ReThinking with Adam Grant
The four-day work week: luxury or necessity? (Transcript)
November 22, 2022
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking: my podcast is on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking. I'm excited to bring you one of my favorite conversations I've had this year.
It happened at the World Economic Forum in Davos. When a government minister, a global CEO, a policy leader, and a social entrepreneur all walked in for a panel I was hosting on shortening the work week. Get ready to learn from Hillary Cottam, Jonas Prising, Anne Marie Slaughter, and Ohood Al Rumi. They've all played major roles in rethinking and reshaping how we spend our time.
Welcome everyone. I am thrilled to welcome you all to the four-day week discussion, which I'm very glad we're having on a Wednesday instead of a Friday, ‘cause then maybe no one would've shown up. I'm Adam Grant. I'm an organizational 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 work week 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 center of our lives, and we wanna 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, Hillary Cottam. Hillary, 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?
[00:02:48] Hillary Cottam:
Okay, so let me say to start off that 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, you know, 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 moved to agrarian time, then we moved to industrial time, which you've referenced, which was really complicated. I mean, the reason that we have, you know, in Western Europe and, and maybe in the U.S, 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, we've internalized the clock. But when industrial time started, people thought that there would be radical experiments. And one of the most interesting is Kellogg's in the 1930s. It was one of the biggest factories, the breakfast cereal, he offered his workers six-hour shifts from eight hours for exactly the same pay. And what happened was that people flocked to Kellogg’s. Journalists, the Hoover administrators, social scientists, there are amazing household studies of what happened because everybody thought industrialization would lead to less work.
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. People said that they had, quote, “more life," that they could fit in taking care of people. They had time to make things. They ran their own sports teams. Things fitted into their lives. And what we know now is that in fact, that wasn't the kind of experiment that stuck.
It's very interesting why not, which we probably don't have time for, but even before the pandemic, the ILO and WHO said that work was killing us. And for the last two years, I've been running workshops with workers in kind of 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 male solution to this problem because basically, it doesn't think about care. Because 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. Rethinking the linear life, of course, doesn't mean just the work study kind of in blocks, and maybe we need some new boundaries so that we do have time to play and to be and, and so on. So a four-day working week: a necessity, a start, but I think not the picture.
[00:05:17] Adam Grant:
I think we could get on board with that. To be really clear and how many days you think we should be working total, though? Are you advocating for a two-day week? A one-day week? Like how much work do you think is ideal?
[00:05:27] Hillary Cottam:
Whoa, 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 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 a different amount. What we need to do is regulate a floor. And then 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.
[00:06:07] Adam Grant:
Excellent. So I'm gonna 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 work week, at least give people a little more flexible opportunities. Tell us about that.
[00:06:21] Jonas Prising:
Yes, 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, you know, led by Michelle our Head of People and Culture, who's 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 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 work week 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. I would say though, that there are many professions: nurses, airline crews, doctors, truck drivers that are already working in compressed work schedules, 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'm absolutely in favor. We have a great scheme at Manpower Group that we're 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 judgment.
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 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, who are in warehouses, who are manufacturing. Otherwise, we’ll have a bifurcation of the workforce and an unequitable distribution of this very valuable benefit. And that is truly something that all workers are looking for.
[00:09:00] Adam Grant:
I wanna 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.
[00:09:15] Jonas Prising:
[00:09:15] Adam Grant:
Right. More than a chance to work from home or anywhere. People want flexible hours, which I think is what we're here to discuss.
[00:09:21] Jonas Prising:
[00:09:22] Adam Grant:
So Anne Marie Slaughter, you have been at New America, at Princeton, at the State Department in the U.S., 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?
[00:09:44] 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 are places that do two eight-hour days and then some four-hour days, that obviously you can do the five six-hour days or one day off. So just putting that out there. Then to the larger question, and it builds on Jurgen's, sorry, 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 wanna say from a societal point of view is, 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 gonna have childcare. They need to know they're gonna 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've gotta make sure that everyone is able to work enough hours to have a living wage.
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 a 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 wanna 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 the 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. But thinking about tasks means we really have to prioritize 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. 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. Hillary 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. 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.”
[00:13:11] 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 FaceTimed him.
[00:13:21] Adam Grant:
I also would really like to know the physics of how to burn email, but that is for another day.
[00:13:24] Anne Marie Slaughter:
I know. I, I was sort of having this nice image with just like self-destructing.
[00:13:30] Adam Grant:
[00:13:30] Anne Marie Slaughter:
Yeah. Like Mission Impossible.
[00:13:32] Adam Grant:
Which really captures the rage that you feel about all these intrusions into your life. Ohood Al Rumi, as a minister, you have embarked on one of the bolder tests of a shorter work week. Can you tell us about, I think it's four and a half days.
[00:13:44] Ohood Al Rumi:
Uh, some opted for four and a half, some opted for four. But before I start, Adam, if you allow me, this concept of the shorter work week, I kept my eye on it for many years, given my previous role as Minister of Well-being in my government. And I saw there were many trials around the world since 2008, but something shifted in the past two years.
As Jonas said, this may be part of the impact of COVID and the pandemic, where people had 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, there was a tension. There was more demand for flexibility, wellbeing, discussion about mental health, and also more detention between the reward and the physical work. I see more of the implementation around the world in the private sector rather than the governments, because governments usually are slow. They have rigid systems.
In the UAE, we are creating the government of the future. We always push boundaries and we are not afraid of experimenting with new things. And maybe we are the first country in the world to institute the shorter 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 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.
Also, 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 well-being strategy. That was even before the pandemic. Main pillar of that agenda was well-being 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 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 HR 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 learned from this experience.
[00:17:07] 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.
[00:17:14] Ohood Al Rumi:
Thank you, Adam. We started the implementation in January 2022. So some of the early data that we gathered are really promising. 70% of employees reported that they are working more efficiently. Prioritizing and managing better their time during the week. 55% reduction in absentees, which is wonderful. And 71% of employees reported that they're spending more time with their families.
And let me share a, a funny story with you about this. 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. “Uh, we don't know.” I said, “What do you mean you don't know?” “We don't know what to do with the extra time that we have a ton.” So they needed some time to adjust to the extra time that they had, 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.
[00:18:44] Adam Grant:
Yeah. It reminds me a little bit of, of something that happened in Brazil not long ago at Semco where there was 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.
[00:18:56] Jonas Prising:
[00:18:56] Adam Grant:
And so they started to retire a little program where you could buy back a day of your week, and they expected that it was gonna be people in their fifties doing it. Most popular among people in their twenties and thirties.
[00:19:09] Adam Grant:
So we have heard, I think, a very strong case for the well-being, family, climate, economic benefits of shortening the work week. 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?
[00:19:28] Anne Marie Slaughter:
I'm a hypocrite, but okay.
[00:19:30] Adam Grant:
Okay. [laughter] I'm seeing a lot of six and sevens out there. Two hands would be the clue. And then how many days ideally would you be working?
[00:19:44] Anne Marie Slaughter:
Yeah, what I want… I mean, I could work four to five.
[00:19:50] Adam Grant:
Yeah, of course, it can be flexible. You can go like this if that helps you.
[00:19:55] Hillary Cottam:
[00:19:56] Adam Grant:
All right. 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.
[00:20:04] Anne Marie Slaughter:
[00:20:04] Adam Grant:
So what are the obstacles to moving toward that world, and how do we overcome the resistance? I'm gonna open this up. Where do we go next? And I will cold call if I have to, but I know you all have thoughts.
[00:20:14] Hillary Cottam:
No, no, go ahead.
[00:20:15] Anne Marie Slaughter:
No, you go.
[00:20:16] Hillary Cottam:
Well, I was just gonna say that I think that what Ohood said is really interesting that we do have to kind of 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 kind of 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 in the state with very difficult work, like a gravedigger or a rubbish collector, you can only apply for those jobs when you are young. And then when you're a bit older, you do slightly easier work, and then at the end, you become kind of a community worker janitor.
So you can also sort of spread the load in that way, which I think is really, really interesting.
[00:21:02] Adam Grant:
It'd be amazing if work and family didn't peak at the same time in our lives.
[00:21:05] Hillary Cottam:
Well, exactly. But, but we are our own worst enemies, aren't we? I mean, I think that's the, or at least here in Davos we are, like not necessarily everybody.
[00:21:12] 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, the formal extra day 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, uh, dropping off kids at bus, priority number one. If I can work my way around 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, because I saw some interesting research recently. In, in the US we don't have a lot of vacation.
But there are some companies as part of, as part of their new employee offerings unlimited vacation as 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 not seen as rewarding and/or being rewarded. So I think it's the notion of choice that gives the benefit and the delight. 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 have time to do other things as well.
[00:22:28] 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?
[00:22:39] Anne Marie Slaughter:
So I will say at New America, you get six weeks paid time off. So that includes everything. Uh, and you can only rollover 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, uh, 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. And really off. I mean, yes, I read, I do, I do the kind of thing that I never have time to do, but I, what, I don't do email. I don't do your sort of standard stuff, and that recharges you.
You need that for your productivity, your creativity, all that. So I, I actually think even in the United States, we desperately need to change that, but it does come down also to what we value 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 four 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 impressive.” The woman who does that, and I know many, who gets up at four to make sure the lunches are packed, getting her kids ready, and then comes in, is actually regarded as less than if she's spending time on care. So the question is: what do we value?
The United States really thinks that how hard you work is the measure of your moral worth. I would argue that caring for your family, that the time you spend on emotional caregiving is, if anything, it's more a measure of moral worth, but at the very least, it's equal.
So we all, if we're gonna 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, you know, 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.
[00:24:48] Adam Grant:
Wow. Being a hard worker does not make you a good person. You heard it in Davos.
[00:24:52] Anne Marie Slaughter:
I, I. I work hard and I expect people to work hard, but that doesn't mean working all the time. Far from it.
[00:24:59] Adam Grant:
I wanna make sure we have time for lots of audience questions. So let's begin. We have a hand, I just wanna remind everyone that questions do end with a question mark.
[00:25:10] Audience Member #1:
Thanks everyone. Hi, uh, Hiba Ali. I run a news organization that reports about conflicts and disasters around the world, so we're very busy. So I work a lot and, um, appreciate all this, um, thinking. But I suppose you can switch down to four hours or four days a week,
[00:25:25] Anne Marie Slaughter:
Four hours a day--
[00:25:29] Audience Member #1:
—but if everything around you is still moving at the same pace, it's impossible. You, you can't. So, you know, 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?
[00:25:41] Ohood Al Rumi:
So in the UAE the shorter work week was implemented for government. We did not impose it on private sector. What happened, interestingly, that 50% of the private companies followed the decision and even some of the global companies who have offices in the UAE took that practice and applied it in their offices across the world. So I agree with you. There should be a coordinated effort from the private sector, public sector, to make it easy for people to adapt, whether they have children in school or they're working in the private sector or the public sector. So this is also a lesson learned from the UAE.
[00:26:21] Adam Grant:
I wonder if that would work in reverse: if a, if a bunch of private companies started, will governments follow? I think we have, we have a bunch of hands, uh, right over there, please.
[00:26:33] Audience Member #2:
Thanks very much. Um, I'm John Neill, I’m chairman of the Unipart Group. So, you know, 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 asked you to work more hours, would you get these benefits, more money that can be spent by the state on providing benefits for people?” What would be the answer? And that's the question I'm really asking for the views of the panel on, and I realize it's a little counterintuitive in an environment where we all like the idea of working less and working more flexible.
[00:27:14] Jonas Prising:
What you're getting at is the drive for productivity. 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 a hundred 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. And our capacity to produce wealth doubled or more than doubled many, many times over. And I think the premise of this discussion is, you know, 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 promise because I think everyone agrees you can't lower productivity. Productivity needs to continue to grow. The great example of how quickly you can switch on stuff that we never thought we could, you know, remote working and technologies, it's not as if all the companies suddenly bought Zoom in one week. You know, we all had the technologies, but we used them infrequently and poorly, you know, 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, in new ways. So the shift, when forced, can actually be dramatic and can be very, very quick as well.
[00:28:50] Hillary Cottam:
Can I add to this? I mean, I think, you know, it is true that all the experiments show within reason, that 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, and WHO, their data shows that work is killing us.
Because if you work too much, you have, you know, societies are dealing with a massive mental health crisis. They're dealing with all kinds of chronic disease crises because we're not kind of, you know, out and about and walking, so we're kind of suffering from different chronic conditions.
So there's, there's a huge amount of particularly state expenditure that is actually addressing too much work because, you know, unfortunately, the kind of work that is too much is not represented in this room because we are all kind of knowledge workers and leaders and so on. But for most people, this is a kind of huge issue.
And then the other thing, you know, 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, you know, as all the families that I work in and 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 as sustainable over generations.
[00:30:00] 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 WEF 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 well-being 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.
[00:30:38] Audience Member #3:
Thank you. Mina Al-Oraibi, I'm the editor-chief of newspaper called The National. It's a 24-hour media outlet. So like Hiba, I think about, this is wonderful, but we have to cover the shifts. So one of the things, I had two-pronged question. One is that we could give people four-day weeks and reduce that as they're working, but we have to find people who are equally skilled because it would have to be shift system. And at a time when we're looking at a real search for talent, how are we going to find that given the crunch that we're in and the expectation of 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 on what's happening still considered work? Because I think even understanding what work means changes from person to person. Um, but I'd really focus on the, on the, having the talents. 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.
[00:31:36] Hillary Cottam:
I mean, I challenge your doctor point. In the British Health Service, we don't have enough professionals. 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 gonna have a paid weekend, people would've also said, "But hang on a minute, like the production lines need to run seven days. How is it possible to pay people for two days off? This is never gonna happen." And yet, it has happened and it's been rolled back. And what's interesting about digital technology is it's asynchronous. So we should be able to think about how we kind of dovetail in new ways and we just haven’t. I don't think we've imagined it enough.
You know, when I run my workshops, people they, they reach for this and then if they're kind of lawyers or their design clients or their journalists, they say, "But hang on a minute, You know, this person expects always to see the same person or…” So part of it is normative. There may be some professions, which is why I think we need to think about the non-linear life. Like, you may do your job, Mina, for, like, 10 years and then you may need to kind of think about doing something else. ‘Cause it's simply unsustainable to kind of, you know, be brilliant in this way for that long.
I want to say, one other thing is I think this is not an individual thing. This is a social thing. Like we need societies that give people time to rest. To retrain. So it's not about, you know, rewarding the individual, we have to think about how we, we change the norms. Which is why I think your work is so interesting because you know, you've been doing it at the state level to kind of say, “You don't have to do this, but this is the new norm.” And I think that's very interesting.
[00:33:04] 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. My, I invested in a startup recently called A-Team that's trying to reimagine how we organize our work lives, and they've taken the builder economy and said, "Look, if you're a software engineer or a designer, uh, you can team up with the people that you most wanna 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, in more kinds of work, right? This is what, um, what Uber drivers do. You don't have assigned shifts. You have tasks that need to be done, and then there's a, a pool of people who are available to take those. What if all of our jobs were organized like that? We wouldn't have jobs, I guess, but we would have projects and we would have a lot of flexibility around that.
[00:33:48] Anne Marie Slaughter:
Exactly. Exactly. And I would push all even further job shares. You know, I remember at the National Security Council, one point, 2 young mothers both with, you know, relatively very young children, they would've been very happy to share the job so that somebody was on, 'cause yes, it's the National Security Council. “No, no, no, we can't do that.” They would take half money. They didn't need, they had, you know, 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, I was looking for my phone to see if I have it on my Kindle, but I just bought, 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.
[00:34:39] Adam Grant:
I'm gonna email you about it later.
[00:34:40] Anne Marie Slaughter:
[00:34:43] Adam Grant:
Other questions from the room. Right up here, please.
[00:34:47] Audience Member #4:
Thank you. Hi, uh, Henry based in Manila. I run an educational company there. But I'm also half French. And, uh, we, we did implement a 35-hour working week. Um, and I was just curious what your thoughts were A, on that experiment, and B, on the role of government legislation.
Uh, ‘cause the theory in the time in France was if you wait for people to come up with it, if you wait for companies, let's legislation, it's gonna take too long. We're just gonna impose it on everyone else. And obviously lots of backlash, but it pushed through. So I'm very curious what your thoughts are on legislation in general and in the French example, if you have any thoughts.
[00:35:23] Jonas Prising:
Thank you. That's a great example of a change that wasn't driven by productivity improvements, but a societal desire to work less with a theory that if you take 40 weeks to 35, lots more jobs will be created, the 8% unemployment rate at the time in France is going to come down.
None of that happened.
[00:35:39] Anne Marie Slaughter:
No, that didn’t happen.
[00:35:40] Jonas Prising:
What happened was that everybody continued to work exactly the same amount of hours. Because you are in France though, 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 getting everybody that legislated time off. So as far as the intention was concerned, it is considered to be an abject failure, actually.
[00:36:23] Adam Grant:
Wow. So, oh, tell us how we can make this a success. Can you fix France for us?
[00:36:32] Ohood Al Rumi:
I'll, I'll talk about it right here. So, um, you know, Adam, I see the uh, four-day work week as part of bigger fundamental changes that we are witnessing in 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 workplace because I think the pandemic and the disruption caused by the pandemic is giving us golden opportunity to reimagine the legislations the—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. Entities, they need data, they need numbers. So we need to do a lot of assessment and published numbers to convince also leaders, whether in the public sector or private sector, to adopt the, the new norm. There's no U-turn. It's just going forward and many of entities will adopt the shorter work week.
[00:37:56] 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 gonna get more people on board with a shorter 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, I'll, I'll just start by saying, don't count it out until you run the experiment. Pilot it. Let's actually see what happens.
[00:38:24] Jonas Prising:
In labor 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 uh, it's moving in that direction.
[00:38:53] Anne Marie Slaughter:
And I would say for the managers who are worried about it, ‘cause I find it's much more the managers than the workers: manage to task. Identify, “This is what I need to get done, this is when I need it done by, this is the quality I need.” And then just see.
[00:39:09] Hillary 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 shares that norm. So there's not like one person kind of 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, this immediately begins to kind of shift the norm. So don't do it a one-person thing. Hire in that way for a cultural, and it can happen everywhere.
[00:39:49] Ohood Al Rumi:
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 shorter 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 jeopardize the service delivery, so as long as we providing the right service to our people, then we can adopt any solution.
[00:40:17] 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 wanna 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.
This discussion was first broadcast on Agenda Dialogues, one of several podcasts available from the World Economic Forum. You can find that and their other shows Radio Davos, Meet the Leader, and the World Economic Forum Book Club podcast, wherever you listen. ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Graham.
Our team includes Colin Helms, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced by JoAnn De Luna and mixed by Sarah Bruguiere. Our fact-checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Layton-Brown.