The 4 Day Work Week
Because, you know, reality.
The verdict is in on the 4-day Week trial in the UK and the result is - an overwhelming thumbs-up!
I won’t repeat all the results, you can those out here. Instead, I’m going to ask if we should be surprised - and what does it mean for the future of work.
The 4-Day Week community gives some earth-shattering advice on how to reduce the work week by 20% without affecting productivity - ask your employees how to do it. It is a sad commentary that such banal advice and obvious common sense is seen as revolutionary but that’s where we management is today - still in the 19th century.
Anyway, what employees come up with is cutting out a lot of unnecessary process, pointless meetings and meaningless bureaucracy. They also sharpen up their personal productivity because, well, they get the benefit from being more efficient with their time.
If you’ve worked in any organisation of any size, you’ll know that identifying wasted time and effort is pretty easy and shaving off 20% really isn’t much of an ask. Even in smaller organisations, there are things that are done inefficiently because ‘we’ve always done it that way’ or people think that’s what the boss wants or it’s never really been anyone’s responsibility to improve it.
However, there’s another reason why we can and should cut 20% off of our week if we’re doing knowledge work - how we actually function as human beings.
What the science tells us is :
1. We have limited amounts of cognitive effort. Typically, we can do 3-4 hours of concentrated work a day, in periods of around 90 minutes. Beyond that, our cognitive capability declines sharply.
2. If we are interrupted whilst in deep work, it will take 20-30 minutes for us to get back to the point we were at before the interruption.
3. People are motivated when they can have autonomy over their work, can exercise mastery and have a clear purpose. (Dan Pink, Drive, 2009)
4. High trust environments reduce the need for bureaucracy and control, enabling greater performance at reduced cost.
5. Diversity of people and inputs leads to greater innovation, more creative problem solving and better decision making. It also avoids group think and monocultures, which reduce performance and can be fatal.
(From my blog “Follow the Science”)
So, giving people the autonomy to organise their work makes them more motivated and effective. The act of moving to a 4 Day Week creates a high-trust environment (well, it requires one, so you have to get there somehow), which means you can ditch a lot of costly bureaucracy. And people really only have a limited amount of cognitive effort to create value, so four days is plenty. Let’s face it, we’re all knackered by Friday and there’s a lot of padding that goes on (4 o’clock beers, anyone?).
So the success of the 4 Day Week shouldn’t really be a surprise, should it?
Knowing what we know, if we were designing work from a blank sheet of paper, we wouldn’t come up with a 5-day, 9-5, especially for knowledge workers. That’s a hang over from the days of the factory and only then because the trade unions got it reduced from 7 day a week. It’s really time to wave it goodbye.
"One in six employees in the study said no amount of money would convince them to return to five days a week”
There’s no ‘going back to normal’.
Stop Your Sobbing
One purpose of the trial was to silence the doomsayers, Jeremiahs and the permanently angry who said it could never work and would mean the end of civilisation as we know it (if Working from Home didn’t get there first).
It’s only been partially successful in that regard, as a few of them are still droning on and have just shifted their arguments.
One is that it’s only for small companies that don’t really matter and it won’t scale to a large organisation. So far, it hasn’t been adopted by any large organisations. (Well, apart from IBM Japan. So not any other ones. Yet.) Whilst I think it’s fair to question how this would work for larger organisations, it doesn’t invalidate it as a possible approach. It’s one a range of options that organisations can experiment with to come up with the right solution for them. Besides, if it proves to only be attractive for small organisations, it gives them a competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining talent; and provides some much-needed variety in the workplace generally.
Another is that it really needs to be proved over a much longer period of time, the trial is too short to prove anything. This is like Turkey-Lurkey saying “Ok, the sky hasn’t fallen in - YET!!!”. What a great argument for never doing anything differently. “Oh no, we haven’t got enough data yet” they’ll be saying as they slowly go out of business…
The final argument is that this is not possible for everyone and it will introduce a stratification of work patterns that is unfair to those who aren’t the ‘lucky knowledge workers’ who can enjoy a 4 Day Week. This is possibly the most absurd. I mean, have they actually looked around themselves lately? The workplace has a wide-range of work patterns already. There’s a world of difference between the options available to manual workers versus office workers, as there is between senior managers and operational staff. It also shows a sudden desire for egalitarianism that I suspect is generally absent from their worldview.
A period of silence would be welcome. I’m not holding my breath though…
Give It Up
Everyone has a reason for doing something, even if that it looks stupid to you.
This is a piece of hard-learnt wisdom I remind myself of frequently. You see, when I started my career I was painfully naive. I thought that everyone approached things as I did. I thought that everyone wanted the best for the business, would act logically, treat each other properly and do the right thing.
I said ‘painfully naive’, didn’t I? So you can guess how things worked out. I came to realise that people DIDN’T see the world as I did. I learnt that they often had their own agendas, that they operated out of self-interest, that they didn’t treat others well and they didn’t really give a stuff about doing the ‘right thing’.
Sometimes I got disappointed by this but more often I just got exasperated. What were these idiots up to? What planet are they on to think that’s a good thing to do? Why are they cutting off their nose off to spite their own face? Why are they so stupid???!!!
Gradually, I realised that they weren’t being stupid. At least, not in their own minds. They had a reason, even if wasn’t a good one. Even if they weren’t even conscious of it. The secret to dealing with them was to figure out what it was.
So it is with those who oppose the 4-day Week, or hybrid working, or self-organising, or any of the trends we see in the workplace that have been accelerated by the pandemic.
For some it’s transparently self-interest. The way things were back in 2019 was great for them and they want to go back to that. Are we surprised that office landlords and CRE brokers want everyone back in the office? It would be kind-of weird if they didn’t, wouldn’t it? Equally, the CEO likes an office full of people because it feeds his ego and reinforces his status. Of course he wants to go back to that.
For others, it’s external pressures that drive them, the system that they are in. The FD has to explain why the business is carrying all this costly office space and so he’s going to want to see it being used. The CEO is driven to maximise profits by exploiting the ‘assets’, in which he includes the people, so he wants to prove they are being ‘sweated’ (quite literally) by seeing them in the office. (There’s clearly a false logic here that presence in office = working but that either lazy thinking or the next reason).
And then there’s the unconscious drivers, which are mostly emotional. It could be fear of change, of failure, of losing status. It could be something deeper, from childhood or trauma. These are much more difficult to identify but arguably more powerful than the other two.
Often, it’s a combination of all three.
But however mystifying it looks to you, at some level it makes perfect sense to them, it satisfies some need they have, even if it’s one they won’t admit or are completely unaware of.
We make the mistake of believing we are rational beings that have emotions (or, in the case of ‘Homo Economicus’, rational, utility-maximising beings without any emotions, which is why Classical Economics is bollocks).
In fact, we’re emotional beings who have rationality. At times. If we use it.
People always act for a reason, and that reason is often emotional.
The justification that comes afterwards is an attempt to hide it with rationality so it doesn’t look so stupid to others. Because none of us want to look a fool or a prisoner to our emotions.
And right on cue, I come across a Time article ‘No More Mr Nice Boss: Flexible Employers Were a Pandemic Blip’. (I was just about to put this issue to bed when I read it but felt I just had include it).
It catalogues a rather depressing retrenchment by US companies, especially in Tech, as they now believe they have the upper hand once more. They are clawing back the changes they made during the pandemic by insisting people are in the office, withdrawing well-being initiatives, going back to long hours cultures and closing down DEI and other ‘non-essential’ programmes.
Why are they doing this when all the evidence shows these measures are beneficial to employees AND the organisation? It doesn’t make sense, does it?
Even their basic premise is wrong. There is no sign that the US labour market is going to stop tightening and recruitment of talent will continue to be a major challenge in the face of long-term labour shortages.
So what’s driving it? Some is systemic, the demands of the US quarterly reporting and pressure from activist investors (well, stockholders, because they’re really gamblers, not investors). However, the denial of reality must be driven by emotion.
As a result, they are doing long-term damage to their businesses (because now it’s clear what they really think about employees, DEI and wellbeing, so good luck with keeping and recruiting top talent). I think these companies are signing their own death warrants. It may be a slow decline but they are set on a path to oblivion.
Here’s a comment of one employee who left as a result of these clawbacks.
‘Still, she feels like her old company missed an opportunity to be a better place to work. She likens it to the end of World War II, when all the women who had been welcomed into the factory were sent home to be in the kitchen again. “It kind of felt like, ‘ok, now we can go back to something that was easier for the people in charge, and for managers,’” she says.’
Actually, it’s exactly like the end of World War II, During the war, W. Edwards Deming introduced what we now consider progressive working practices that not only accommodated the newly-recruited female workforce but actually improved productivity. Then all the men came back from the war and insisted on returning to the command-and-control approach they had used in the army. So Deming went off to Japan and taught his approach there (which became the ‘Toyota Way’), and three decades later the Japanese came to the US and ate their lunch.
I don’t think it will take 30 years for these chickens to come home to roost. I give it 5, max.
Want to find out more about Decrapify Work and what it means?
You’re in luck! I’m going to run a webinar on March 8th to explain what it means, how you can take action to Decrapify Work and what the future might look like in a decrapified workplace. There’ll be a chance for you to ask questions and get involved in a discussion about it.
I’m offering it to you first, my dear readers. I’m thinking of doing it more than once, so there will be a choice of times for you. Please register your interest by completing this short form and indicate what time of day you would prefer. If you are interested but can’t make that date, you can indicate that and I’ll let you know when I am running it again.
This is an experiment and I’m open to seeing where it goes. I have a few ideas of how I’d like to develop a conversation and provide you with support so you can take action to Decrapify Work but I’d like it to be driven by what you want. I am working on a follow-up course but there are other paths we could explore together. Let’s see what emerges, eh?
If you are interested, sign up here!