It was the repetition that did it for Alex Hirst. The same 5.30am alarm. The same 6.30am bus to the Tube station. The same District Line carriage, the same Starbucks coffee and croissant, the same meal-deal lunch. The same clients, the same problems, the same-shaped weeks. “Don’t get me wrong: I loved my work and didn’t resent doing it,” he insists. But at 33, leading a team of eight as a head of account management at a growing creative agency, Hirst began to wonder whether he had his priorities wrong.
“I always thought the more time I spent working, the more successful I would become,” he says. “It was a badge of honour. Being the first in and the last out of the office was important to me. I thought that I was leading by example. In fact, I just became more and more detached. I stopped enjoying the highs. I didn’t care about the lows. Eventually, my wife told me that I’d become a shadow of my former self.”
He booked a holiday to Spain for a week. That didn’t help. “When I came back, I realised that the problem wasn’t that I needed rest. It was that I needed to rethink my entire psychological relationship with work.”
This was in 2014, and Hirst was working 50-plus hours per week. First, he went down to four days a week. These days, he’s down to three. He does the same job, more or less, and earns the same amount of money, but he does so on his own terms for Hoxby – a remote-working agency that he co-founded with his friend Lizzie Penny, who was equally frustrated with the amount of time that conventional employment demands of us.
“Working for eight hours a day, five days a week, is anchored in a manufacturing economy,” he says. “Yet, by and large, we’re now in a service economy. We’re using our brains more than our bodies. The problem is that we still feel the need to work to more or less the same construct. And the obsession with working a certain amount of time confuses the brain. We kid ourselves that we’re doing a job simply because we’re sitting at our desks. It’s not good for our mental health.” Hirst’s message is unequivocal: work less, work better.
Now, before you say, “Yeah, it’s alright if you work for some fancy London agency,” or, “Hang on, doesn’t 20% less work mean 20% less pay?” or, “As if my boss is ever going to agree to that!” it’s worth asking some fundamental questions. Is spending five days out of seven doing whatever it is that you do in your day job really what you were put on Earth to do? Wouldn’t it be more pleasant if weekends started on, say, Thursday nights as standard, or – just keeping all options open, here – Sundays melted into Mondays? What if there were a day of the week for which you could safely line up all of your general life admin, so the weekends were actually weekends? Wouldn’t you rather tip the work/life balance in the direction of life?
Working or Shirking
Those behind the four-day week movement certainly think so. In recent years, the idea that we should all work a bit less has been promoted by everyone from Labour’s John McDonnell and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to working parents and that guy in your gym who won’t stop going on about his side hustle. It is pitched, variously, as a remedy for the gender pay gap, the productivity crisis, the mass unemployment that will follow the dawn of artificial intelligence, climate change and the mental health crisis. In recent years, stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 55% of all working days lost. Half of the country is overworked and stressed; the other half is underworked and stressed. So, why not move the dial?
While the arguments for the four-day week long predate the coronavirus pandemic, the recent upheaval has strengthened the case that the nine-to-five has had its day. “It’s been an amazing opportunity to rethink how we work,” says Hirst. As challenging as lockdowns have been for home workers – particularly those also performing full-time childcare – they have demonstrated that you can still get things done even if you’re not sitting in the office. (Indeed, many found themselves working still harder.)
“Business very much continued as usual for us, because we already work remotely, and we use the workstyle system to work asynchronously,” says Hirst. “But workers are conditioned by the Industrial Age system to be in the same room at the same time to work together. People who tried to simply take their office-based skills into the remote work environment struggled to adapt. We need new skills, new behaviours and a cultural adjustment.”
That is no easy adjustment. The connection that most people make between hours worked and value extracted is deep. We are fed so much “hustle” propaganda that we barely notice it, says Greg McKeown, a Silicon Valley-based podcast host whose book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less mounts an argument against overwork. “The first thing I was pushing against was the assumption that more is better,” he says. “You should want it all. And to get it all, you need to do it all. These are quite dominant assumptions – and it turns out they’re not true at all.” Oprah Winfrey doesn’t work a million times harder than someone with one millionth of her audience, he points out. She just manages to reach more people.
Balance the Scales
For McKeown, the lightbulb moment came when he visited Thomas Edison’s old house in Florida. Edison’s 100-hour weeks are often held up in American propaganda as something to which we should aspire: the capitalist equivalent of the legendary exploits of the Soviet coalminer Stakhanov. Think of all those diaries of Silicon Valley übermen, who rise at 4.30am, deadlift for an hour and then disrupt until dusk. Looking at the studio where Edison came up with his lightbulb, McKeown noticed something surprising. “There’s a bed right there in the middle of it!” he says. “Edison napped all the time. Turns out he also never ran anywhere – he didn’t believe his body was meant for that. He chose to live in one of the most relaxed environments he could achieve. The 24/7 hustle is such a dominant idea. But when you actually talk to the most successful entrepreneurs, what actually works is different from the story of what works.”
Jonny Tooze can attest to this. He runs LAB, a digital content agency in east London – yes, another trendy creative agency. As a trendy creative person, Tooze felt that he should be ait more imaginative about adapting to 21st- century demands. So, three years ago, he implemented a four-day week across his company, inspired, he says, by two books: Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford, which is about how technology is about to make us all unemployed; and Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, which is about, well, everything. “It made me realise that, first of all, human beings are animals,” he says. “We are organic creatures. Life is short. We really wanted to reassess what mattered.”
And the more he researched it, the more arbitrary the concept of the week seemed. Days and years, at least, have solid astronomical foundations. But the seven-day week is more numinous: it’s thought to have its origins in Babylonian astrology, the approximate length of one phase of the moon. Either way, it’s a strange thing by which to live, or work. As for the concept of the weekend, that dates back just 150 years or so to the Industrial Revolution, when the Victorian capitalist overlords reluctantly conceded that working everyone to death in factories wasn’t best for overall profits. A little time to pray, rest and recover was required, too.
“If you look at some of the societies that have been less touched by technology, they also work less,” says Tooze. “They will work until they have full bellies and shelter – and then they’ll rest.” The more developed a society is, the more equipped we are to store for the future, and so the more we sacrifice the present. And worse: the systems we have invented that supposedly make us more productive usually end up doing the opposite. “When email arrived, it didn’t double our efficiency – it made us work twice as hard. That happened with video calls during COVID. This is the history of humankind in micro.”
The four-day week at LAB proved a success. Some people spilled over into Friday. Others continued to work five days, but with shorter daily hours, as that’s what worked best for them. Some maxed out at 40 hours a week, but the 50-hours-a-weekers stopped. Clients were happy. Profits were good. And workers were happier: “It did exactly what we hoped it would do,” says Tooze. “One colleague set up a photography business; another started to work in theatre. A lot of people used that extra day to do all of the unpaid labour they do in life: washing up, looking after children, bills, admin, running the household. We wanted people to have a day to do all of that, so they could actually have a weekend. It could work in most industries. It’s just a question of whether people will be brave enough to instigate it.”
It might be a hard sell now – especially given the economic wreckage of COVID – but if you go back a century or so, the idea that we should work less was fairly widely accepted, says academic Nick Srnicek, who co-authored the 2015 book Inventing the Future.
He believes that we must use technology to push for a “post-work world”, in which humanity is liberated from the oppression of the five-day nine-to-five. To take the first steps, however, we must learn from earlier generations. “At the turn of the 20th century, the standard work week was about 60 hours,” he says. “So, the main focus of the early workers’ movement was to reduce the working week – it wasn’t just a fight for better pay.” From 1900 to the Great Depression, there was a reduction of about 20 hours.
In 1928, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that in 100 years’ time, we’d all be working 15-hour weeks –a prophecy that is now widely ridiculed. (The average British working week is 43.6 hours, according to the TUC.) However, as Srnicek points out, it wasn’t so outlandish, given the gains that had been made in Keynes’s lifetime. It seemed natural to assume that increased technological efficiency would mean that people would simply work less – rather than spend all of their time on soul-sapping Zoom calls.
During the Depression, there were two main ideas about how to solve the problem of mass unemployment. One was to redistribute work by reducing the number of hours that each person worked. The other was to create more work – for example, by building roads, bridges and dams. The latter won out, and then the Second World War arrived, creating abundant work in the factories and on the battlefields.
After the war, the unions’ focus switched to increasing pay and improving conditions. However, Srnicek believes that the impending mass unemployment calls for a change of approach.
“The way our economies have been going for the last 20 or 30 years, it’s clear that we’re not producing enough jobs for people, let alone enough good jobs. It’s not a question of people not trying hard enough to get hired: we’ve had a structural change in the economy. We need policies that work with that change. We need to reject the idea that people must work 40-plus hours per week to survive.”
When I first read Inventing the Future, I found it inspiring but a little fanciful. Could the boss class really go for this? But I have noticed two things happening since then. One is that campaigners for the four-day week have become much more organised. Another is that they can now point to many examples where companies reducing working hours with no reduction in pay has worked absolutely fine.
“That’s the model that we’ve seen most small businesses we work with adopt since COVID-19,” says Joe Ryle, who runs the Four-Day Week Campaign, which is part of a coordinated international effort to make three-day weekends the norm. He can point to significant wins. New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has identified it as the way forward for post-COVID economics, while the Spanish government has offered subsidies to firms that make the switch. Unilever, one of the world’s largest corporations, is trialling a four-day working week along these lines in New Zealand, with a view to implementing it worldwide.
“Wherever companies have trialled a four-day week, there’s been a rise in productivity,” says Ryle. “Microsoft tried it out in Japan and productivity shot up 40%.” The Netherlands and Germany have the shortest average working weeks in Europe and among the highest productivity; the UK has the longest working weeks and among the lowest. “Once you get to about 30-32 hours per week, any additional hours worked don’t provide any boost to productivity. Even before the pandemic, two-thirds of workers said they felt stressed and overworked. That also affects people’s productivity; 18 million working days were lost last year due to stress and depression.”
While we might wait in vain for political leadership on the issue in Britain, some are making their own arrangements. I’ve started noticing more and more friends and colleagues taking four-day weeks. Karen Mattison of Timewise, a recruitment company that specialises in part-time and flexible positions, calls this “a quiet revolution that’s been happening while no one’s been paying much attention”. There are 8.4 million part-time workers in Britain, of whom about a quarter are men. While some are underemployed (stuck with zero- or low-hour contracts), some 84% choose to work fewer hours. One in six in management positions work part-time.
Time on Our Sides
“There was a moment when I stopped and thought: life is short,” says one acquaintance, who went down to four days to start a business on the side. “I have ambitions. I don’t see how I’m ever going to fulfil them while I’m harnessed to the desk every weekday.”
“Having Mondays off has restored my faith in Sundays,” says a friend, who dropped his hours to do more childcare. Another adds: “A day spent wrangling a one-year-old and a two-year-old makes me appreciate my time at work more than I thought possible.”
Just because childcare is unpaid, it doesn’t mean it isn’t work. Tasks such as caring, cooking and cleaning – more vital to a functioning society than, say, management consultancy – are chronically undervalued and thus have traditionally been outsourced to domestic slaves, ie women. Herein lies a core argument for the four-day week: it would allow all of those hours to be redistributed in a more equitable way.
I stopped working Wednesdays this January. We have a baby; my wife has a career; we split childcare. It sort of works. Wednesday has become a moment to bond with my son, but also to see friends, perform errands, maybe squeeze in a workout. By Thursday, I appreciate the peace of my office, and I get more done in less time. Of my group of male friends, the one who continues to work to an industrial schedule – a programmer – worries that this makes him a caveman: “It seems old-fashioned to have a five-days-a-week job.”
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