Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Tag: working hours (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 school day-workday mismatch

Getting the classroom ready

The Atlantic has an article asking “Why Does the School Day End 2 Hours Before the Workday?”

Across the country, parents are struggling to balance their busy work routine with their children’s school schedule. Both parents work in half of married-couple families, and 70 percent of them work from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., a reality that leaves most families to contend with at least a two-hour gap between when school ends and when the workday ends…. This mismatch between school and workday, a relic of a bygone era and outdated family norms, has left parents and school districts scrambling to find a solution.

Filling this gap can cost families thousands of dollars a year in tuition to after-school programs or payments to child care providers. It can force women to shift to part-time work rather than full-time.

“We often think about this as a problem every family faces, and it just happens over and over again in this systemic way: The mother cuts back on her hours for when school is closed,” said Catherine Brown, an education-policy researcher at the Center for American Progress. “Why do we have a wage gap? Partially it’s because of this, I believe.”

Getting the classroom ready

A 6-hour day can start at 8 and end at 2, which in many places makes it possible for parents to drop off their kids, and pick them up. In interviews I’ve conducted with people at companies that have gone to a 6-hour day, this often comes up as a significant benefit.

Classroom at Nursery Blue

What this piece makes me realize is that they don’t talk about it as an expression of a fuzzy sentiment that “I want to spend more time with my young children;” they recognize that shorter hours solve a really serious problem that lots of young parents have.

[Pictures are from my kids’ time at Peninsula School in Menlo Park.]

Lasse Rheingans and the 5-Hour Workday at Rheingans Digital Enabler

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-4zdsx-987466

And we’re back! I’m afraid I was off for a couple weeks in England, doing some research and other interviews, then had lots of other things that demanded my attention when I got back. So my apologies for the hiatus. I know there are so few podcasts in the world, it’s a hardship to be without an episode.

But the wait is worth it. Here, I talk with Lasse Rheingans, the head of Rheingans Digital Enabler, about moving his company to a 5-hour workday. It’s a fascinating conversation, and it’s good to get a bit of European perspective on the subject of shorter hours.

My hope is to get back on a weekly schedule, as I have a ton of other interviews waiting to be shared.

Mentioned in this podcast:

Working late “just makes people think you’re inefficient”

DSCF1046

Ruby Anderson explains how “Dutch Culture Taught Me to Be Brutally Honest,” and relates this anecdote from a friend about attitudes to working hours:

“I had a Dutch boss who asked me why I was working so late,” [Canadian-born writer Colleen] Geske told me. “I would be one of the last to leave the office and he told me, ‘You know, you don’t have to work this late. It doesn’t make you seem like a better employee. Actually it just makes people think you’re inefficient and can’t get your work done on time.’”

Who knows how widespread this attitude towards time and efficiency is in the Netherlands. From the time I’ve spent there, I’m willing to believe it’s the case, but I’d love to know more.

DSCF2982

But it’s worth noting that the Dutch have some of the shortest working hours, and highest productivity levels, in the world.

Shortening working hours and unintended consequences:

Koreans have had some of the longest working hours in the developed world: longer than the workaholic United States, Europe, and even Japan (which is often Korea’s benchmark in economic and business matters). While this solid work ethic has been important for the country’s economic growth, it’s had its downsides, and for years advocates have argued that limiting working hours would improve productivity, family life, and quality of life.

Long hours can also enable bad behavior among bosses. As a recent New York Times article explains,

South Koreans often suffer from a work culture they call gapjil. This word describes the imperious sense of entitlement that authority figures feel over their employees, whom they expect to wait on them and cater to their whims.

The most famous example is the “nut rage” incident, in which the daughter of the chairman of Korean Air threw a tantrum over how she was served nuts on a flight.

Recently the government acted to rein in working hours, passing a law that went into effect on July 1 that shortens the maximum workweek from 68 hours to 52 hours. The aim was to boost productivity and expand employment. President Moon Jae-in pointed to studies showing that

labor productivity [would rise] with every percentage point of weekly work hours reduced. During his campaign, he pledged to create 500,000 new jobs by enforcing a 52-hour workweek.

But as this Guardian article explains, the way the government has gone about doing it is having some unfortunate unintended consequences.

For their part, white-collar and office workers

have rejoiced at the new law. Some have long complained of a culture that expected employees to stay late despite a lack of work.

Others say bosses would routinely assign extra tasks outside normal hours, leading many employees to procrastinate all day since they knew they had to stay late regardless of workload.

I’ve heard from junior people at companies like Samsung and LG that “you don’t leave until the boss leaves, and the boss never leaves,” and that the long hours don’t translate into more work, but rather higher rates of presenteeism. When you know you’re going to be at the office until 9 for no particularly good reason, you’re more likely to engage in what Frederick Winslow Taylor referred to as “soldiering.”

But the new regulation intended to combat long hours in Seoul’s steel and glass office towers has backfired for many doing manual or irregular labour, with people flocking to poorly regulated industries and facing pay cuts.

Something like a third of Korean workers labor in jobs with irregular hours, and the new limits– and threats of jail terms for employers who violate them– have led to substantial cuts in pay for these workers.

As a result, lots of them are taking second or even third jobs to make up the loss of wages.

[W]orking-class people have largely mocked the new law for forcing them to take second or third jobs, saying: “Instead of a life with dinner, there’s a new life where you have to skip dinner.”

About 20,000 people have flocked to become on-demand chauffeurs since the new law passed, according to Kim Jong-yong, head of the Korean Association of Relief Drivers.

It’s not clear that if this was something that the government just didn’t anticipate, or what; but it sounds like a real problem is unfolding, and it illustrates how policies meant to shorten working hours and improving the lives of workers need to pay close attention to their effects on both salaried and hourly workers, and not overlook irregular workers.

Companies trying to work with these policies maybe haven’t always thought through the implementation very carefully. Indeed, the head of the German-Korean Chamber of Commerce recently warned that this could hurt exports. Not to put too much faith in national stereotypes, but when you have a German technocrat warning that you’re being too inflexible, you might have a problem.

Less dramatically, perhaps, the new law has also cost restaurants and benefitted grocery stores, as more people are able to go home and cook:

South Korean workers are leaving their offices and factories earlier thanks to a mandated shorter workweek, which seems to be bad news for restaurants and bars….

Supermarkets and online grocers, on the other hand, have benefited from workers spending more time at home. “We do not have exact numbers yet, but sales of fresh foods like fish and meat are rising,” said a Lotte Group executive. Demand has grown now that people are going home earlier than before and making their own dinners.

E-commerce website operator eBay Gmarket reports that for the July 1-9 period, sales of imported meat jumped 88% on the year and kimchi rose 36%. Sales of coupons for restaurants, meanwhile, dropped 25%.

“There has been no change in daytime customers, but a big drop-off at night,” said the 50-year-old owner of a shop that sells food from South Jeolla Province. July sales so far have plunged 20% to 30% on the year. “I am thinking of installing a ticket machine for orders to reduce staff,” he added.

Rest with Alex Pang, Episode 3: Spencer Kimball and Free Fridays at Cockroach Labs

In this episode I talk to Spencer Kimball, cofounder of Cockroach Labs , a startup that’s reinventing how databases work. It’s kind of technical, but fortunately Spencer does a great job of explaining what they’re doing. He also does an excellent job of explaining Cockroach Labs’ “Free Fridays,” and how they’ve designed their work week to give everyone one day a week to work on their own projects, even as they build a product designed to compete against products made by giants like Microsoft, Amazon and Oracle.

I also talk to Clive Thompson about why 20% time is a significant perk for software developers, and more gnerally, the place that free time plays in the professional and intellectual lives of programmers.

Mentioned in this episode:

Digital nomads on the s-curve

Aloha from Kauai!

The digital nomads movement exists in a bit of a legal grey area: people who travel the world, renting houses or hanging out in coworking spaces while freelancing or building their businesses can be considered to be violating their tourist visas, even though they’re essentially bringing work with them. (On the other hand, since they’re generally not hiring locals under the table to work on their businesses, and tend to be more law-abiding and quieter than backpackers who are looking for the next great rave, they also tend not to attract a lot of Official Attention.)

Now, Thailand— which is one of the hobs of the digital nomad movement— is now creating a new visa designed in part for digital nomads:

Thailand’s Smart Visa will only be available to people who work in “S-Curve” industries such as automation and robotics, biotech, and next-gen automotive. The visa will allow holders to work in Thailand without a work permit for four years, compared to one year previously. It’s a one-of-a-kind visa that I hope will be replicated in other countries, especially those looking to expand their talent base and offer companies the best talent from all over the world, instead of hindering them with current archaic visa rules and regulations.

The concept of an s-curve visa— effectively, one that makes it easier for people in new, high-tech industries of the future to come work in your country— is something I’ve not seen before.

I did a few interviews with digital nomads for REST, but I never quite got that section to work. Hwoever, I might go back and do some interviews for the podcast, as they’re managing their time and working hours in some interesting ways.

Rest with Alex Pang, Episode 2: Annie Tevelin and SkinOwl’s 24-Hour Week

More Los Angeles.

This week on my podcast I talk to Annie Tevelin, founder and head of SkinOwl, a Los Angeles-based cosmetics company that works a 24-hour week. SkinOwl makes vegan cosmetics (apparently the Geranium Beauty Drops are quite popular), and Annie started the company after working as a market up artist in Hollywood for Lancôme and studying cosmetic chemistry at UCLA.

When she founded SkinOwl, Annie didn’t want a company that expected the kinds of crazy hours that are typical in Hollywood, and she’s created a workplace in which people are able to quickly fill orders, deal with customers, handle thousand-item B2B orders (the products are available on five continents), all in a four-day week. And those are 6-hour days, not 10-hour days.

This was an especially fun interview, and quite enlightening for me: not only did I learn a few things about working shorter hours, I also learned a little about cosmetics, a world that to be honest was a black box before now. An exquisitely designed, tasteful black box, protected by a friendly yet intimidating sales person.

Rest with Alex Pang, Episode 1: Stephan Aarstol and the five-hour day at Tower Paddleboards

Digital Surfway

So the first episode of my podcast Rest with Alex Pang is now up: it’s an interview with Stephan Aarstol, the founder of pioneering stand-up paddleboard and beach lifestyle company Tower Paddleboards and author of the book The Five-Hour Workday.

Aarstol’s name has come up in a number of other interviews I’ve conduced with founders who have implemented shorter working hours at their companies, and so it made sense to start with him and the Tower Paddleboards story.

You can listen to the episode through the player below, or you can subscribe here (I recommend the latter). Either way, enjoy!

Happiness and LSE podcasts

rerum cognoscere causas

I’m a fan of podcasts. When I take the dogs out walking in the evening, I’ll often listen to a podcast, since the dogs generally have little to talk about. (In the mornings I’m often still focused on writing, and so I listen to music– not so much because I want to concentrate, but because I want to let my mind wander, and I can’t do that if I’m listening to a podcast.)

Recently I discovered the London School of Economics Public Lectures and Events podcast, and I’m really enjoying it. The audio quality is middling, but the intellectual quality is outstanding. It helps to be familiar with these kinds of events already: they’re not TED talk-level short and smooth, but if the frayed edges of academic conversation strike you as charming rather than irritating, you’ll learn a lot.

I particularly found this event about “the origins of happiness” to be really interesting. It’s a talk by Richard Layard, an LSE economic and the author of Thrive, Happiness, and coauthor of the new book The Origins of Happiness.

The event was to commemorate the publication of the new book The Origins of Happiness, which Princeton University Press is releasing in the US in a couple weeks. Here’s a description of the book:

What makes people happy? Why should governments care about people’s well-being? How would policy change if well-being was the main objective? The Origins of Happiness seeks to revolutionize how we think about human priorities and to promote public policy changes that are based on what really matters to people. Drawing on a uniquely comprehensive range of evidence from longitudinal data on over one hundred thousand individuals in Britain, the United States, Australia, and Germany, the authors consider the key factors that affect human well-being.

The authors explore factors such as income, education, employment, family conflict, health, childcare, and crime—and their findings are not what we might expect. Contrary to received wisdom, income inequality accounts for only two percent or less of the variance in happiness across the population; the critical factors affecting a person’s happiness are their relationships and their mental and physical health. More people are in misery due to mental illness than to poverty, unemployment, or physical illness. Examining how childhood influences happiness in adulthood, the authors show that academic performance is a less important predictor than emotional health and behavior, which is shaped tremendously by schools, individual teachers, and parents. For policymakers, the authors propose new forms of cost-effectiveness analysis that places well-being at center stage.

This resonates with me for a couple thanks to my work on companies that are implementing shorter working hours, for a couple reasons. First, I’ve been struck by how willing people are to trade income for greater control at work, and more free time. Working in a place that has a 5- or 6-hour day requires being able to focus and work harder than at a place where you are there for 8 or 10 hours, and it requires being able to work under conditions where you have a higher degree of autonomy and responsibility.

Second, it strikes me that if income inequality is less of a source of unhappiness than relationships and personal health, then as a matter of public or economic policy, giving people more time– which translates into more time for family and friends, and more time for yourself– could be the more important long-term aim. (This is not to say that inequality should be ignored or tolerated, but I suspect there are plenty of CEOs who’d have an easier time accepting shorter working hours for their company than higher taxes on themselves.)

Their new podcast on solitude versus loneliness is well worth listening to, too. But I need to add Layard’s work to my to-read list.

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