Lessons from companies that work less

Lessons from Companies that are Working Less

June 24, 2020

Depending on the survey, 67% to 79% of employees suffer from burnout at least some of the time. These victims of burnout cite unreasonable workload and “too little time in the day to get the job done” as the leading causes of their chronic work-related stress. Most companies have responded by offering stress management training or mindfulness programs, which can help people avoid such maladies, but have a mixed effect on people currently in burnout.

In fact, there are very few interventions that consistently produce significant relief for those in burnout. One of the three is so obvious it may seem comical: work less. Simply spending less time on the job is one of the most effective ways to recover from the depths of emotional exhaustion and cynicism.

The Great Paradox

If employees are drifting into burnout because they don’t have enough time to finish their work, how can they possibly hope to work less? This is a fair question and one for which most would assume there is no good answer. However, a great paradox exists. Many of the same people who say they don’t have enough time to get their work done also say that their work should only take them five hours per day.

How can both of these statements be true? Respondents believe they could finish their work in five hours per day “if they worked uninterrupted” – and they are right.

Microsoft’s Japan’s office made big news this past summer when it saw productivity increase 40% during an experiment with a four-day workweek. A year earlier, the New Zealand investment firm, Perpetual Guardian, saw productivity go up 20% during its own eight-week experiment. Data from over 50 million job posts on the ZipRecruiter employment marketplace shows the percentage of companies offering 4-day workweeks, while still small, has almost tripled in the last three years. A German technology firm made headlines for shifting to five-hour workdays.

These experiments show that, as a society, we have settled for largely inefficient workdays, which are driving many to burnout. To understand how we arrived at this conclusion, watch this short video. According to one survey in the United Kingdom, 79% of professionals admitted that they “do not consider themselves to be productive throughout the entire working day.” When asked to explain, over half said they indulge in distractions to make the workday “more bearable.” Consider the irony. People distract themselves during work to get through the day, only to make it more difficult for them to complete everything, which creates stress that eats into their personal time.

A Different Way

It doesn’t have to be this way. You can work less, produce more, and experience less stress, but to do so, you must question how you work: the meetings, the emails, the breaks, and the interruptions.  Perpetual Guardian encourages other adopters to “give employees plenty of time to think about how they can work differently.”

Companies and professionals should embrace this advice because it will create enduring improvements in productivity and employee sustainability, but they also don’t need to reinvent the wheel. All professionals can learn from the changes those who been part of shortened workweek experiments have made, regardless of whether their companies support such policies. If you’d prefer a briefer version of these experiments, read this article instead. These changes fall into four categories:

Reduce Time in Meetings

The average professional spends over 1.5 hours per day in meetings and feels that half to two-thirds of that time is unproductive. Microsoft urged employees to limit meetings to 30 minutes and five attendees. These limits may seem arbitrary, but they do have some bearing in science. British historian C. Northcote Parkinson asserted that meetings of five members are the most efficient. Google’s identification of psychological safety as the leading predictor of great teams supports this limit too, since it’s impossible to keep your meetings short and give everyone a sufficient chance to share if you have many more than five people in the meeting.

Others learned to move meetings so they “didn’t interrupt the middle of the morning or afternoon” or to avoid scheduling meetings altogether on certain days. These practices enable you to engage in what neuroscientist Cal Newport calls “deep work” and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow” – both concepts that drive the greatest value.

Minimize Interruptions from Email & Messaging Applications

Email is a similarly vexing distraction for the modern worker. According to a McKinsey study, the average professional spends 2.6 hours per day on email. Research shows that half of this time can be cut with five practices. To start, you should check email much less frequently. Research suggests that 90% of clients and coworkers do not expect a response before an hour, meaning you shouldn’t have to turn to your inbox more than hourly.

Many shortened workweek experimenters have gone much more extreme. People at the German firm checked their email twice a day. Some roles require more continuous review of incoming messages. In those cases, forming a rotation with your colleagues so that you can take turns monitoring emails can allow everyone to have some time away from email.

To limit email, many companies have pushed employees to team-based messaging apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams, but they also come with challenges. First, as you introduce other messaging applications, you need to be clear how you’re going to use different communication channels (i.e., what should be handled via Slack vs. email). Second, these messaging apps can be equally distracting. It’s critical that you turn off notifications and avoid checking them for at least certain periods of the day.

Avoid Checking Social Media & the News

According to a study by a UK-based coupon company, the top two activities employees engage in when they are not working productively are checking social media and reading news websites, amounting to almost two hours per day. Some companies have banned social media during the workday or asked employees to keep their phones in their bags. Perpetual Guardian did neither, but their employees spent 35% less time on the most popular websites during the experiment.

Checking social media or news at work may create a “needed” diversion or break, but it also generally elicits guilt associated with procrastinating. Scheduling time outside of work to catch up on your newsfeed enables you to skip the guilt and have something to look forward to when you’re done.

Reduce Socializing & Breaks

Employees next lose the most time taking breaks and socializing with coworkers, spending 1.5 hours per day discussing out of work activities and preparing hot drinks or food. While breaks are an important part of remaining focused, it’s unlikely they deserve 20% of the workday.

The Pomodoro technique may be at least partially to blame for the incessant breaks because it suggests that humans can only focus for brief periods of time before needing a break. The popular time management practice recommends taking three to five minutes breaks every 25 minutes three times and then, after the fourth 25-minute stretch, a 15- to 20-minute break. Breaks, in this formula, add up to 23% of the workday. While there is good science behind the value of taking regular breaks, research by the United States military on humans’ ultradian cycles suggests that humans are likely able to focus in 90-minute increments. Neither taking breaks or socializing with coworkers are bad ways to spend time, but if you’re interested in working less and avoiding burnout, they are ripe for trimming.

It may still be hard to believe that these simple changes to your professional routine can lead to such significant improvements. Yet, examples like the German firm that went to five-hour workdays show it is possible. In fact, the CEO of that firm noted that “Everyone’s outside life got so much better, at the expense of their passion for work” that he decided to limit five-hour workdays to the summer. You can continue to treat the symptoms of burnout while wasting away hours at work or you can make some simple changes and experience work and life the way you have dreamed may be possible.