Working Shorter – Alex Pang & Freedom Matters
We welcome Alex Pang, advocate of the 4-day workweek.
Alex Pang has spent two decades studying people, technology, and the worlds they make. A Silicon Valley-based futurist and consultant, he is also the best-selling author of Shorter: Work better, Smarter and Shorter, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, and The Distraction Addiction.
A growing number of businesses are shortening their working week to address problems with low productivity, poor mental health, and unequal working opportunities. Workers are still paid the same salary for a four-day week and the results are revolutionary.
Alex runs a consultancy company, Strategy.Rest, where he has worked with governments and Fortune 500 companies; spoken at venues ranging from CIA headquarters to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to the Googleplex, and held academic positions at Stanford and Oxford universities
In this episode we discuss:
- Why companies are moving to a ‘shorter’ week
- How working less increases creativity, productivity and reduces burn-out
- What culture changes are needed to move to a 4DWW
- How a shorter working week fits with the future of work
You can find Alex on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.
This episode is part of our new mini-series on the Future of Work. Listen to episodes with Chase Warrington, Rebecca Seal, and Shamsi Iqbal to hear more.
Host and Producer: Georgie Powell Sentient Digital
Music and audio production: Toccare Philip Amalong
Alex: In companies that work four day weeks, the objective no longer is to put in the maximum work in the maximum hours, but to do the same stuff in four days now. And what becomes the measure of success and professional competence, professionalism and dedication is, are you able to do that? Are you good enough at your job, thoughtful enough about how you work, skilled enough in your ability to collaborate with other people, to cooperate so that you can help this happen for everybody?
Georgie: Welcome to Freedom Matters where we explore the intersection of technology, productivity, and digital well-being. I’m your host, Georgie Powell. And each episode, we’ll be talking to experts in productivity and digital wellness. We’ll be sharing their experiences on how to take back control of technology. We hope you leave feeling inspired, so let’s get to it.
This week, I’m in conversation with Alex Pang. Alex is the author of the books Shorter, Rest, and The Distraction Addiction. [inaudible 00:01:08] and articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, the South China Morning Post, and others. He has devoted to helping companies and individuals harness the power of rest to shorten our work days, while staying focused and productive.
And in his most recent book, Shorter, Alex studies how a four day workweek can make teams more creative, happier, less likely to burn out, all whilst increasing productivity.
Today, we’ll be discussing the findings on picking what culture changes need to happen to move to a shorter working week, why moms are great to hire, and how a four day workweek works in a post-pandemic world. Alex, welcome to the Freedom Matters podcast. It’s a real privilege to have you on the show today. Thank you for joining us.
Alex: Oh, thanks very much, Georgie. It’s good to be with you.
Georgie: Amazing. So, I really enjoyed reading your latest book, Shorter. I know it came out a while ago now, but I really enjoyed reading it recently. And the first thing that I wanted to talk to you about was how, as a futurist, you talk about a global movement that you see rising based on lots of independent examples occurring across the world in very different contexts.
And you started to observe this movement of companies moving to a shorter workweek. Can you tell me why is it that these very discrete entities are all moving towards this trend of working shorter workweeks?
Alex: They’re facing both a common set of challenges. And technology enables a shift in the way that they work that allows them to be as productive in four days as they conventionally have been in five. With incredibly few exceptions, the founders who lead their companies to sort of the four day weeks are not doing this out of a desire to rethink the nature of temporality in an era of liquid capitalism, or doing so for some other abstract reason.
They are solving incredibly important, everyday problems in their businesses. They’ve got challenges with retention of key people, they are fighting to recruit folks. Often, it’s the case that founders themselves are looking at the prospect of having to either make a change or burnout.
And if you are the head chef at a restaurant that you own, for example, that is an existential threat to the company, right? If you depart, then the whole thing falls apart. Or they may have a desire to spend more time with their families.
And they’re thinking that not only do I want to live differently, but having spent 10 or 15 years in this industry, I’ve learned enough about what goes badly, and the stupid stuff that we all do, that I now have enough experience so that I can do it better.
And then there’s also concern for sort of work life balance or career sustainability among their employees. It’s something that is not necessarily quite the immediate threat. But it’s something that kind of erodes the quality of business or the quality of products every day.
And whether you are in professional services, or you are a restaurant or a pest control company or a nursing home, it turns out that there are a combination of tools that you can use to make processes more efficient to encourage people to collaborate better. And that together with a vision of how we can all work better in order to reclaim time is something that companies around the world have grasped.
So, when I started working on this a couple years ago, it really did feel like a movement that was only just beginning, right. It was a couple 100 entrepreneurs who had all had this epiphany separately. And part of the purpose of writing Shorter was to show that there were these common threads, these common challenges and solutions.
Since then, I think that not only has the movement people picked up steam, despite all of the disruptions that businesses have had in the last two years with COVID, it has encouraged companies to rethink how they work, to show that it’s possible to reinvent themselves with remarkable speed, and has given them a familiarity with things like remote work and collaboration tools that also enable a shift from five day weeks to four day weeks at a time when they and their employees really need more flexibility and more free time.
Georgie: I found it very interesting that you found so many examples in Japan and Korea, two reasons. One is because I feel like in this space, certainly in the digital wellness space, but also thinking about work and technologies, it’s so US-focused for me. It’s nice to have a few people speaking about what’s happening in the UK. But we very rarely have a global perspective, and I found that really, really fascinating.
From your perspective, were they particularly stand out in cultures, which are perhaps even more driven to work than the US?
Alex: The US tries very hard to be second to none [inaudible 00:06:04] overwork. It is certainly notable that Japan and Korea are two countries that have each invented their own words for working yourself to death, which is a pretty clear indication of how serious this problem is.
My take is that national culture is less an impediment than professional culture. That sort of at least when you talk to founders and you talk to people working in companies, it’s very rarely the case that you see a kind of generic invocation of national work standards. It’s really about their particular experiences in the software industry or the restaurant industry.
I think the other thing that decreases the importance of national culture is that I’m talking about a bunch of people who have fairly global experiences, right? I’ve got restaurateurs who were born in Denmark, trained in the US, work in Japan, and then come back and open restaurants in their hometowns. That’s not at all unusual. And I think these are professions that do have a genuinely global dimension to them.
But I think it is really important to note that this is a movement that’s not confined to countries that have well-run social democracies with efficient comprehensive welfare states. You certainly see the four-day week in countries like Sweden, Denmark, Iceland’s entire public sector now works a shorter workweek. But it’s not just those countries that do it.
And the fact that this is something that can take off pretty much anywhere, is I think, one of the really important lessons of the book.
Georgie: And one thing you kind of need to see a global movement and global change, which is really interesting.
And you talk instead of it being countries that connect these companies they are instead, they’re all relatively small, they are founder-led still primarily, and they have naturally disruptive brands, which encouraged them to think in this design-led thinking approach, we can change up our product process, but we can change our culture internally as well.
Alex: When you are a charismatic founder, you can go into a meeting with your 15 people and say, we’re going to move to a four day week in three months, and here’s how we’re going to make it happen. We’re going to figure this out. And that’s a lot harder to do when you’re talking about a company with thousands of people, though, even those places are beginning to experiment with this as well.
Georgie: So, then how can we apply the four day workweek to corporates? Having worked for companies like Google, it seems to me to be much harder to remove the rubble required to reach a shorter week. I asked Alex what needed to happen.
Alex: This points to the things that companies do in order to make a four day week of success. Lots of studies tell us that cumulatively most people of knowledge intensive companies will lose maybe two or three hours of productive time per day, to meetings, multitasking, or to have excessive processes, self-distraction, etc.
So, if you can get a handle on that stuff, it turns out that the four day week is actually already here. It’s just buried underneath all of that. The challenge then becomes if you are at an organization in which it is actually really difficult to eliminate the biggest of those pieces of rubble. A couple of the companies that I look at, including some very successful ones, were founded by ex-Google people who, among other things, wanted to make the legendary 20% time, whatever you have at Google, a real thing.
And from day one, they implemented in their weekly schedules, essentially time for what they call it at one company, free Fridays, where you can come into the office or not. You can work on stuff that you want to work on that is not related to your particular project. You can practice building something, an Arduino or play around with some new technology or learn some programming language. Or you can spend the time with your kids or work in the garden, and it’s entirely up to you.
That is both a way of attracting people who very easily could go back to Google or Apple or Facebook, but who may be at this point in their careers, recognize that having a little more time to themselves is actually a trade off, they are very happy to make.
I think that we are beginning to see examples from larger companies of how you can start to do some of the things to move to a four day week, and reclaim some of your time for people. Even if it doesn’t mean that everyone can then leave it three or leave on Thursday afternoon and have a three day weekend.
There’s an additional layer of challenges, but they are by no means insurmountable. And I think really, when you come down to it, a four day week is no more difficult than any of the other big pivots that companies have to do. The bigger blocks have to do with mindset and with business model than they have to do with technology or process or anything of that sort. And the gains are well worth it.
Georgie: Yeah. You talk about this quite a lot in the book, how people who are in their sort of mid to late 30s, 40s, this is a fantastic model for them. Because a lot of us parents, we want more time back, and we want to be productive when we’re at work, and we want to go home and be with our families and play.
But you also make the point that it’s harder when you’re starting out. So, how do you do that? How do you run a company shorter, which has a mix of age groups that have different life experience and work experience and make it work for everyone?
Alex: I think it is probably more challenging, but again, it’s not at all impossible. And there is space between everybody working a four day week from day one, versus a world in which you bring in young associates fresh out of business school and you expect them to work 100 hour weeks for you.
What I could envision in some larger enterprises is a return to a kind of older model of the way that careers used to work, which is that you put in longer hours early in your career so that you could explicitly work fewer hours later on. And I ask people who have led their companies to four day weeks looking back on it, what do you think of those hours you used to work when you were younger, was that really a necessity?
And almost all of them still say, actually, you know, it kind of was that if you are a young sous chef that is brutal, working 10-12 hour days for three weeks in a row with no break. That is really tough. And it’s not something that you can sustain. But you do acquire a kind of muscle memory for how to operate in a kitchen that serves you really, really well later on in life. There are versions of that, that I hear in just about every other industry.
I think that the challenge is that we now, so many of us, are in industry models where that first year is now the ideal, right, that you should be able to continue working that way indefinitely. Rather than acknowledging that one of the things you’re supposed to get better at is managing your time in a way so that you don’t have to sleep under your desk. Because you know how to do this work faster, and you’re not professionally stupid in the way that you were when you were really young.
However, I think you can also make a case, at least in some industries, that there is plenty that you can learn in four well-organized days, that make up for whatever theoretical loss you have not being in the office for a fifth day or not working long hours.
The same people who say there is some value to those long hours when you’re young also will say after 12 hours at the keyboard, you’re just randomly typing stuff. And you have no capacity to solve this problem that you’ll be able to solve in 10 minutes if you go home and get some sleep.
Now I think this question of intensity feels to me like something that one can dive into in a couple different ways. Companies who move to four day weeks often explicitly trade hours of work for intensity of work.
By which I mean they will set aside periods of the day or periods of the week, where everyone has permission to work on their most important, most mission critical stuff. You don’t have to answer the phone, you can turn off the Slack channel, and you can really just dive in for three or four hours on this thing and really make some progress.
The assumption is that in two or four really focused hours, you can get more done than you could in 12 semi-distracted hours. One of the things that this suggests is that for new hires, or for early career people, the experience of that kind of intensity is one that potentially could make up for intensity of endurance; being in the office for 12 hours because you’re not working all 12 of those hours.
You could design career paths in which people are consciously exposed to different kinds of intensity in order to learn different kinds of things. And to acquire the degree of both, I think resilience and realism that people need in order to make good choices about their careers.
Georgie: Let’s just come back a bit more to parents again, because you hold them up as basically they, if in doubt, hire a mum, which I of course love. So, let’s talk a little bit more about that. Why are you making that observation?
Alex: Like a lot of what I talked about in the book, this is something that I learned from the people I talked to. And we were talking about who gets hired in their companies and who is it who applies. One of the things that you see when companies move to four day weeks is they tend to get more skilled people or people with more experience, and they have sort of in their applicant pool than they had previously. And this is true, whether you are a nursing home or a software startup.
And one founder told me that I used to hire people who I knew could sleep under their desks. And as we’ve moved to a four day week, I’ve realized that what I need is someone with enough experience and confidence to know what’s wrong in their industry and to fix it. Someone who has really good time management skills, who has a degree of ruthlessness about their time, who respects their time and others, and who has really good organizational skills.
And who is it who has that combination of professional experience, or have a desire to change, an ability to grow and an ability to manage their time, but are focused on one thing, and then when they’re finish it and drop it and move right on to the next one, and then get out of here on Thursday afternoon.
Who has that and who’s going to appreciate it? It’s working moms who statistically struggle much more than married men or dads in being assigned to projects of equivalent interest when they’re mothers of young children and when they are single, who really struggle to come back into the workforce, if they leave for a period, and to come back at the same level that when they had left.
And so what I see is that for working parents, in the conventional labor markets, being a mother is something that you get charged a penalty for. Whereas in companies that work four day weeks, motherhood become something for which you can charge a premium. You need people who take work seriously and want to do a good job at it, but who no longer reflexively accept the idea that means sacrificing everything else.
And the people who are most likely to be able to do that are working parents, particularly working mothers, but fathers as well. But the biggest gains to be made when you’re hiring people are in moms, mainly because of the dysfunction of current workplaces.
Georgie: Yeah. I mean, I know so many of my peers who returned to work after having children working four days a week on an 80% salary, still doing exactly the same job description in a company which is not working four days a week. And so they have to deal with the inefficiency of a five day week company. And they just take a massive penalty for it.
Alex: Right. This is an illustration of one of the advantages of having everybody moving to a four day week versus having flexible schedules where people have the option of moving to a shorter workweek with a prorated salary. I do hear a few stories of managers saying, well we could move to a four day week for everyone. But I know I’ve got moms working four days a week who are doing just as much work, so why would I want to pay them more?
The other thing, though, is that when you’re in, let’s say, the only person in your department who is working four days a week, then the burden is on you to demonstrate that you are still as dedicated as you were when you’re working five days.
And you end up basically feeling like you are doing extra work in order to not inconvenience the system and to stay visible to your boss and your colleagues. So that people do not always ask the question, “Well, why does she get to leave at three? You know, we’re still slaving away.” Or, “Is she really that dedicated?”
When everyone moves to a four day weekend contrast, you don’t have that kind of zero-sum game calculation. You don’t have concerns about whether time at the office is a measure of your productivity or your commitment, because everybody is doing it because everybody has to cooperate in order to make it work.
And so the calculus when you move from flexible work as an option to a four day week, as a company wide thing, it really is transformative in the way that it affects organizational priorities, and the way that it affects how people think about how time savings signals professionalism, dedication, and commitment to the job.
Georgie: And we know that more rest, inspiration from other areas in our life makes us do our work better. So, you’re actually bring your best self to work, and that’s something to respect.
Alex: Yes. And once companies begin to see the results and see the evidence that they actually can be as productive in four days as they are in five; whether it’s meeting deadlines, whether it is calls per hour, and number of contracts signed per day, as I’m thinking of a call center in Glasgow that moved to a four day week, they saw significant improvements in productivity on the four day week. In part because people worked better together, but they also came in simply more rested and ready to go than they did when they were working five day weeks or longer.
Georgie: So, you wrote Shorter, then the pandemic hit, and now we’re looking at a work environment, which is in many cases still remote or at least hybrid, and hopefully, more of us going shorter too. So, how does the remote angle come in?
Alex: I think what matters less is remote work, then whether people are on similar schedules, or whether organizations adopt a kind of ‘choose your own adventure when it comes to designing days’. I do think that remote work does open up possibilities for working more intelligently throughout the day that, for me, are really exciting.
Because one of the things that you see really creative people doing when they have the flexibility to design their days, the way that they want is they tend to work really intensively for a few hours, at the time of day when they have the highest levels of energy and greatest capacity to focus.
For most of us that means fairly early in the morning, often during times when previously we were fighting traffic, right? Most of us have peak energy between let’s say 07:30, or eight and about 11:00 or 12:00.
I think one of the most important opportunities we have as we shift to remote work is to be more explicit about how we design our work time and our work days so that we can match up our best work to the times when we’re best able to accomplish it.
I think also, though, that there are clear advantages to groups of people working in this way on coordinated schedules. Partly as a way of avoiding the kinds of interferences that come from interruptions when you’re trying to do deep work. But also because humans have an amazing capacity to respond to that sort of synchrony. There are both practical and psychological reasons for embracing that kind of common synchronized use of time even when people are working remotely.
The persistence of remote work is going to do two things that I think are good. One of them is keep alive the conversation about the place that work ought to have in our daily lives. And second, enable more experimentation in how we actually organize our days.
So, I think that the four day week, for the foreseeable future will be one of a number of options that companies take on. Sometimes in combination with hybrid or flexible work companies will recognize as viable alternatives to having offices where the snacks are always available, the lights never go out, and nobody ever leaves.
Georgie: Yeah, yeah. It seems quite archaic already.
Moving forward, what are you looking into now? What are the other trends that you’re really finding quite interesting?
Alex: I’ve continued watching companies move to four day weeks. This is a movement that continues to build steam. I am interested in how it’s continuing to move into other industries. So, I’m starting to see law firms doing it, which is awesome, because this is an industry that lives or dies by the billable hour. So, you would think that any move to a four day week is like completely impossible for them. But it turns out it’s not.
Georgie: How are they navigating that when it is a billable hour?
Alex: They’re doing two things. The less popular option is moving from billable hours to project-based billing. The other way that these companies do it is through a combination of eliminating or making radically more efficient the time that you spend doing non-billable stuff; and then organizationally forcing a lot more attention on the work that really matters.
Again, it’s less time in meetings, it is more investment in tools that allow people to offload parts of the work that are more repetitive, that are less interesting. And taking that time and allowing them to partly spend it with clients when they’re working in the office, but also then to leave and to go home and to have more time with their families.
The other thing that happens here is that because you see a decline in undesired departures, basically, they’re people you don’t want to lose, right. And so you distinguish between the people who you kick out, and the people who leave who you actually want to keep. Departures in the second category can go down pretty substantially. And when that person is the key person who works with this client who’s paying you $3 million a year, that’s actually a pretty significant thing.
There’s YLaw, that’s a British Columbia family law firm, and I think their billable hours went up something like 10%, in the first three months after they moved to a four day week. Which is completely counterintuitive, but it turns out, there’s enough rubble in our work days so that when you clear that away, you get a whole bunch of space to do the stuff that really matters.
I’ve also begun to pay attention to the movement in moving into schools to K through 12. But also, in the medical schools very interestingly, which are the places that have, again conventionally assumed that putting in incredibly long hours as a student is simply part of the job. This is how you become a good doctor. But which are beginning to deal with cases of professional burnout in medical school, and which again, are seeing alarmingly high levels of undesired departures, and are looking for ways to try and figure this out.
Georgie: The other question that is quite important in this is basically how you measure productivity. The crux of this is that really is the problem, right? You need to completely switch how you think about whether or not your company is being productive.
Alex: Yeah. I think the practical answer for companies doing this is they almost all use whatever measures they had previously. So, if it is meeting customer deadlines on big projects, if they have daily goals, as you do in a call center, if it’s measured by accident rates, slips and falls, abrasions, etc., as in nursing homes, you keep those same standards. Because for one thing, you’ve got enough other stuff going on when you’re moving to a four day week, so that you don’t need to invent new metrics for success.
I think that moving to a four day week does not raise profoundly new ideas about productivity, other than to encourage people to decouple their ideas about the relationship between working time and output.
I think for lots of us today, we struggle with the fact that we work in places where we don’t put our plows down at sunset, there’s no factory whistle that goes off, and there’s always more work that we could be doing, a little more quality we could be adding to this project.
And so working hours become a proxy for both productivity and kind of level of professional commitments, how much we think of it as a calling whether we are more promotable than the person next to us.
In companies that work four day weeks, the objective no longer is to put in the maximum work in the maximum hours, but to do the same stuff in four days now. And what becomes the measure of success and professional competence, professionalism and dedication is, are you able to do that? Are you good enough at your job, thoughtful enough about how you work, skilled enough in your ability to collaborate with other people, to cooperate so that you can help this happen for everybody?
For those of us who have grown up in a world that assumes that because we are always on and always accessible, we should be always on and always accessible. And in a world in which all of our models of success are people who sleep four hours a night, the idea that our measure of professional competence and development, and over the long run, the goal that we should have is to be able to do this work in less time so that we can have better lives. That’s a pretty radical shift.
So, I would say for companies who are thinking about this, think about how you define success right now and just stick with that, and the transformation will come.
Georgie: But it’s funny because, to your point, once you talk about work as part of your life as a whole, and you really see it and you start living it, you can’t go back.
Alex: Yeah, I agree completely. And once people recognize that living life is actually a good thing, it’s hard to convince them to stop doing that.
Georgie: Yeah. But also, I was thinking about the parent thing. With an aging population, actually, lots of us, even who don’t have children, will increasingly have the demands of having to care for all the generations as well. And wouldn’t it be nice if actually, we had the time to do that?
Alex: Absolutely. When I was writing Rest, one of the things that struck me was how many of the people I wrote about published their last works in their 80s, or 90s. And I think that learning to work in this way is not just a key to having a better life. It’s a key to having, arguably, a longer productive life.
And productive, not in a way that sort of allows you to serve the machine of capitalism more faithfully throughout your years. But if you are someone who draws satisfaction from being able to work well, this is something that’s going to make you happier for more of your life.
And I think that the world in which we are all getting older, having an alternative to the idea that success is something that happens by the time we’re 28. Instead we can continue to do interesting work for our entire lives. That’s a model that I think more and more people are going to find increasingly compelling, and that companies will recognize as something that they need to embrace if they want to hire human beings.
Georgie: Alex, thank you so much for joining us today on Freedom Matters. You’ve been a fantastic guest.
Alex: Thank you, George. It’s been a real pleasure. So, appreciate your time.
Georgie: Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. And until next time, we wish you happy, healthy, and productive days.