Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, program director at 4 Day Week Global, thinks there's already an abundance of firms toying with shorter work schedules. In his view, not enough is being done to figure out what works and what doesn't.
The largest-ever trial of the four-day workweek found that most U.K. businesses participating don't want to return to the five-day standard, while Portugal recently started a government-funded pilot of shorter work schedules.
"Overwork has become a sign of success, but that's not gonna last," Pang said. "Historically, the trend in working hours has been to use technology or wealth to allow us all to work less."
Yet not enough is known about the four-day week trial dropouts or the firms that didn't join in the first place; participating organizations opt in and are biased toward making the shorter week work, he said.
Work Shift caught up with Pang, who lives in Silicon Valley - "the world's capital of abundance and burnout," on the sidelines of a conference at the Royal Opera House in London, speaking about companies that failed the four-day week test, legislating shorter schedules and how Pang came to his work philosophy. Hint: It's the opposite of tenor Placido Domingo's "If I rest, I rust," which he articulated in an interview a week before performing at the same Royal Opera House. (Responses have been edited and condensed.)
Do you work a four-day week?
I work a shorter workweek, but not four days, because our team and clients are spread across four continents. Most of my days involve a burst of work in the very early morning in California and again in the evening. But I do work hard to work less. If you do work that you really love, then you should be able to find ways of doing it that don't require you to destroy yourself.
I started doing this when I was writing my book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, which is about the role of leisure and hobbies in the lives of prolific, creative people. I started doing the things that the people I was writing about did: taking naps in the afternoon, getting up very early to write. It was a great lesson in how to make the peaks higher rather than stretch out the day to make it longer.
There are growing calls for the right to work from home. Should we have the right to a four-day week?
It may be a little early to do that. I'm trying to hasten the arrival of that day, but I don't wanna mess it up by having it arrive prematurely. We still have more to learn before we can scale this up to entire economies. I think that we are going to see in the next few years some experiments at the state level in the United States, for example.
What can you tell us about the trial dropouts so far?
We know less about the failures than we would like, because we have had a pretty self-selecting group. What we do know is that the four-day week doesn't die. It's killed. You get a new CEO who says, enough of this, we've coddled all of you too long - and canceling a predecessor's signature program is a great way to establish yourself as in charge. Likewise, in cities or county governments, the move back to five days is always accompanied by a change in administration or the other political party taking over.
In other cases, it's more about culture than performance. For example, there was a video production company in Hong Kong that was trialing a four-day week and they let everybody choose a day off. You had teams out on location and other folks out pitching clients, so the office turned into a ghost town. In another case, there was a company where their relatively younger sales team felt they didn't know their jobs well enough to do this, while more senior software engineers converted successfully.
What can companies learn from four-day week failures?
Number one, you need to make very clear what the four-day week is and what it is not. And you need to give people an opportunity to participate in designing the four-day week. When you think through what could go wrong and how you can solve that, then you get ideas coming from people that you wouldn't come up with yourself and people feel better about the process.
With mass layoffs, stagnating productivity and recession fears, is the four-day week losing momentum?
Not yet. But this is something to watch. Previous efforts to shorten workweeks, especially in the 1970s, did fall afoul of the recession oil shocks. Anyone trying to remake the future of work should be worried that recession could be an excuse to go back to the way things were. However, we're in this weird position of worrying about the economy slowing down and companies that expanded during the pandemic reducing their workforces, but still seeing talent shortages and issues with burnout. I am cautiously optimistic that companies that had been interested in the four-day week will continue to be so. Unless the economy completely tanks.