Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Category: 4-day workweek (page 1 of 6)

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.

The man who broke the calendar: About IIH Nordic and its 4-day week

IIH Nordic

One of the companies I write about in SHORTER (US | UK) is IIH Nordic, a Copenhagen-based data marketing firm that implemented, and has become a Nordic model for, a 4-day workweek.

IIH Nordic

Now, there’s a new book by journalist Pernille Garde Abilgaard, Manden der knuste kalenderen for at gøre sine medarbejdere lykkelige (the title translates roughly into “The man who broke the calendar to make his employees happy”), about IIH Nordic and its 4-day week.

I spent a little time with Pernille when I was last in Copenhagen, and it sounds like an interesting project. It’s pretty focused on the experience of IIH Nordic, but I don’t find these kinds of deep dives to be competition with a book like SHORTER; I think there’s value in both projects that look in great detail at particular firms (something I can’t do in a book about a hundred companies), and books (like SHORTER) that look across a large number of places, and try to see the commonalities in trials happening on different continents.

Scenes from Copenhagen

Most important, it’s another data-point that indicates that the 4-day week is quickly going from a total curiosity, to something that a growing number of people are at least willing to entertain the idea that a shorter workweek can work.

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.

My appearance on Pepicast

Microphone

You can listen to me talk about distraction, deliberate rest, and 4-day weeks in a conversation with Montreal-based podcaster Gael Gendre on episode 43 of Gael’s podcast, Pepicast.

It’s one of the wider-ranging conversations I’ve had recently, and it got me thinking about some of the deeper connections between my last three books– something I’ll be writing about in my next newsletter.

A dissent on the 4-day workweek

Scenes from Tokyo

Ohio State University professor Allard Dembe has a piece about the potential downsides of a 4-day workweek:

I have been studying the health effects of long working hours for nearly 30 years. All the studies point to the potential dangers that can occur as the result of the additional risks created when work demands exceed a particular threshold….

Despite the widespread enthusiasm for a four-day week, I am not convinced that kind of schedule is beneficial for employees or for businesses. The primary problem with the idea is that whatever work needs to be done, needs to get done in the same amount of total time. Despite wishes to the contrary, there are still only 24 hours in a day.

The math is simple: working five eight-hour shifts is equivalent to working four 10-hour shifts. That’s true. But the implications of these schedules are different. The danger is in disregarding the health effects that can occur as a result of fatigue and stress that accumulate over a longer-than-normal working day.

Dembe goes on to discuss a number of studies that point to both short-term and long-term challenges with compressed work schedules, and I think he’s exactly right: I spent a few pages of REST talking about the rapidly diminishing returns of overwork, and the ways it’s counterproductive in the long run for both people and organizations.

Mind the gap!

That’s why I’ve been most interested in SHORTER (US | UK) in looking at companies that have been reducing the total number of hours they expect their employees to work, not companies that are pushing work into fewer but longer days. Organizations that are figuring out how to do 5 days’ work in 4 are naturally more interesting than ones that are just pushing blocks around on the calendar; and the fact that they’re doing so successfully– without losing customers, without reducing productivity or profitability, and while seeing big improvements in recruitment, retention, quality of leadership and work– is definitely a lot more interesting.

How conforming to ideology gets money-laundered into expressing personal preference

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.

A friend recently asked me how much things like our embrace of overwork and the M-curve in women’s employment (the phenomenon of women dropping out of the workforce after having their first child, and reentering after the youngest is in school) reflects personal preference, versus structural limitations.

I want to play around with the idea that maybe it’s all structure, all the way down: that even what we think of as personal preference is just money-laundering of ideology to make us feel like we have more control over our lives.

Why am I thinking about it this way? I just read a Harvard Business Review piece by Alison Wynn and Aliya Hamid Rao about the use of (or non-use) of flexible work programs at management consulting firms.

Management consulting firms offer some of the best workplace flexibility policies, including benefits like paid leaves and sabbaticals. Most employees, however, don’t take advantage of them. This seems like a missed opportunity, especially since management consultants continue to experience extremely high levels of work-life conflict, leading to problems such as low satisfaction and high turnover.

They interviewed people at these firms, and found that some of this was about avoiding flexibility stigma– the informal penalties that come from using flex work or part-time programs– but management consultants “also avoided flexibility policies in order to maintain a sense of personal control: they preferred the freedom to manage their work-life balance as they saw fit, rather than opting into a company policy.”

The problem is that this perception of greater control didn’t seem to alleviate their work-life conflicts. Our interviewees told us about many family sacrifices, health problems, and suffering relationships due to their busy work schedules. When asked why they didn’t try the flexibility benefits available to them, they dismissed them as unusable.

In other words, they weren’t any more successful at crafting their own policies, but they felt that because work-life balance is a personal thing, and that problem-solving is What Consultants Do, that they should be able to do this, and that their own bespoke solution would be better than the company policy.

As  Vivia Chen comments in The American Lawyer, “What malarkey that they think they’re in control.” I see academics doing something similar. They have a lot of freedom (in theory) to schedule their working lives as they wish, but there’s also enormous pressure to conform to a professional idea of being a high-performing, constantly-publishing thought machine; and so academics end up internalizing this pressure, and converting it into a choice they make, rather than something  that’s imposed on them.

This seems crazy to me, too, and I hope that my next book helps push the needle from “work-life balance is a personal thing for which we are are individually responsible” territory, closer to “work-life balance is a structural issue that requires collective action.”

(The longer version of their study is available here.)

“Many modern workplaces, with their lures of perks and prestige, are increasingly resembling the Fyre festival”

Bruce Daisley, podcaster, Twitter executive, and author of The Joy of Work and the forthcoming Eat Sleep Work Repeat, has a short and great piece in The Guardian explaining “Why stressed workers need four-day weeks – not wellness trends:”

The latest wellness trend to assail us? “Gong baths.” For those unfamiliar with the term, a gong bath aims to provide spiritual nourishment via long, calming notes played on a large metallic percussive instrument. Yes, it is just a gong – from an orchestra, maybe, or that excessively styled Cotswolds B&B you stayed at – and people are reportedly chilling out like crazy by lying down next to one while it’s being bonged…. You will not be surprised to learn that large corporations have rushed to embrace gong baths. Some top firms are reportedly booking sessions with gong masters in their endless pursuit of workplace wellness.

From the picture in the article, a gong bath seems to involve going into a Mongolia ger and listening to a gong hit by people who just came from the Sigur Ros reunion show in Oslo.

There is probably nothing bad about seeking escape in the shimmering omm of a gong, but the suggestion that it could undo the mental damage of modern office work is an insult. With every mindful minute, every gong bath, we move away from an honest conversation about how we need to change work. Is the answer to the electronically elongated working day that we trade down to a four-day week? Should we switch to a six-hour day? These are meaningful debates that need to be had – but we are unlikely to start them over the bonging of a gong.

I’m as big a fan of cultivating mindfulness as anyone (I did write a book about it, after all!), but I think that Daisley and other critics of corporate wellness programs are spot on, and that all too often these kinds of programs are used as a salve to help people deal with issues– poor scheduling, meaningless products, bad management– that should be dealt with by organizations,  and communicate the idea that people, not institutions, are responsible for dealing with things that really require structural solutions.

One of the things that’s powerful about the 4-day week is that it moves us away from thinking of issues of work-life balance, burnout, and so on as personal ones that we all have to deal with by ourselves, or in negotiation with our bosses, and into things that can be more efficiently solved with structural changes (that, coincidentally, benefit everyone).

My appearance on Docuprime

The Korean documentary series Docuprime recently had an episode on work, rest, burnout, which features an appearance by me and the dogs.

From my appearance on Docuprime!

This evening I found it on YouTube!

From my appearance on Docuprime!

Obviously, it’s in Korean.

From my appearance on Docuprime!

Still, it’s exciting to finally see it!

Harvard Business Review makes the case for my next book

In the Harvard Business Review blog, Ben Laker (one of the authors of the recent Henley Business School report on the 4-day week) and Thomas Roulet make a case for the 4-day week. It closes with this:

The recent attempts in the UK suggest the debate around the four-day workweek is only starting. While it can bring clear benefits with regards to employees’ well-being and ability to focus, implementation across organizations is made difficult by competitive and structural pressures in some sectors. In addition, there are still some negative perceptions of the practice, as well as concerns among workers regarding the way they will be seen by their peers and superiors.

Still, the idea requires proper consideration, and the potential benefits suggest a trial-and-error approach is the best way forward. Such a path would help us understand under which conditions a shorter workweek might succeed and when the benefits can outweigh the costs. The countries and organizations that can crack the code of the four-day week first could build a competitive advantage, if they can implement it in a way that maximizes the well-being benefit on the longer term while minimizing the short-term rise in labor and operational costs.

Have I got a book for you guys….

My talk at Google

Recently I was at Google, at the invitation of the Asian Googlers Network, to talk about Rest, my new work on the 4-day week, and even a bit about contemplative computing. The video of the talk is now up on YouTube:

It was a terrific crowd, and I just hope I did the subject justice!

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