A 4 day work week IS possible, just don't ask the New York Times

On Sept 10th, the New York Times published a little quick-hit about the experiments various companies in various places are doing around shorter work days/week, called “In Britain, Calls for a 4-Day Week. Can It Be Done?

The answer you’d glean from the piece is, nah, it cannot, and even if it can, it won’t happen instantly.

Which, first, like… duh. Why do journalists (or, perhaps writers in general) feel like they’re making points when they say things like “well, of course medicare for all could happen, but it won’t happen right away.” People may be arguing that it should happen right away, and the barriers to either M4A or a 4 day work week are almost entirely related to the will to make it happen, and not any actual structural barriers, but ultimately that’s just journalistic filler.

I’ll also say here that the piece is ostensibly focused on Britain, but I’m talking about America. That being said, very very little of the piece is actually specific to Britain, and the experiments cited are worldwide.

The piece, which ultimately takes a pessimistic view because it doesn’t actually consider any of the questions raised very carefully, cites 4 experiments companies have made with shortened work hours, all of which have different and important details:

  • A six hour workday experiment in Sweden which focused on a retirement home, where employees worked 6 hour shifts rather than 8 hour ones (but with the same pay) and which came with a high price tag (given, you know, that a retirement home is the kind of place where you need full coverage of human persons, so they had to hire more people to make up the lost hours). It’s good to note that most people were much happier, and the 22% increase in labor costs was offset around 10% by people being off the unemployment roles and paying taxes into the system, not to mention that the org did see productivity gains and fewer sick days taken by staff. Yet, many political factions in Sweden oppose it purely for cost-reasons.

  • An experiment at a firm in New Zealand where the employees worked 4 days instead of 5 in a given week, and where employees got to choose their extra day off (or, opt for shorter hours on a 5 day week). It was a resounding success. It’s a firm that deals with trusts and estates, so very white-collar knowledge work. They’re considering making the change permanent because not only were employees way happier, they saw big increases in productivity. Meetings were shorter, people shopped online or surfed Twitter less. The experiment was so successful they’re looking to make it permanent.

  • Utah state government “cut down” to 4 days a week to deal with a budget crisis, but with a 4/10 model (you still work 40 hours, but only for 4 days a week). It was fine, with mixed results (though, shockingly, it still seems to be conservatives who have a gut-level distaste for the idea). I’ve done 4/10 before (some white collar jobs offer it, and many more certainly could) and it was definitely better from a personal point of view.

  • And finally Amazon, known paragon of labor virtue, had (has?) a narrow department of people making tech products within HR where the entire department, managers included, work 30 hours a week (at 75% pay), with benefits. A cursory Google search did not yield me any results for this experiment at all; I have an email out to Amazon PR.

There’s another section on other things other places are doing that are spottier and less directly connected to what we’re talking about here, so we’re skipping them.

As I read through some of these pieces on each experiment, there are some questions that come to mind, that surely must come to anyone’s mind as they evaluate the results:

  • How does a 4 day/reduced work hours week work for the knowledge economy (where mostly white-collar workers create projects and products but generally are salaried and have significant latitude with how to spend their day minute-by-minute) versus for jobs that require specific coverage (where often blue- or pink-collar workers have to be there to take care of things as they arise, regardless of how busy or slow it is, and where specific or total coverage of time is required).

  • How is success (or productivity) measured in this organization? In this department? Are you trying to squeeze more and more productive results out of each person? Or is quality more important than quantity; does response quality matter more than how many responses one actually had to make?

  • What are the substantive differences between different approaches? Does a 4/10 model have greater productivity than a 4/8 one?

  • Is there any good reason that 8 hours is our benchmark at all?

  • How do these results vary based on a universal day off (in the case of the Utah experiment, where the entire state government was closed for an extra day each week) versus staggered days off (as in the New Zealand one, where you can theoretically maintain coverage and have the same office/open hours, while different people have a different extra day off of their choosing)?

Comparing these 4 experiments is apples to oranges, so I suppose it’s fine that this came out as a quick hit and not something more substantive, but it’s still a bit disappointing. The overall lesson the reader is bid to take away is that these are all pipe dreams because politics, and that’s not a lesson I think anyone can really take away from all this in good faith.

The real question is: do you think there’s a better way? Most of our workplace norms, from the 9-5 Mon-Fri schedule to resume formatting to references to 2 weeks notice are done simply because they are done. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to any of it. We should be constantly examining things that ‘have always been done this way’ because that’s the low-hanging fruit of innovation, of improving the human experience. Conservatives (and capitalists generally) oppose these examinations purely because they inevitably lift workers up, which they have no reason to support and, often, plenty of reason to oppose. Why should a company be compelled, by law or market forces, to have a 4 day workweek that may cost them more money, just because people are happier and enjoy life more? I can practically hear the “bah humbugs” resounding across the offices executives across the world who watched A Christmas Carol with their families and had to pretend to see a problem with Scrooge’s conduct.

It may be harsh, but it’s true: ain’t nobody looking out for the workers but the workers. Amazon surely doesn’t have your back. The New York Times is perfectly happy to shrug off the “mixed benefits” of these approaches in the face of predictable political opposition.

If you’re an executive, an organizational leader, or just someone interested in making work better for people who have to do it all the time for our whole lives: don’t believe the headlines. There’s huge promise here. There’s very little reason for much of the economy to remain on a 9-5, Mon-Fri schedule other than that it will cost money to change it, but the tangible human benefits are immense, and are well-demonstrated. It’ll take work to figure out how to capture these benefits both for knowledge and service workers, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, or that it can’t be done.

… was it ever?

… was it ever?