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Opinionista

The five-day workweek is dying

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Nic is an obsessive entrepreneur, global keynote speaker, and published author. He has been building business since the age of 16 and has sold three businesses in the past decade. Currently, his work focuses on helping businesses build a more curious culture to promote innovative thinking and results.

No, I’m not lazy. I believe we need time and space to breathe so we can do our best work.

There is nothing new about wanting to work less. This is probably a concept that started almost as soon as the first sentient human came into existence. Humans don’t like to do things that we don’t like. We also don’t like to do these things too often. Unfortunately, many people work in jobs they hate with people they dislike, doing things that infuriate them. That makes a five-day workweek almost impossible to cope with. Marketing rallies around this concept. There is a restaurant called TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday), and I can’t think of an alcohol brand that hasn’t launched a campaign targeting the weekend party we all long for. What started off as a made-up way to plan our days has turned into a very real hatred of our time and how we are forced to manage it.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a five-day workweek and by extension, the seven-day week in general. The concept of time, as we currently measure it, is a man-made concept. Obviously there are natural occurrences that dictate how long a single year is, or a month should be (the revolution of the Earth around the sun and the phases of the moon respectively), but there is absolutely no naturally occurring event that dictates a seven-day week. It’s completely made up.

In a very detailed article about the origin of the seven-day week, The Atlantic explains: “The roots of the seven-day week can be traced back about 4,000 years, to Babylon. The Babylonians believed there were seven planets in the solar system, and the number seven held such power to them that they planned their days around it. Their seven-day, planetary week spread to Egypt, Greece and eventually to Rome, where it turns out the Jewish people had their own version of a seven-day week. (The reason for this is unclear, but some have speculated that the Jews adopted this after their exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C.) At the very latest, the seven-day week was firmly entrenched in the Western calendar about 250 years before Christ was born.

The earliest recorded use of the word “weekend,” Rybczynski notes, occurred in 1879 in an English magazine called Notes and Queries.”

Let me reiterate that last sentence: The earliest recorded use of the word “weekend”, occurred in 1879.

Only 141 years ago.

We are all slaves to a 141-year-old tradition. That’s around the same time that the incandescent light bulb and barbed wire were invented. The seven-day week is as old as barbed wire.

In a 2014 article, the Daily Mail reported that, “Professor John Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, said that shorter hours would allow workers to spend more time with their families and help reduce unemployment. Reducing the standard working week from five days to four would also help combat medical conditions such as high blood pressure and mental health problems.” In the same year, Larry Page (one of the co-founders of Google), threw his support behind the idea of a four-day workweek.

I believe that a shorter workweek would give people the time they need to exercise, see their families more, pursue their hobbies and passions, and come back to work rejuvenated and ready to give their employer 100% when they are at work. When I talk to young start-up founders who are grinding away doing 18-hour days, seven days a week while they are building their business, I always ask them if they are looking after themselves. The answer is generally a combination of a laugh and a cry. It’s strange to me that so many people believe that they belong at the bottom of their own priority list.

The irony here is that if you place yourself at the top of your priority list, you will perform better across the board. If you exercise, eat well, take time to walk your dogs, see your family more often and pursue your hobbies then you will be a happier, and healthier person. I haven’t done the research to back this up, but my gut tells me that happy and healthy people are better at their jobs. Humans are not built to work every day, five days a week for nine hours a day with no choice but to plough ahead. We are not machines, in case you had forgotten.

This relates directly to a four-day workweek and the balance required to be the best version of yourself.

Yet, unsurprisingly, we are all still working a five-day week and most of us don’t even have the option of flexible hours in those five days. This is unsurprising because humans do not like change. We don’t like change even if the research supports change. We don’t like change even if the benefit is clear to everyone. We don’t like change even if going to the gym would mean you feel better throughout the day. We don’t like change even if it means that meditating will lower your anxiety levels. We just don’t like change.

Employers are the most resistant to the idea of a reduced workweek. Many that I have spoken with believe (just by gut feel, mostly), that if they reduce the hours a person works then they will receive less value from that person. In their minds, time spent at work is directly correlated to performance and output. In short, bosses don’t believe they can build big, profitable, sustainable businesses with a four-day workweek.

The founder of Treehouse, Ryan Carson, believes otherwise and stated the below figures in a 2014 article:

  • We work a four-day week, and in just 32 hours per week, here’s what we’ve been fortunate to achieve:
  • Over $10,000,000 in yearly sales;
  • 70 full-time employees;
  • Yearly revenue growth of over 120%;
  • $13,000,000 raised in venture capital; and
  • Over 70,000 paying students.

It can be done.

Recently, the newly elected 34-year-old Finnish Prime Minister, Sanna Marin was rumoured to have proposed a four-day workweek for Finland. She sadly had not actually put the idea forward formally, but the suggestion seems to have sparked the debate anew in progressive circles around the world.

Microsoft Japan, however, actually did trial a four-day workweek in their local office. They found that offering their staff the gift of a three-day weekend boosted productivity by up to 40%. Microsoft gave their team five Fridays off in a row while keeping their salaries unchanged. They also reduced meeting times to a maximum of 30 minutes. By closing on these five days, Microsoft also reduced expenses dramatically with electricity costs coming down and paper printing falling by 59%.

It’s probably not going to happen anytime soon, but I believe that employers are going to have to change the way they think about building their businesses in the future. People are not looking to work long hours every day for five to seven days of the week anymore. We’re going to demand a better balance and I believe that many people would take a slightly decreased salary for an extra day off. Even this is unnecessary as many studies show that a four-day workweek increases productivity.

I am of the mind that the future of work is outcomes-based, not time-based. Hire the best people to do the best work, give them interesting problems to solve and the freedom to solve them, and watch the magic happen. BM

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