The 4-day work week: Necessity or luxury? Davos 2022 – World Economic Forum

Research indicates that moving to a four-day working week can increase productivity, reduce overheads, boost well-being and attract and retain talent, as well as spurring job creation.

Has the 40-hour working week had its day?

Speakers:
Adam Grant, Saul P. Steinberg Professor of Management and Psychology, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Ohood Bint Khalfan Al Roumi, Minister of State for Government Development and the Future, United Arab Emirates Government

Jonas Prising, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, ManpowerGroup Inc.
Hilary Cottam, Social Entrepreneur, Centre for the Fifth Social Revolution
Anne-Marie Slaughter, Chief Executive Officer, New America
Adam Grant: Welcome, everyone. I am thrilled to welcome you all to the four-day work week discussion, which I’m very glad we’re having on a Wednesday instead of a Friday, because then maybe no one would have shown up. I’m Adam Grant, I’m an organisational psychologist and author and I’ve been fascinated by this question of why do we work the amount that we do for a long time? I study work for a living, but I don’t think it should necessarily define us. And it was about a century ago that Henry Ford, not exactly known for his enlightened views on management and taking care of humans, reduced the workweek from six days to five because he found that people were more productive – morale went up, there was more loyalty, there was lower turnover. And he said it was good for business. And then we could start to wonder, well, why are we now stuck on five days? Was that ordained from on high, or is this, in fact, a human invention that deserves to be rethought?
A lot of organizations around the world are rethinking the work week right now. You’ve seen the trials by the Icelandic government, by Microsoft, Japan. There’s a New Zealand insurance company that’s been doing it for years, and the data are really encouraging so far. It’s still early, but for the most part performance has either gone up or stayed the same and people end up having more time to live their lives. And if there is a silver lining of COVID, it has to be that we rethink our priorities, right? That we may decide we don’t want our jobs to be the centre of our lives, and we want to plan, work around life as opposed to vice versa, which too many of us, particularly in the West, have done for too long.
So the purpose of the panel today is to talk about, is the four day week actually viable? If so, what should it look like and how do we make it happen? Because I have met some people in Davos who do not think we should even work as few as six days. So I think we have we have some minds to change. Let me start with social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam. Hilary, can you give us some history and walk us through how did we get to five days a week and where should we be going?
Hilary Cottam: OK. So let me say, to start off the question was ‘necessity or luxury’? And I think that this is a complete necessity for environmental reasons, for human well-being, flourishing reasons, and also for economic reasons. And I think what’s really interesting is that when you ask me about history is that we think time is immutable. But if we look at the history of work, it changes.
So we used to live by prayer time – some societies still do. Then we move to agrarian time. A lot of us in the West still have school timetables that are stuck on that old fashioned agrarian time, which is really problematic. Then we move to industrial time, which you’ve referenced, which was really complicated. I mean, the reason that we have, you know, in Western Europe and maybe in the US, kind of big clocks in our town squares is because the biggest problem industrial leaders had was getting people to work on time because working to a clock was such a kind of alien idea. And now of course you’ve internalised the clock.
But in, you know, when industrial time started, people thought that there would be radical experiments. And one of the most interesting is Kellogg’s in the 1930s. And what happened in the 1930s in Kellogg’s is that Kellogg – it was one of the biggest factories, the breakfast cereals – he offered his workers six-hour shifts from eight-hours for exactly the same pay. And what happened was that people flocked to Kellogg – journalists, the Hoover administrators, social scientists, there are amazing household studies of what happened – because everybody thought industrialisation would lead to less work. Of course, you know, Keynes was writing about how his grandchildren would have 15-hour days.
And so what’s really interesting is that at Kellogg’s, productivity went up dramatically, accidents went down, the economics of the company really changed and people’s lives improved. And when the household studies people went, people said that they had “more life”, that what was amazing was that they could fit in taking care of people. They had time to make things. They made their own culture. They ran their own sports teams. Things fitted into their lives. And what we know now, in fact, is that wasn’t the kind of experiment that stuck. It’s very interesting why not, which we probably don’t have time for.
Four days is a […] male solution to this problem, because it doesn’t think about care. Care of our children or our parents or just being with friends doesn’t happen in four days, it happens around the day.
But, you know, even before the pandemic, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) said that work was killing us. And for the last two years, I’ve been running workshops with workers in post-industrial places. And what they ask for is not a four-day week. What they ask for is a rethinking of the linear life with less work. So I think it’s a necessity, but it doesn’t go far enough because four days is a kind of, may I say it, male solution to this problem, because basically it doesn’t think about care because, as we all know, care of our children or our parents or just being with friends doesn’t happen in four days, it happens around the day. So what we actually need to do is rethink the boundaries of time between work and care, between learning – rethinking the linear life, of course, doesn’t mean just the work/study in blocks – and maybe we need some new boundaries so that we do have time to play and to be, and so on. So a four-day working week, a necessity, a start. But I think not the picture.

Adam Grant: I think we could get on board with that. I do want to just to be really clear, now, how many days do you think we should be working? Total, though. Are you advocating for a two-day week, a one-day week? How much work do you think is ideal?
Hilary Cottam: Well, that’s a really difficult question, but I think a starting point would be that we work the equivalent of four days over seven. So we’re not talking about adding more hours. We’re talking about having more time to be. And I mean, one of the things that we should talk about is the climate agenda, because there is very good research that shows that if we work less, we don’t travel so much and we make less intensive consumer choices because we’re not time-poor. And we all know that wealthy people are those who are using more carbon, and so then we’re not using so much more carbon.
But I don’t know. People want to work different amounts. What we need is to regulate a floor. And then people some people love their work and they might want to do more. But for most people in the world, work is pretty backbreaking. And so we need to think about that starting point.
Adam Grant: Excellent. So I’m going to go down the line for the first round of questions and then we’ll mix it up. Jonas Prising, you run Manpower Group. You’ve been piloting a lot of different ways to, if not shorten the workweek, at least give people a little more flexible opportunity. Tell us about that.
Workers in general desire more flexibility so they have more choice. We think this is one of the lasting legacies of the pandemic.
Jonas Prising: Yes, you’re right Adam. And you know what’s really nice about a session like this is I get to be playing the role of an enlightened, forward-looking leader. Now, since we’re in a closed session like this, we can all be clear that you have been carried into this, kicking and screaming, by all my colleagues, led by Michelle our Head of People and Culture, who has been talking about implementing a “work my way” strategy, which is really responding to the desires of workers and our employees, which is to have more time for their life. And, I think that’s been a really good evolution. I would say unusual at first. But I think we can see that this is what our employees are looking for, more control, more choice.
I’d have to say, though, that the four-day workweek discussion – I see it as part of the desire, so clearly expressed during the pandemic (and will be one of the lasting legacies of the pandemic), that workers in general desire more flexibility so they have more choice. We think this is one of the lasting legacies of the pandemic.
I would say, though, that as soon as knowledge workers are involved, we talk about these revolutions in the workplace, four-day work week or flexibility, there are many professions – nurses, airline crews, doctors, truck drivers – that are already working in compressed work schedules, producing the output that is requested, but in different regimented schedules that are not traditional five-day, 40-hour work weeks. And I should add, working from home where you can now have this notion of remote working and flexibility, 60% of the workforce in most developed countries don’t have the luxury of that experience. And actually they’ve been working way more during the pandemic because we needed them as essential workers to keep the economy going.
So on the one hand, I’m delighted with the discussion. I am absolutely in favour. We have a great scheme at ManpowerGroup that we are now working towards and I think that’s the way we’re going to be doing business going forward, giving people different choices, trusting their judgement. It’s not necessarily an individual choice though, because being in a company is a team sport, so teams will have to decide how best to engage and when to be together, when not, for what purpose. No point in coming in the office to have a Zoom call, but you want to have time to collaborate. But at the same time, I would argue, this needs to be equitably distributed across many categories of workers, not only knowledge workers, not only those that can work from home, but people who are in production lines, who are driving trucks or in warehouses, who are manufacturing, otherwise will have a bifurcation of the workforce and unequitable distribution of this very valuable benefit. And that is truly something that all workers are looking for.
Adam Grant: I want to reinforce something that you just said, which is we’ve had a lot of debates about remote and hybrid work over the last couple of years. But if you look at the data, there was a Wall Street Journal survey earlier this year showing that the flexibility people want most at work is not choices about where they work. It’s choices about when and how much they work. More than a chance to work from home or anywhere, people want flexible hours, which I think is what we’re here to discuss.
So, Anne-Marie Slaughter, you have been at New America, at Princeton, at the State Department in the US. You’ve had a lot of policy roles. Can you help us look at this from a macro perspective? Because it’s easy for me as a psychologist to say yes, from a micro standpoint, I will get better work out of people in six focused hours than eight unfocused hours. But how would this change society? How does the world look different if we go with four days a week?
Anne-Marie Slaughter: So let me start by saying I think of it as 32 hours distributed as necessary, and I actually think there’s lots of experimentation, I know there places that do two eight-hour days and then some four-hour days, that obviously you can do five, six-hour days, or one day off. So just putting that out there.
Whatever we do, we have to also recognise that we’ve got to make sure that everyone is able to work enough hours to have a living wage.
And then to the larger question, and it builds on Jonas’s point, that different categories of workers have very different needs. So when I first started writing about flexible work, what I heard from were lots of people who were working minimum wage and didn’t have defined hours – they were working on just-in-time scheduling – with time software that meant they often didn’t have enough work. So the first thing I want to say from a societal point of view is this: yes, for knowledge workers, fine. For many other workers, this is a nightmare – what they want is predictability – they need to know when they’re going to have childcare. They need to know they’re going to have enough hours to actually make it. And unless we address that, this simply increases the inequity that we already see so dramatically much, much, much further. So start with that. Whatever we do, we have to also recognise that we’ve got to make sure that everyone is able to work enough hours to have a living wage.
It’s a management revolution. It is so much easier to manage according to presence rather than performance.
Beyond that, though, I think there’s a revolution here in agency, and that is good for society. And I’ll use the example of an academic. As a professor at Princeton, I had to be in the classroom maximum five hours a week. Now for each of those hours I had a lot of preparation, but that was on my own time. I also had to show up for faculty meeting, and I had office hours, the total not more than eight hours. It was up to me how I worked to get that done. I also had to produce research. It was up to me. Most academics work really hard, but we work on our own time. If you need to be somewhere for your children or if you simply want to work out every morning, whatever it might be. The focus there is much more on task than on time. And that to me is the larger social revolution, and it’s a management revolution. It is so much easier to manage according to presence rather than performance. You were there 12 hours. You were there 14 hours. You had your jacket hanging over your chair and I saw your light burning. You have no idea if you actually got your work done.
So thinking about tasks means we really have to prioritise, what needs to get done and what, like half of my inbox, maybe two-thirds of my inbox should actually be burned, right? It is not productive work. It gives the illusion of productivity. But it’s not – productivity is me sending things out where I’ve decided this is really important work, or doing the work that takes more time. So I do think it would be far better for society, again, thinking about all of society, I think it would give us time to be whole human beings. Hilary and I’ve written a lot about what we call “sapiens integra.” So there’s homo-economicus, this mythical human being that is rational all the time and driven by a set of utilities. And then there’s whole human beings who also have care and connection and other good things. I think it would be good for all of society, but I also think this increase in agency of ‘here’s what we need done now you figure out how best to do it’.
Adam Grant: This reminds me of one of our deans who complained that I didn’t go to enough faculty meetings and I needed to put in more face time. And so I Facedtimes him. I also would really like to know the physics of how to burn email, but that is for another day.
Anne-Marie Slaughter: I was sort of having this nice image of it, just like self-destructing, like Mission Impossible.
Adam Grant: Which really captures the rage that you feel about all these intrusions into your life. Ohood Al Roumi, as a minister, you have embarked on one of the bolder tests of a four-day work week. Can you tell us about it – I think it’s four and a half days?
Ohood Bint Khalfan Al Roumi: Some opted for four and a half, some opted for four. But before I start, Adam, if you allow me, this concept of the 4-day work week, I kept my eye on it for many years, given my previous role as Minister of Wellbeing in my government. And I saw there were many trials around the world since 2008, but something shifted in the past two years, I think, as Jonas said, this may be part of the impact of COVID and the pandemic, where people went through a rollercoaster of change. They worked from home, the line between the personal and professional life blurred, and then when they started going back to the organizations or reporting in that organization, there was a tension. There was more demand for flexibility, wellbeing, discussion about mental health, and also more demand, or the tension between the remote and the physical work.
I see more of the implementation around the world in the private sector rather than the governments, and I can understand that because governments usually are slow, they have rigid systems.
In the UAE, I think, we are creating the government of the future. We always push boundaries and we’re not afraid of experimenting with new things. And maybe we are the first country in the world to institute the 4-day work week. government-wide and employees are given the flexibility to work remotely or manage their working hours on flexi times. This decision was triggered by four reasons. First, enhancing the well-being. Second, strengthening the family bonds and the community relations because people will have more time to take care of their families whether they are men or women, and they will have more time for recreational activities. The third one is economic, because when people have a longer weekend they can spend more and this will benefit the local domestic sectors and also to better align with the global markets.
But also, we were supported to move ahead, and I can mention some of the factors that really supported us in this implementation. First, discussion on wellbeing is advanced in the UAE. We started in 2016 developing a national wellbeing strategy that was even before the pandemic, and I had the honour to work on that agenda. Main pillar of that agenda was wellbeing at workplace. We developed the tools and the guides for that.
The second, as Anne-Marie mentioned, we focus on results, not clock-in, clock-out – productivity is at the heart of what we do. We have systems to measure the performance of entities and individuals.
Third, we had the right digital infrastructure, which allowed us to provide services 24/7 regardless of the hours or the working days, which is really essential for governments, because some of the early trials around the world failed because of the complaints from the citizens, because of the disruption in the service delivery.
And the fourth thing is that we had agility in our system. We were able to move fast and we were supported by the leadership. And maybe I can share later with you some of the early data that we gathered from this implementation and what we learnt from this experience.
Adam Grant: We would love to hear about those data now, especially because there are some other governments here in Davos that could benefit from your expertise.
70% of employees reported that they are working more efficiently [on a four-day week], prioritising and managing better their time during the week.
Ohood Bint Khalfan Al Roumi: Thank you, Adam. We started the implementation in January 2022. We planned it very well because government entities are sensitive to change. So we have to do a lot of coordination to make sure schools, hospitals, government entities, they are on board. So some of the early data that we gathered are really promising: 70% of employees reported that they are working more efficiently, prioritising and managing better their time during the week. A 55% reduction in absenteeism, which is wonderful. And 71% of employees reported that they’re spending more time with their families.
And let me share a funny story with you about this and how people adapt to change, because that this might benefit also some of the organizations that are thinking of implementation. When I went to office on Monday morning after the first long weekend, I was so excited and happy to ask my colleagues how was their weekend. And I was shocked. Some of them were lost. Some of them were angry.
“We don’t know”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“We don’t know what to do with the extra time that we have.”
So they needed some time to adjust to the extra time that they have. And now they’re spending more time with their families. And also, 95% of students reported that they enrolled in more extracurricular activities during the longer weekend, to support their talent or hobbies. So the results are promising, but we are still monitoring the implementation to make sure that objectives are met and that we can adjust the policy as we go forward.
Adam Grant: It reminds me a little bit of something that happened in Brazil not long ago at Semco, where there is an observation that people, by the time they get to retirement age, are often not mentally or physically able to take full advantage of it. And so they started a “retire-a-little” programme where you could buy back a day of your week. And they expected that it was going to be people in their fifties doing it? Most popular amongst people in their twenties and thirties. So I think there’s there’s something here.
So we have heard, I think, a very strong case for the well-being, family, climate, economic benefits of shortening the workweek to 4 days. I’d just love to get a sense of the room and the panel. So let’s start with one question, which is, can you just hold up the number of days per week that you currently work? Let’s ask the panel to do that. And also those of you who are physically in the room with us, hold up however many days you work currently.
Anne-Marie Slaughter: [holds up six fingers] I’m a hypocrite, but, OK.
Adam Grant: [holds up six fingers] OK. I’m seeing a lot of sixs and sevens out there. Two hands would be the clue. And then how many days, ideally, would you be working moving forward? What you want? Yeah, of course you can be flexible. You can go [wiggles fingers].
So I think the majority, both of the panel and of the room is working a lot and wants to be working less – even if they love their work. So what are the obstacles to moving toward that world and how do we overcome the resistance? I’m going to open this up. Whoever has thoughts, where do we go next? And I will cold call if I have to. But I know you all have thoughts.
Hilary Cottam: I was just going to say that I think that what Ohood said is really interesting, that we do have to relearn how to use disposable time. And we did see this in the pandemic – we saw people beginning to take up knitting or baking, and we began to use our leisure time in different ways. But I also wanted to come back to a point that both of you made, which is that, I read this analysis recently that actually Keynes was right, that over our lifetime we do work 15-hour weeks. It’s just that, as you said, we have it all at the end of our lives.
And one of the most interesting experiments that I’ve seen is in Scotland, where the state – and it’s interesting that the state can be a mover of these examples – is asking people with very difficult work like a grave digger or a rubbish collector, so in the state you can only apply for those jobs when you’re young, and then when you are a bit older you do slightly easier work and then at the end you become a community worker or a janitor. So you can also spread the load in that way, which I think is really interesting.
Adam Grant: It would be amazing if work and family didn’t peak at the same time in our lives.
Hilary Cottam: Well, exactly. But we are our own worst enemies, aren’t we? I mean, at least here in Davos we all are – not necessarily everybody.
Jonas Prising: But isn’t the source of the happiness and the delight with the ability to work in new and different ways, the ability to choose how you want to work that works with your life? And different people have different circumstances. So for some people, getting the extra day, the formal extra day – you only work four days a week as opposed to five – may give them a lot of disposable time that they can do other stuff in and they’ll be delighted with that. Whereas other people may say, dropping off kids at the bus and picking up kids at the bus, priority number one – if I can work my way around that and I fix that, I’m delighted and I’ll be happy to work on a Saturday to catch up on stuff I didn’t have time to do before.
I saw some interesting research recently, in the US, as you know, we don’t have a lot of vacation, but there are some companies, as part of their new employee offering, say unlimited vacation is the benefit, expecting people to be delighted. And you know what the outcome is when you give unlimited vacation in organizations that treasure a lot of work? People take less vacation because the cultural environment is, it’s not seen as rewarding and/or being rewarded. So I think it’s the notion of choice that gives the benefit and the delight. At least when I think about this from my perspective, I enjoy working when I can and when I’m interested in different topics., but it can happen all the time at different times, and I have time to do other things as well.
Adam Grant: I feel the same way and I feel like I should disclose, I work part of a sixth -day because nobody else is working then, and I want everyone else to go to four so that the fifth day will be like that.
Anne-Marie Slaughter: So I will say, at New America you get six weeks paid time off. So that includes everything and you can only roll over two of those weeks. So if you don’t take four weeks, you’re just leaving money on the table – you will not cash it out when you leave. That’s how strongly I believe that fundamentally – I put this on my out of office in August – that I can do 12 months of work in 11 months, but not in 12 months. You give me that one month off, and really off, I read, I do the kind of thing that I never have time to do. But I don’t do email. I don’t do your sort of standard stuff. And that recharges you. I mean, again, you do you need that for your productivity, your creativity, all of all that.
So I actually think even in the United States, we desperately need to change that. But this question, it does come down also to what we value in in how people spend their time. So in The Atlantic article I wrote a decade ago, I pointed out that if you had a man in your office who got up at 4am to train for a marathon and then came into the office and worked a regular day, he would just be, “Wow, you know, look at that discipline. That’s really something,” very much impressed. The woman who does that and I know many who get up at 4am to make sure the lunches are packed, all the stuff is organised, getting her kids ready, and then comes in is actually regarded as less than if she’s spending time on care. And you could think of lots of other hobbies in the same way, what do we value?
The United States really thinks that how hard you work is the measure of your moral worth. And in fact, I would argue that caring for your family is – and of course work supports the family, we’re all we’re all aware of that – but that the time you spend on emotional caregiving is, if anything, more a measure of of moral worth, but at the very least, it’s equal.
So if we’re going to think about time off, we have to not undercut it by thinking only some things, or sneaking that work on the weekend, is what really defines a human being we admire as opposed to a really well rounded human being, a human being who has many hobbies or really spends that time on community or family care.
Adam Grant: Wow. Being a hard worker does not make you a good person. You heard it in Davos.
Anne-Marie Slaughter: I work hard and I expect people to work hard, but that doesn’t mean working all the time. Far from it.
Adam Grant: All right, I’m looking at time. I want to make sure we have time for lots of audience questions. So let’s begin, we have a hand. I just want to remind everyone that questions do end with a question mark.
Audience member: Thanks everyone. Heba Aly, I run a news organization that reports about conflicts and disasters around the world, so we’re very busy and I work a lot. I appreciate all of this thinking, but I suppose you can switch down to four hours or four days a week. But if everything around you is still moving at the same pace, it’s impossible – you can’t. So, you need the whole society to slow down and that’s a much bigger challenge than telling your employees you can work four days a week. So how do you tackle that piece of it?
Ohood Bint Khalfan Al Roumi: So in the UAE, the 4-day work week was implemented for government, we did not impose it on private sector. What happened, interestingly is that 50% of the private companies followed the decision and even some of the global companies who have offices in the UAE took that practise and applied it in their offices and across the world. So I agree with you, there should be a coordinated effort from the private sector, public sector to make it easy and for people to adapt for it, whether they have children in school or they’re working in the private sector or the public sector. So this is also a lesson learnt from the UAE.
Adam Grant: I wonder if that would work in reverse – if a bunch of private companies started will governments follow? I think we have we have a bunch of hands right over there, please.
Audience member: Thanks very much. I’m John Neill, I’m Chairman of Unipart Group. You know, I think we’ve all learnt the benefits of flexible working and we’ve all enjoyed it and there’s a lot to learn from it. And if you ask people, would you like to work less hours, it’s pretty easy to say yes. But maybe I have to ask you another question, which is you work in a Western economy, which is in deep debt, so most most Western economies are, certainly the UK is the US is, if you ask another question which said, well, you can work four hours a week less, but not so much money for education, not so much money for healthcare, sorry you can’t spend any money on climate change, or you could work four hours more and maybe we have a chance of fixing climate change and all the other things. Maybe you’d get a different answer? And I just wonder what the thoughts of the panel are on that question?
Anne-Marie Slaughter: So, can I just ask to clarify that question? You’re assuming you you’d get paid less?
Audience member [John Neill]: No, you’d get paid.
Anne-Marie Slaughter: The same amount as now?
Audience member [John Neill]: Exactly.
Anne-Marie Slaughter: So the taxes tax revenues would be the same?
Audience member [John Neill]: No, the tax would be up because, by and large, the GDP is a function of how many hours we all work – oversimplification. So if people are working more hours, there’s a greater GDP, a greater tax take, and therefore more money that can be spent by the state on providing benefits for people. The reason it’s a controversial point is because we all kind of like the idea of working less hours and being more flexible, but there’s an economic cost to it. So if you just ask people, would you like to work less: “yeah sure I would”. But would you like to pay the consequence of that? And then a more controversial question is, if we ask you to work more hours, where you get these benefits, what would be the answer? And that’s the question I’m really asking for the views of the panel on. I realise it’s a little counterintuitive in an environment where we all like the idea of working less and working more flexibly.
Adam Grant: I think our panel is rejecting the premise of the question.
Jonas Prising: Well, I think that what you’re getting at is the drive for productivity. And I think assumed in all of this is what Anne-Marie said is: 12 months of work done in 11 or 10 or whatever it is. Because by the same token, if you think back 100 years, we were working 70 to 80 hours a week and productivity then took off because we were applying new technologies and our output increased. So we created prosperity through growth, but not by working more hours, we actually reduced the hours almost by half. If you think about this from an agrarian move – and Hilary, you talked about the agrarian move and then into the industrial era – and our capacity to produce wealth doubled or more than doubled many times over. And I think the premise of this discussion is with the help of technology and different ways of working, we are going to be able to create prosperity, but not by working more hours, but by increasing productivity in the way that we interact with innovation and technology.
So I think that’s sort of the starting premise because I think everyone agrees you can’t lower productivity. Productivity needs to continue to grow.
But I think the great example of how quickly we can switch on stuff that we never thought we could – remote working and technologies – it’s not as if all the companies suddenly bought Zoom in one week. We all had the technologies, but we used them infrequently and poorly, working our normal lives, and then suddenly one day we couldn’t go to the office. And the very same technology suddenly was the lifeline that saved all of our businesses and we could continue operating in a new way. So the shift, when forced, can actually be dramatic and can be very, very quick as well.
Hilary Cottam: Can I add to this? I think it is true and all the experiments show that within reason if you work less, you are more productive. So we do reject the premise, I think, of your question. But the other thing is, I think what’s really important is how expensive this overwork is. So this is why the ILO and WHO, their data shows that work is killing us, because if you work too much, societies are dealing with a massive mental health crisis, they’re dealing with all kinds of chronic disease crises because we’re not out and about walking so we’re kind of suffering from different chronic conditions. There’s a huge amount, particularly state expenditure, that is actually addressing too much work because unfortunately the kind of work that is too much is not represented in this room because we are all knowledge workers and leaders and so on. But for most people, this is a huge issue.
And then the other thing, because Anne-Marie raised the really important point of equality, one of the biggest differentiators in what happens to our children is: does anybody have time to help them with their homework? So if you have two parents working, as all the families that I work in, in the kind of work I do, really, really long hours, they don’t have time for that. It’s a massive marker of inequality that is then marking the next generation. And we have to think about this is sustainable over generations.
Adam Grant: We have a question in the front and while the microphone is on its way, this is a good time to say that the World Economic Forum actually has a framework on what good work looks like. And if you take a look here, I would just highlight a couple of things on here, obviously, inclusion’s there. flexibility is huge, but we’re also talking about health and wellbeing being part of the responsibility of an employer. And I think that that has come on the radar in a big way in the last few years. And the cost of burnout for cardiovascular disease, for depression and anxiety, and a whole host of other psychological and physical conditions, I would estimate, far outweighs the benefit of whatever extra hours we are putting in.
Audience member: Thank you. Mina Al-Oraibi, I’m Editor in Chief of a newspaper called The National, it’s a 24-hour media outlet. This is wonderful, but we have to cover the shifts. So I have a two-pronged question: one is that we could give people four-day weeks and reduce the hours they’re working, but we have to find people who are equally skilled because it would have to be shifts of stuff. And the time when we’re looking at a real search for talent, but also the fact that there’s 100% employment rates in a number of countries, how are we going to find that, given the crunch that we’re in and the expectation post-COVID? And in addition to that, not working would include not reading email. Is that possible for the majority of people who are not leaders who can actually delegate down? Can you switch off and is reading your email and keeping your eye on work and what’s happening still considered work? Because I think even understanding what work means changes from person to person. But I do really focus on having the talent because you think, again, about doctors. We don’t have enough doctors to do really drastic surgeries. If they start taking more time off, that has a real impact.
Adam Grant: Who wants it?
Hilary Cottam: I have a lot to say, but I feel like I’ve said a lot about this. But I think obviously when you look at different professions – I challenge your doctor point, in the British health service, we don’t have enough professionals because it’s like pouring water into a leaky bucket because the working conditions are so stressful and so long that everybody is leaving, so we just can’t train or steal enough people from other countries to keep our health systems going.
But I think what’s really interesting is that you see big worker gains in technology revolutions, but they have to fit with the technology. So one one big gain in the last one was the weekend. If you’d told people they were going to have a paid weekend, people would have also said, hang on a minute, the production lines need to run seven days – how is it possible to pay people for two days off? This is never going to happen and yet it has happened and it’s been rolled back. And what’s interesting about digital technologies, it’s asynchronous. So we should be able to think about how we kind of dovetail in new ways. And we just haven’t imagined it enough.
Now, when I run my workshops, people reach for this, and then if they’re lawyers or they’re design clients or they’re journalists, they say, but hang on a minute, this person expects always to see the same person – so part of it is normative. There may be some professions, which is why I think we need to think about the nonlinear life, you may do your job Mina for 10 years and then you may need to think about doing something else because it’s simply unsustainable to be brilliant in this way for that long.
I want to say one other thing, I think this is not an individual thing – this is a social thing. We need societies that give people time to rest, to retrain, so it’s not about rewarding the individual. We have to think about how we change the norms, which is why I think your work is so interesting because you’ve been doing it at the state level to say you don’t have to do this, but this is the new norm. And I think that’s very interesting.
Adam Grant: I’ll just add one quick point to this, which is I also wonder if we need new models for shift work, since a lot of people in this room are thinking about that. I invested in a start-up recently called A-Team that’s trying to reimagine how we organise our work lives and they’ve taken the builder economy and said if you’re a software engineer or a designer, you can team up with the people that you most want to work with, and then you can work on projects together. And these projects come out and you can rent your skills out to the highest bidder or the most noble purpose, as opposed to working for one company. I wonder why we aren’t doing that in more kinds of work, right? This is where what Uber drivers do. You don’t have assigned shifts. You have tasks that need to be done and then there’s a pool of people who are available to take those. What if all of our jobs were organised like that? We wouldn’t have jobs, I guess, but we would have projects and we would have a lot of flexibility around them.
Anne-Marie Slaughter: I would push even further: job shares. I remember at the National Security Council at one point, two young mothers, both with relatively young children, they would have been very happy to share the job so that somebody was on because, yes, it’s the National Security Council. “No, no, no. We can’t do that.” They would take half money, they didn’t need it, they had leave of various kinds. There are all sorts of ways you can think creatively about how to cover what needs to be covered. And on email, I was looking for my phone to see if I have it on my Kindle, but I just bought a book on the world without email. Email is killing us, right? I mean, there’s just no way we need to know what is happening all the time and respond all the time. So I actually think that’s a separate conversation and a separate reform that we will be going through.
Adam Grant: I’m going to email you about it later. [laughter] Other questions from the room? Right up here please.
Audience member: Thank you. Hi, Henry, based in Manilla, I run an education company there, but I’m also half French. And we did implement a 35-hour working week. And I’m just curious what your thoughts were, A, on that experiment and B, on the role of government legislation. Because the theory at the time in France was if you wait for people to come up with it, if you wait for companies to legislate, it will take too long. We’re going to impose on everyone else and obviously a lot of backlash, but it pushed through so, very curious what your thoughts are on legislation in general and in the French example?
Jonas Prising: That’s a great example of the gentleman who asked the question about a change that wasn’t driven by productivity improvements, but a societal desire to work lessm with the theory that if you take 40 weeks to 35, lots more jobs will be created. And the 8% unemployment rate at that the time in France is going to come down because more jobs are going to be created. None of that happened. What happened was that everybody continued to work exactly the same amount of hours, because you’re in France, though, we’re all tracking this, which means all Frenchmen have eight weeks of vacation. So not more people got into the workforce. No more jobs were created. But people have difficulties, frankly, in France to manage schedules that are overlapping. We have a lot of frontline people that are three or four people in the office. There’s a lot of coordination between who’s on vacation and who is not so as not to break the 35-hour work rule and giving everybody their legislated time off. So as far as the intention was concerned, it is considered to be an abject failure, actually.
Adam Grant: Wow, so tell us how we can make this a success? Can you fix France for us? [laughter].
Ohood Bint Khalfan Al Roumi: I see the four-day work week as part of bigger fundamental changes that we are witnessing in the workplace, and this change is unavoidable, fast paced and continuous. And I think the governments can play a role in being the role model and championing the changes in the workplace, because I think the pandemic and the disruption caused by the pandemic has giving us a golden opportunity to reimagine the legislations, to redesign the work that was invented 100 years ago, and have more agile and flexible systems.
In the UAE, we mandated on the government. We did not mandate it on the private sector, but then the private sector, when they saw the government leading, they opted to implement it in the private sector and not just in the UAE, but in the world. So I think the government can play a role in showing… entities they need data, they need numbers. So we need to do a lot of assessment and publish numbers to convince also leaders, whether in the public sector or private sector to adapt to the new norm. I think there is no U-turn. It’s just going forward. And many entities will adopt the 4-day work week.
Adam Grant: Perfect segue to my closing question in the minute we have left. We didn’t really answer the question of how are we going to get more people on board with a four-day work week. Can I ask you each to give us a sentence: if you have one piece of advice for the room on how we can make work a slightly smaller part of our lives. What would you suggest? And I’ll just start by saying, don’t count it out until you run the experiment – pilot it – let’s actually see what happens.
Jonas Prising: In labour markets that are constrained in terms of workers, workers are making the choice for us. They’re joining organizations that will provide flexibility and choice. And “working their way” or “working my way” is really the way to attract and retain talent. So I think it’s a little bit of an academic question because I think it’s going to be reality – this is how the world is going because workers want this to happen. We’ve proven that it can be done and it’s moving in that direction.
Anne-Marie Slaughter: And I would say for the managers who are worried about it, because I find it much more the managers than the workers. Manage to task and identify – this is what I need get done, this is when I need it done by, this is the quality I need. And then just see.
Hilary Cottam: So I’m a social entrepreneur, and I find that the pushback often comes from small businesses. There’s often an idea that big business can do this, but small business can’t. And what I’ve done is I’ve used an organization called Timewise UK for my hiring. Timewise has women who basically want to work predictable flexibility. I hire from them, immediately I have a fantastic workforce that share that norm, so there’s not one person dropping off their kids and then everybody else begins to adjust. So other younger workers might not have children, but they certainly want to see their friends. It can’t just be about whether you have children or not. And so this immediately begins to shift the nor, Don’t make it a one person thing, hire in that way for a culture and it can happen everywhere.
Ohood Bint Khalfan Al Roumi: Let’s focus on the purpose. What are we trying to achieve here? I think it’s the well-being and flexibility. So this can be achieved by a four-day work week or by other tools. That can be the answer for the purpose. And for governments I think the non-negotiable is service delivery to public. We cannot jeopardise the service delivery. So as long as we providing the services, the right service to our people, then we can adopt any solution.
Adam Grant: Well, we have a range of views on the ideal amount of work, but I think we’re all aligned on the idea that we want to make choices about how much we work and that ultimately people should be evaluated not on the time they put in, but on the contributions they make. Thank you all.
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