Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: 4-day workweek (page 1 of 3)

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!

The Wellcome Trust thinks about four-day weeks

The Guardian, which really owns the beat on the shorter workweeks trend, reports that the Wellcome Trust “is considering moving all of its 800 head office staff to a four-day week in a bid to boost productivity and improve work-life balance.”

A trial of the new working week at the £26bn London-based science research foundation could start as soon as this autumn, giving workers Fridays off to do whatever they want with no reduction in pay. Some parts of the organisation already operate a no-emails policy in the evenings or at weekends, but this would mark a more dramatic change….

The core of the organisation’s work is processing and assessing grant applications for scientific research across biology, medicine, population health, the humanities and social science. That is the kind of predictable process that might be well suited to a shorter week, it believes.

The Trust isn’t well-known in America, but it’s “the world’s second-biggest research donor after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

It’ll be very interesting to see how this plays out. On the outside, grantmaking doesn’t look like the most strenuous of jobs, but from what I’ve seen from friends who work at American philanthropies, the people who work there are very dedicated, really want to make world-changing moves (when you’re at the Gates and Wellcome level, at least), and have to both think really deeply and go to a lot of meetings; and when the founder is still alive and involved, that can put a lot of pressure on people to deliver results. This combination of a need for serious insight, to develop a vision of what the world’s problems are going to be years from now and to work with people who are coming up with solutions that’ll address those, to build consensus within the organization for this program line and that specific project– it’s a nontrivial exercise.

A quick update, and more news soon

DSCF2985

I realize I’ve posted very little in the last few weeks (though I’ve posted lots of labrador pictures), because I’ve been doing a lot on the next book. I’ll have some good news about the project that I can share before too long; in the meantime, I can say that the writing continues, and indeed I’ve discovered a whole crop of companies in Japan and Korea that are practicing 4-day or 4.5-day weeks, which nicely expands my project without making it totally unmanageable. (I’ll be off to Japan, and I hope Korea, in the new year to study these companies a little more closely.)

The more I get into it, the clearer it become sot me that this really is a global movement that just needs to be made aware of itself to really catch fire. We talk about the 4-day week as some kind of great aspirational goal, or as some semi-utopian thing, when in fact companies all over the world are doing it right now, and indeed making shorter hours a cornerstone of their cultures and success.

Why do we talk about the possibility of 4-day weeks, rather than their reality?

This morning I ran across this piece on the Web site of English boutique recruitment consultancy Mitchell Adam:

The Four-Day Working Week: Could It Work?

Today, many people will have heard of the four-day week; a company decision for employers to reduce staff working days from five to four without a reduction in wages. Whilst it’s a popular topic in a number of countries, very few businesses have chosen to implement the change. But why do people believe it could be commonplace before the end of the century?

It’s not at all unusual for discussions of shorter working hours is framed around the question of “is it possible?” or “could it work?” Business Insider recently published an article about how it “could make people happier and more productive;” another HR company asks “Could a 30-hour week actually work?” and a third asks “Is the 4-day working week possible?”

Sometimes the unspoken second part of the phrase is “…at your company,” but often people really are talking about the 4-day week as if it’s an academic idea or policy proposal, not something that companies are already doing. I don’t think this is a product of lazy thinking, or lack of research (though the Perpetual Guardian and Swedish nursing home trials get cited disproportionately); I think it reveals just how incredibly well-entrenched the 5-day workweek is, how firmly we believe in the cult of overwork, and how difficult it can be to break away from that.

Even when presented with actual examples of companies that are doing it– ranging from painfully hip boutique design firms in Shoreditch, to world-class restaurants in Denmark and Sweden, to accounting companies in Australia, to industrial rice milling manufacturers in Hiroshima– it’s hard to believe that evidence actually exists. (And I’m discovering that with American audiences, if you cite Nordic countries you might as well be talking about the elves from Lord of the Rings— each seems equally real to overworked talent development executives.)

This, in turn, makes it even harder to seriously imagine redesigning the workday, without sacrificing productivity and profitability. The reality of companies actually doing that has a hard time competing with people’s preconceptions of what work looks like, and how you do it better.

After decades of ratcheting up working hours, using technology to allow the empire of work to invade every area of our our lives and every hour of our day, it’s hard to imagine a world in which things move in the opposite direction– even when you’re looking at companies doing it.

“In my experience, it is only the over-fifties who really know what they’re doing”

Rory Sutherland makes a good point about one of the benefits of shorter hours in this Spectator article, “John McDonnell’s right – the four-day week could work:”

Trust me, we need older people in the workforce. In my experience, it is only the over-fifties who really know what they’re doing. And this isn’t the 1930s. Fewer jobs are physically gruelling and life expectancy is higher. Wondrous and under-used technologies such as video-conferencing allow people to do much useful work from home. Both my father and father-in-law worked happily beyond their mid-seventies — far healthier than doing nothing at all. True, they didn’t work five days a week at 75 — but that’s exactly my point: it is the length and rigidity of the working week which forces people to stop working when they do: if there were more three-and four-day jobs, people could work longer. The money saved on pensions could then be spent decently providing for people unable to work.

With a four-day week, better use of travel-reducing technology, and more flexible working hours, we could help solve the pensions crisis, the transport crisis, the housing crisis and the social care crisis. It would also give people the time to retrain in middle age.

One of the interesting things that’s come out of my interviews with people at companies that have successfully implemented 4-day weeks is that the people who are best able to adjust to the new system often are a little older and a little further in their careers. They’re people who’ve been through the grueling associate’s program at some investment bank or did their share of all-nighters finishing a client’s Christmas commercial, really know how to do their jobs, and therefore have a good sense of how to redesign it– what parts they really need to focus on, what parts you can ignore, and what tasks can eat up your time if not carefully-managed.

Further, they’re a lot less likely to be impressed by bean bag chairs and a kombucha bar, and more impressed by being able to spend every Friday with their young child.

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.

Listening to “A 4-Day Week: The Time is Now!” Session at The World Transformed

In September, there was an interesting session on the four-day week at The World Transformed, an event in Liverpool that sounds like a fringe festival paralleling the UK Labour Party annual conference. It’s now up on Sound Cloud, and is worth a listen. (The embed below should start right at the beginning of the session; if not, run up to 4:35.)

It’s very much a policy discussion, which makes sense given the context, so some of the concerns— how the four-day week could be legislated, the virtues of it versus universal basic income, etc.— are ones that I’m not focusing on. But the speakers are quite good!

However, I do think that there’s a risk with these policy discussions of the four-day week being cast as something that the state does to businesses, or merely a concession that’s wrung out of capital by politicians aligned with labor, rather than something that businesses do for themselves, for quite compelling and practical reasons. This does turn the four-day week from something that 

You could argue that this drains the potential radicalism from the four-day week, that talking about it as a way of boosting retention, or standing out in the market, or building a more sustainable business, turns it into a managerial technique for propping up the current system, rather than a tool to be used to build something new. But I would argue two things.

First, there’s a lot of value in recognizing that this shouldn’t be an abstract argument about whether we could move to a four-day week, but rather an argument about why the companies that are already doing it are succeeding, and how their lessons can be generalized.

Second, revolutionary changes in business, science and the arts often start out very modestly. As Isaac Asimov put it, the most exciting phrase in science is not “Eureka,” but “That’s funny.” What he meant is that revolutions usually start off as explorations of anomalies, and only over time do they turn into something bigger. Likewise, modern architecture didn’t emerge full-fledged from the minds of Gropius and Corbusier as an assault on academic historical design: it evolved gradually, driven mainly by the needs of factories and railroads and inexpensive yet sanitary urban housing. I see something similar with the four-day week: the people who trial it don’t see themselves as challenging the fundamental assumptions of neoliberalism and the 21st-century culture of work, but that’s where they end up.

“We converted 20% less work into 50% more weekend:” Australian company Icelab’s four-day workweek

There’s a classic (classic among grad students, anyway) Matt Groening cartoon about graduate school:

At the risk of being the person who reads another book in order to avoid finishing, I want to flag yet another company that’s been doing four-day weeks for years: Australian Web and interface design company Icelab.

Last year, Icelab founder (and ex-philosophy graduate student!) Michael Honey wrote a piece explaining how they decided to move to four-day weeks. As he tells the story, the move to shorter hours happened gradually after the company’s founding in 2006:

We started the company [Icelab], two of us in a room, working five eight-hour days, and late if we had to: the same hours we were used to at the advertising agency we’d just left, scrounging for work, taking what we could get.

Little by little we got better at what we did, and after two or three years we’d improved our skills and our processes, grown to five people, and we were in a position to do something with that productivity. So we started taking Fridays off.

At first, they worked 10-hour days, Monday through Thursday, but

After six months or so we said stuff it: let’s just do four normal eight-hour days. Thirty-two hours, not forty. And it worked. 

We seemed to get the same amount done as we did before, only now our partners liked us better and we got to see the daylight. We turned some of that productivity into time. We converted 20% less work into 50% more weekend.

According to a 2011 newspaper article, the company moved to four-day weeks in 2008, making them one of the longest-running four-day week companies I’ve found so far.

In an interview with acidlabs founder Steven Collins, he adds to the story:

After having worked for three or four years as regular five-day a week sort of company, not having to do any overnighters, which was appreciated by myself, we made a decision to go to a four day week… We realised that we weren’t getting a lot of extra value out of the couple of hours extra we were theoretically working. So we just stopped doing it, we just decided we’ll work four normal days.

This is similiar to what I heard in a number of interviews, including the ones I did in Europe earlier this month: Fridays are already kind of a lost day, so why not figure out how to eliminate them entirely?

Of course, I far prefer to hear about these companies before I finish the book, rather than after, especially if they’ve been doing it successfully for years. There’s been a quite revolution in work happening for years now, playing out in companies around the world, and it’s time for them to be introduced to a wider audience. And their success raises a question for companies that are struggling to improve engagement, work-life balance, and retain better workers; why aren’t you doing this, too?

Adam Smith disliked overwork

Adam Smith's tomb
Adam Smith’s tomb, Edinburgh

The report from The Mix about its four-day week had a quote from Adam Smith that “the man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.”

Naturally, I had to track the quote down, and it’s from The Wealth of Nations, in the chapter “On the Wages of Labour.” I’ve added some paragraph breaks to make it a bit easier to read, but here’s the relevant section:

The liberal reward of labour, as it encourages the propagation, so it increases the industry of the common people. The wages of labour are the encouragement of industry, which, like every other human quality, improves in proportion to the encouragement it receives. A plentiful subsistence increases the bodily strength of the labourer, and the comfortable hope of bettering his condition, and of ending his days perhaps in ease and plenty, animates him to exert that strength to the utmost. Where wages are high, accordingly, we shall always find the workmen more active, diligent, and expeditious than where they are low: in England, for example, than in Scotland; in the neighbourhood of great towns than in remote country places. Some workmen, indeed, when they can earn in four days what will maintain them through the week, will be idle the other three.

This, however, is by no means the case with the greater part. Workmen, on the contrary, when they are liberally paid by the piece, are very apt to overwork themselves, and to ruin their health and constitution in a few years. A carpenter in London, and in some other places, is not supposed to last in his utmost vigour above eight years. Something of the same kind happens in many other trades, in which the workmen are paid by the piece, as they generally are in manufactures, and even in country labour, wherever wages are higher than ordinary. Almost every class of artificers is subject to some peculiar infirmity occasioned by excessive application to their peculiar species of work. Ramuzzini, an eminent Italian physician, has written a particular book concerning such diseases.

We do not reckon our soldiers the most industrious set of people among us. Yet when soldiers have been employed in some particular sorts of work, and liberally paid by the piece, their officers have frequently been obliged to stipulate with the undertaker, that they should not be allowed to earn above a certain sum every day, according to the rate at which they were paid. Till this stipulation was made, mutual emulation and the desire of greater gain frequently prompted them to overwork themselves, and to hurt their health by excessive labour.

Excessive application during four days of the week is frequently the real cause of the idleness of the other three, so much and so loudly complained of. Great labour, either of mind or body, continued for several days together, is in most men naturally followed by a great desire of relaxation, which, if not restrained by force or by some strong necessity, is almost irresistible. It is the call of nature, which requires to be relieved by some indulgence, sometimes of ease only, but sometimes, too, of dissipation and diversion. If it is not complied with, the consequences are often dangerous, and sometimes fatal, and such as almost always, sooner or later, brings on the peculiar infirmity of the trade.

If masters would always listen to the dictates of reason and humanity, they have frequently occasion rather to moderate than to animate the application of many of their workmen. It will be found, I believe, in every sort of trade, that the man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.

Great!

The Mix’s report on four-day weeks

Scenes from London

One of the places I visited in London during my recent recent trip was The Mix, a research consultancy founded in 2012. Almost exactly a year ago, they transitioned to a four-day workweek, and have had a great experience with it.

To mark the anniversary, they released a report (coauthored with Strategy of Mind) about their four-day week, which you can download here.

It’s quite good, and I say that as someone who knows a LOT about this subject now (thanks entirely to lots of very smart and dedicated people sharing their stories with me).

Older posts

© 2019 Deliberate Rest

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑