Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: 4-day workweek (page 1 of 5)

My South China Morning Post piece on 996 and the culture of overwork

Orchard Road

There’s a debate going on in China over 996, the practice of working from 9 to 9, six days a week. (Some very tired yet still imaginative writers have suggested that the next thing will be 007, working from midnight to midnight, seven days a week.)

996 has been a part of Chinese startup culture for a while, but recently people have started pushing back, especially after the CEO of Youzan, a Hong Kong-based e-commerce company, announced that he was going to demand the company adopt those hours in 2019. A couple weeks ago, a leaked internal email from JD.com combined an announcement of layoffs with an exhortation to fight for more work, “regardless of performance, position, tenure, personal well-being issues or family reasons.” This came a month after another message that “asked employees to make ‘full contributions’ by working 12 hours a day at least five days a week.” More generally, it seems to be the case that as the economy starts to slow, and as tech companies have a harder time getting venture funding, etc., they’re trying to enforce longer working hours as a way of sustaining their valuations.

I couldn’t pass up the chance to add something to the debate, and so my piece on why 996 is stupid, and how and why companies should work 4-day weeks, is out in the South China Morning Post.

The recent debate over working hours at China’s tech companies hinges on a question: are long hours truly necessary, or are they simply exploitation?

Advocates of the 996 work schedule – 9am to 9pm, six days a week – say it places young professionals on a fast, steep learning curve, allowing them to unlock achievements they would have thought impossible. It shows companies which employees are most passionate about and devoted to their work. It is necessary for companies that want to do world-changing work. And in a highly competitive, always-on global economy and job market, long hours are the inevitable price of success.

Yet, every one of those statements is wrong.

I had originally written, “But to paraphrase Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, every one of those statements is wrong,” but I can see why they’d cut it.

Interestingly some of the debate in China over 996 has migrated to Github, interestingly, and it seems to have worried the government enough to get Github’s 996.icu repository banned in China. (Even more worrying, there are some reports that Twitter was blocking search results on 996, even for Western users.) Among Westerners following the debate, there’s an argument about whether this is something companies in the US and Europe need to emulate. Some make the case that Western companies need to double down on the workaholism, while Forbes contributor Stephanie Denning points out that for all its success, Alibaba seems less productive than eBay or Amazon, and James Stanier, an engineering VP for English startup Brandwatch, arguing in Medium that “We should work hard, but most importantly, we should go home.”

Now back to writing the book, so I can really make the case for the 4-day week!

Eating together at work and in negotiations

In the interviews I’ve done with leaders and workers at companies that have implemented shorter workweeks, I often hear– in the smaller places at least– that they eat together.

Lunch at the Big Building
Eating together is a powerful form of bonding for any group

At MADE Agency in Norwich, the office closes during lunch hour, and most of the staff goes out to eat together. At Pursuit Marketing, a Glasgow call center, people have breakfast together before diving into the day’s calls. When he decided to fight back against the culture of overwork and burnout in the restaurant industry, one of the changes René Redzepi implemented at Noma was to introduce

real staff meals where you sit down to eat together. We had to change our opening time from six to seven to allow for a one-hour dinner break, but it was worth it. For too long I’ve been eating out of a plastic container while standing next to my section, and I don’t want my cooks getting accustomed to the same thing.

This is one of those small-sounding changes that can make a big difference in organizations. Eating together is a way for people to spend time together in an environment where they can actually pay attention to one another; it can improve social bonding within groups; and if it’s paired with cooking, it becomes a cooperative activity that helps reinforce skills that groups can use in their work.

Old fire station

The canonical example of the last is the firehouse. In “Eating Together at the Firehouse,” Kevin Kniffin and his coauthors found that firehouse that cook and eat together perform better than those that do not. Here’s the research:

Over the course of 15 months, Kniffin and his colleagues conducted interviews and surveys in a large city’s fire department, which included more than 50 firehouses. The researchers asked the department’s 395 supervisors to rate on a scale of zero to 10 the performance of their platoon compared to other fire companies in which they’ve served. The supervisors were also asked how often the platoon eats together in a typical four-day work week. The platoons who ate together most often also got higher marks for their team performance. Conversely, the platoons that did not eat together got lower performance ratings.

In interviews, firefighters said daily group meals were a central activity during their shifts. Some firefighters who worked a shift that started at 6 p.m. often ate two dinners, one at home and a second at the firehouse. One firefighter said, in the company of his co-workers, “you don’t want to dis the wife” by turning down the food she prepared – implying that it was just as important to avoid disrespecting his co-workers. “To me, that’s a good example of the importance of the group. It’s comparable to his family,” said Kniffin, whose father was a longtime big-city firefighter.

In fact, the researchers noted firefighters expressed a certain embarrassment when asked about firehouses where they didn’t eat together. “It was basically a signal that something deeper was wrong with the way the group worked,” Kniffin said.

As Kniffin explained, “Eating together is a more intimate act than looking over an Excel spreadsheet together. That intimacy spills back over into work…. From an evolutionary anthropology perspective, eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue. That seems to continue in today’s workplaces.”

There’s actually a fascinating culinary culture among firefighters, strong enough so that “learn to cook” is a piece of professional advice that experienced firefighters give newbies. “Confidence in the kitchen will go a long way to make your life and career easier, and help you fit in no matter where you work and no matter who you work with,” one writer warns:

The standards are often very high, and you’ll be up against some tough culinary competition, so start learning to cook now, or work to improve and expand the cooking skills that you do have before you get the job.

When it comes to firehouse cooking, remember this: it takes 100 good meals to make up for one really bad one. And if the meal is bad enough, it can haunt you your entire career. My crew still talks about a terrible meal that I prepared more than 10 years ago.

And it’s not just groups that work together regularly, or have to perform as a team under life-and-death situations, who benefit from eating together. An interesting new study from the University of Chicago looks at “why sharing a plate leads to better negotiation outcomes“:

Here’s a new negotiating tactic: Enjoy a family-style meal with your counterpart before making your opening bid. When people in a business negotiation share not just a meal but a plate, they collaborate better and reach deals faster, according to new research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

The experiment consisted of two parts. Randomly-assigned pairs of students had a snack of chips and salsa, and either shared from the same bowls, or had their own.

Some excellent fish and chips!
Okay, these aren’t the right kinds of chips, but it’s the only picture I had

The pairs then had to negotiate a solution to a labor dispute; if they didn’t settle the dispute in time, a strike would be called, making subsequent rounds increasingly costly.

Essentially, participants that shared food family-style negotiated more effectively and quickly than participants that ate separately:

Teams with shared bowls took nine strike days, on average, to reach a deal, four fewer than pairs that had eaten from separate bowls. This difference translated into significant dollar values, saving both parties a combined (if hypothetical) $1.5 million in losses.

This phenomenon, the researchers write, was unrelated to how two people in a negotiating team felt about each other. Rather, what mattered was how well they coordinated their eating.

The relationship between food, sociability, and organizational performance also serves (so to speak) as an important reminder that an awful lot of the work required to implement a 4-day week and make it a success does not require making dramatic changes in how the company works, or investing in cutting-edge productivity tools, or doing other very disruptive or alien things: it’s small changes that you can undertake at virtually no cost.

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.

The downsides of early retirement

Travel and Leisure has a piece about a software developer who retired early– then went back to work

Tony said the biggest thing he missed was human connection…. Even on days he felt like being social, he added, all his friends were busy working their nine to five jobs….

Early retirement also lacked the fulfillment his work had brought him.

Apparently there are people who study the downsides of early retirement, and “loss of income and reduced social security, mental and physical decline, loss of social interaction and identity, boredom, and lack of challenge or purpose” are all things that people complain about.

But this should come as no surprise: as much as people may complain about their jobs, work does play a critical role in providing us with social interaction, a sense of purpose (even if you’re “living your passion” or whatever), etc. This, I think, is one of the reasons that we should welcome experiments in shortening the workweek: by making work more sustainable, shorter hours serve to extend people’s ability to work, which at its best is quite a good thing.

4-day weeks at the Rockwood Leadership Institute

Grand Lake Theatre

Almost all the organizations I’ve been looking at for the new book are for-profit companies. This is more or less by design, since I wanted places that had to deal with making payroll, satisfying customers, and all the rest while reducing their working hours.

But nonprofits are often places that have very dedicated workforces that believe in the mission of the organization, want to make a difference, and are susceptible to all the issues around burnout, overwork, and exploitation that you see in startups.

So it was interesting to discover the Rockwood Leadership Institute, an Oakland nonprofit that has been running on a 4-day week for years. As they explain in a post, “The Nonprofit Four-Day Workweek: You Can Take Care of Yourself and Still Change the World:”

One of the six practices we teach social change leaders here at Rockwood Leadership Institute is personal ecology: maintaining balance, pacing and efficiency to sustain your energy over a lifetime of activism. For the past seven years, we’ve found that a wonderful way to support our staff’s personal ecology is by instituting a four-day, 32-hour workweek.

Our four-day workweek experiment began during the 2008 recession when we, like many nonprofits, were finding solutions for some new financial challenges. During that time, we decided to try reducing the salaries of our department directors while also changing their schedules to a four-day, 32-hour workweek (Monday-Thursday). After a very productive year, we extended the four-day, 32-hour workweek to our entire staff (without the salary decrease) to test the idea that a shorter week would strengthen the organization overall. And it did!…

I love that the 4-day week flows from their interest in sustainability and personal ecology. At the same time, they’re also clear about the challenges:

We won’t sugar coat it. Having a four-day week isn’t without its issues. Staff have also reported challenges with answering the email that builds up over the three-day weekend, and with creating efficient systems to get work done in a timely manner. Some staff also expressed guilt about “not doing enough.”

That said, instituting a four-day, 32-hour workweek hasn’t just benefited the staff’s work and personal lives, it has also helped Rockwood grow as an organization. Since implementing a four-day workweek, we have tripled our budget and increased the number of people we serve each year while maintaining the same number of staff (11-13).

The restaurants just keep coming: Los Angeles’ n/naka

One more example of a great restaurant that operates on a four-day week: Los Angeles’ n/naka, profiled by Helen Rosner in this week’s issue of The New Yorker:

The most prominent American kaiseki restaurant is n/naka, a small Los Angeles establishment owned and run by the forty-four-year-old Japanese-American chef Niki Nakayama. Japanese cuisine, at the high end, is virtually all made by men. When n/naka opened, it may have been the only kaiseki restaurant run by a woman in any country. Housed in a low gray building on a quiet corner in Palms, a neighborhood tucked between sleepy Culver City and the Santa Monica Freeway, it is open four nights a week, and seats twenty-six guests at a time.

She’s also featured in an episode of the Netflix show Chef’s Table:

Not sure I want to try to fit in one more interview, but at the very least, I’d love to know if the restaurant is open four days a week because it’s so great, or it’s great because it’s only open four days a week.

It’s not just Michelin-starred restaurants that are doing 4-day weeks

Some of the world’s best restaurants– Noma and Relae in Copenhagen, Maison Baumé in California, Attica in Melbourne, Aizle in Edinburgh– are shortening working hours for their chefs and staff. But they’re not the only ones, and the examples of more casual restaurants are, arguably, more important than the big names.  A two- or three-star Michelin restaurant can pretty much charge what it wants, since they can be booked months in advance and have huge waitlists. But all other restaurants live and die by razor-thin margins, and it’s easy to imagine that they can’t afford to shorten working hours for chefs and staff.

However, I’ve been finding a fair number of casual dining places that are experimenting with four-day weeks. In Brisbane, Australia, for example, Sasquatch Bar, a casual craft beer bar and restaurant (they boast of “international cuisines that have been interpreted into our idea of great drinking food”) has implemented a four-day week for chefs. Casey Poland talks about it in this interview that I just came across. He started working in kitchens at 15, and almost 15 years later, he’s worked as a head chef and restaurant consultant.

Having 3 whole days off a week is amazing. It’s changed my life. It has changed the lives of the chefs I have at work.  I have chefs who have kids, I have chefs who have businesses on the side that they run.

I have a wife and I’m trying to start a family, and the most important thing, I’d like to say, before my work is my wife. I need to be at work on Saturday and Sunday, and if I only have two days off and it’s the middle of the week and my wife has to work late, I only end up having dinner once a week with my wife. It’s terrible. Just the opportunity to have one more dinner with my wife a week has been amazing, you know?

Recently, Baumhower’s Victory Grille, a 10-restaurant chain in Alabama, shifted its managers and staff to a 4-day week, apparently with no reduction in pay (I’m trying to verify that). Baumhower played football for Bear Bryant at Alabama (if you don’t know American college football I can’t explain how significant this is, but it’s huge), then went on to a career with the Miami Dolphins, before getting into the restaurant business; and for them, it’s about recruitment and retention. As Baumhower says in a press release,

So much of what we do is about celebrating, making memories, and enjoying amazing food… [and] we want our teams to be able to enjoy those things too. Allowing our managers to have the life-work balance they desire while being able to better serve our guests at the same time makes this revolutionary concept a no-brainer. It’s funny how ideas come to you, and you wonder to yourself – ‘Why didn’t we do this years ago?’

There are other places doing it– AO Pasta in Stratford, Ontario, Model Milk and Pigeonhole in Calgary, for example– and I’m sure there are many others that I haven’t heard about.

It’s important to note that for restaurants, a 4-day week doesn’t necessarily translate to a 32-hour week: you might still be working 12-hour days normally. But there’s still a significant difference between 48 and 60 or more hours, and having three days in a row off is huge.

Tash Walker on the Boundless podcast

The Mix

Last fall I spent some time at The Mix, a London research agency, and interviewed several people about the four-day week. The Mix moved to a four-day week a little more than a year ago, and founder Tash Walker does a great job of explaining how to make a four-day week work, and how it can benefit founders like her, employees, companies, and clients.

The Mix, London

Recently I found an interview with Tash on the Boundless podcast. In it, she talks about The Mix’s decision to change how it works, how clients reacted, and what people do with their spare time.

It’s worth a listen. The Mix also recently published a report on its experience with four-day weeks.

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 magic trick of workism

Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic about how workism, “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose,” has taken over American culture, and how “making Americans miserable:”

The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community.

The fact that the well-off are working ever longer hours is pretty well-known; but Thompson makes the point that workism “isn’t just a cultist feature of America’s elite. It’s also the law:”

Most advanced countries give new parents paid leave; but the United States guarantees no such thing. Many advanced countries ease the burden of parenthood with national policies; but U.S. public spending on child care and early education is near the bottom of international rankings. In most advanced countries, citizens are guaranteed access to health care by their government; but the majority of insured Americans get health care through—where else?—their workplace. Automation and AI may soon threaten the labor force, but America’s welfare system has become more work-based in the past 20 years.

In Rest, I talk about scientific research that’s measured the costs of overwork, and in the new book I need to explain why we’ve come to see overwork as alternately inevitable, natural, and desirable. Seeing how the magic trick of inevitability is done is the first step to realizing that its apparent naturalness is actually an artifact, and that we don’t have to work to these rules in the future. Understanding the role regulation plays in normalizing workism can help us see that the trick is a trick, and maybe not even that magical.

Older posts

© 2019 Deliberate Rest

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑