japan and Korea that have a thousand people or more and have moved to 4-day weeks or 6-hour days In recent years.

This summer, Microsoft Japan successfully trialed a 4-day workweek for its 2300 employees. During the month of August, the company closed on each of the five Fridays, then measured the impact on everything from electricity use and employee happiness, to paper use and employee productivity to the number of meetings the company held.

It should come as no surprise that the results were very positive.

Scenes from Tokyo

There’s some background that isn’t always getting covered in the English-language press about the experiment that is worth noting.

First, the Japanese government and Japanese companies are conducting a lot of experiments now to find improved ways of working, and to cut back on the notorious culture of overwork. Partly this is driven by the aging of the workforce and other social concerns, and partly it’s an effort to promote remote work before the 2020 Olympics, in order to reduce congestion. The Metropolitan Tokyo government, for example, ran “Telework Days 2019” from late July to early September.

Second, the 4-day week challenge also builds on years of earlier Microsoft programs aimed at creating greater flexibility and work-life balance. Microsoft Japan started encouraging remote work in 2012; two years later their “Telecom Day” had become “Telecom Week,” and two years after that, “Working Style Reform Week.” In fact, since 2015, working hours had been reduced 80 hours per year (about 600K hours across the company). Like at Cybozu, they’re trying to broaden flexibility and choice, and accommodate a variety of different family schedules. Microsoft Japan had also been working on shortening meetings, with the aim of resetting the cultural default for a meeting from 60 minutes to 30, and reducing the number of people who attend meetings.

Finally, the trial was designed partly as a test / demonstration of Microsoft Teams, their groupware product. Of course, there’s a long tradition in software companies of using your own products, as both a way to find bugs, and to prove the value of your product.

Scenes from Tokyo

So what was the trial?

In its barest outlines, the trial was a month-long experiment to measure the impact of a four-day workweek in which 1) salaries were not cut, 2) the company made efforts to increase productivity or become more efficient, and 3) people were encouraged to do things outside work. (This being Japan, that kind of official sanction for extracurriculars does send an important signal to many people.)

August had five Fridays this month, so people have five extra days off. Technically these days were called paid leave, so salaries didn’t go down. The company offered subsidized weekend trips and technical courses, and would reimburse up to 100,000 yen spent on courses or for expenses incurred doing volunteer work. Just under 2300 people were involved.

The project was also meant to showcase the potential for Microsoft Teams to make work more efficient and people more productive.

So what happened? The company talked about a three-pronged approach to improving efficiency during the trial, and reported several measures:

Deleting: This category basically includes indicators consuming or spend less time, money, resources, etc. In this category, they report reductions in the number of working days (-25%), pages of paper printed (-57%), and electricity consumption (-23%). The last two are interesting partly because companies generally don’t try hard to measure these (and I confess I didn’t ask about them in interviews I’ve done). The electricity consumption number is especially valuable because our models of the impact of reduced working hours on energy consumption are based on relatively small data-sets so far, and lots of smaller companies that go to 4-day weeks don’t pay their own utility bill (it’s included in the rent), so the more data we have on this, the better.

Improving: This includes improvements in productivity, adoption of more efficient ways of working and collaborating. Labor productivity, measured by sales divided by the number of employees, went up 39.9%, but there were also increases in the adoption of 30-minute meetings (+46%) and remote conferencing (+21%). During the 4-day week, meetings were cut to 15 minutes, and the number of participants capped at five (though in practice the number of meetings increased slightly).

Satisfying: This is a measure of how people feel about the new schedule, and how their work-life balance changed. Overall 94% of employees reported positive experiences, and 92% were satisfied specifically with the 4-day week. (One partial exception was the sales department, which disliked being out of touch with customers on Fridays.) 55% of employees took summer vacations, and 6% took 2+ weeks off. There was a 3x increase in domestic travel subsidies for 1+ week vacations, and a 1.7x increase in sponsored activities.

Regarding Microsoft Teams usage during 4-day week, the highlights were replacement of email with chat (which theoretically is more efficient, though I’m skeptical of this, given the complaints I’ve heard of Slack overload); “time reform” to reduce waste; and support by Microsoft’s AI MyAnalytics, about which no one is saying very much.

It also sounds like Microsoft was working on helping employees build in time for concentrated work or “focus time” into the schedules.

Microsoft Japan says it will implement its own work project “Work Life Choice Challenge 2019 Winter” this winter, around theme ”Rest smartly, work in short time, enjoy the challenge.” Which could have been the subtitle of my next book.

To me, what’s significant here is that the experiment shows that a large company can implement (albeit temporarily) a 4-day workweek across a number of offices and functions; have substantial, measurable improvements; and create a prototype that they can continue to refine, and maybe make permanent, in the future.

4-day workweek is #1 “emerging perk,” according to sketchily-sourced survey of millennials

Yarat workspace
YARAT, Baku

The Global Recruiter reports on the results of a survey by Seatfrog about millennial attitudes to perks.

[T]oday’s young workers are looking for more than just fun or unusual perks to brag about to their friends when starting a new job. While on-site table tennis, a free bar and unlimited snacks has become de rigueur in the war to attract top talent – especially in the technology sector – three in five millennials are dismissing perks as nothing short of a gimmick.

So if foosball tables and a kombucha cart are out, what do they want?

50% list a 4-day workweek as their top “emerging perk.”

Much as I would love to be able to take this at face value and describe it as a Trend Among The Youth, the article doesn’t say anything about the methodology, and Seatfrog is a startup that makes an app that lets you bid on train ticket upgrades, so I’m not sure how this survey connects with their core business and competency.

Kings Cross
Kings Cross Station

So it’s interesting as a straw in the wind, but I’d love to know more about it.

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