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Written by Technically Media CEO Chris Wink, Technical.ly’s Culture Builder newsletter features tips on growing powerful teams and dynamic workplaces. Below is the latest edition we published. Sign up here to get the next one this Friday.
In 1900 the average American work-week was nearly 60 hours — commonly six 10-hour days. By 1940, the 40-hour workweek became widespread, aided by unions and post-war labor shortages.
The change was so fast-paced that many expected it to continue. In 1930, legendary economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in his landmark paper “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren” that a 15-hour workweek would be commonplace. I don’t need to tell you that — setting aside the four-hour work week bluster — this has not happened.
Is now the time to change that?
The first half of the 20th century was a period of remarkable economic growth for the United States — despite average hours worked per person declining. The American worker got a better deal, including meaningful gains for Black Americans and women, and output surged.
Amid a period of excessive burnout and stress, proponents of a four-day work week are saying it can happen again.
Most point to a trial in Iceland that showed output remained steady or grew for many professionals who worked fewer, more productive hours. Others are happening in Spain and New Zealand. There’s a bill in the U.S. Congress arguing for a 32-hour workweek standard. A nonprofit was formed to put that at the center of its mission of better working conditions. Notably Kickstarter, a tech platform company that eschewed major growth for progressive charm, has embraced it.
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The point for many is that the reduction of hours is a boon to creativity and output. As investor and former Angellist CEO Naval Ravikant has put it: Work like a lion, not like a cow, with brief sprints and rests, rather than long periods of munching.
Still, there’s a natural contrast between this movement and ones in surging Asian economies. We look nervously at the 996 work schedule in China, in which professionals still work 9am to 9pm 6 days a week, and the brutal work culture in innovative places like South Korea. The resistant fear, then, is that the four-day workweek is the final grand gesture of a dying great power, a short-term perk that will leave our grandchildren in a less competitive and dynamic economic position.
More interesting still may be myriad smaller-scale examples among tech firms.
Fifth Tribe, a small digital agency in Washington D.C., ran a summertime pilot last year that included a need to be responsive to clients on Fridays. Philly-founded software product firm Wildbit trialed a version a few years back, ensuring that employees blocked “deep work” time on their calendars to improve productivity that made up for the reduction in work time. The CEO of a Baltimore-based fintech startup told me this week about their short-lived experiment, too.
In each of these examples, the CEOs were quite interested in making it work, and in Wildbit’s case, it still does. For the others, one obvious roadblock seems most common: When the rest of the world operates a five-day workweek, it’s difficult to maintain sterling customer service when you aren’t there. This sort of experiment has to happen at a national or global level to be truly effective.
There’s another reason why the counterintuitive notion that working less could result in more output. Call it the high-income earner’s trap, one assessment of why Keynes’s famous prediction of the 15-hour workweek went so wrong. If you earn $10 an hour, taking a day off to sit on the beach feels easily worth it if you can. In contrast, if you earn $500 an hour, you might be more likely to question the payoff of sitting on the sand. It also follows that the kind of person and the kind of work environment that allows you to be paid $500 an hour predetermines that you’re less likely to take the extra time off.
Until lesser capitalized companies invest in company culture, many workplace trends today are led by highly profitable and fast-growth startups that are in a similar position: “We’ll buy you all the workplace treats you want but giving back your time will surely hurt our revenue projects, right?” The more valuable the company with the more expensive staff, the harder it may be to imagine that lost staff time. Look at the early resistance from the finance industry.
We at Technical.ly are trotting out our own mini pilot this month. It started first as an effort to encourage more PTO use, and the result is we will mostly operate four-day workweeks for the month of August. That gives us both another chance to recuperate from pandemic stress and to get our first small insight into changing our work environment.
We have reservations: Can a business news organization really drop a workday? Do we risk conveying to our clients that we aren’t there for them during their operating hours? Our newsroom has opted to maintain at least one editor each Friday in case major news breaks, and we believe we can benefit our clients by learning and leading, but the questions remain. We’re far from this as a standard but I’m betting for the trend. We’ll report back.
Another CEO I spoke to about changing work hours made another push to me recently. Though the average hours worked between 1940 and 2020 changed little compared to the period before it, the quality of those hours have changed. Excluding “bullshit jobs,” tools have made professionals more productive and the importance of company culture to attract and retain talent means that organizations must treat their employees better to survive. That’s an entirely new kind of value created.
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What else we’re reading
- Should White People Do DEI Work?
- Paid leave proves critical for talent retention
- Glitchy internet hurts 1 in 5 workers: report
- 10M Americans may become freelancers amid the Great Resignation
- Did WFH Hurt the Video Game Industry?
- Ninety-one percent of HR executives reported this year was their hardest at work to date — “Managers cite mental health issues as the No. 1 impact of the past year”
- Working Parents, Do You Have a Plan for Childcare Emergencies?
Company culture stories we’ve published lately
- All hail August Fridays, aka why Technical.ly is publishing less this month
- Don’t say goodbye to office life just yet: Here’s how to keep employees engaged through an IRL return
- Take a hard look at equity in your hiring practices on Black Women’s Equal Pay Day
- Take a look inside Rockwell Park, an IRL hub for Pittsburgh entrepreneurs and corporates alike
- Why are employee resource groups good for business? Here are 9 reasons
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