Shorter: Book Review

We worship overwork and its pervasiveness makes it seem inevitable. People who leave office early or use flexible timing options are termed slackers by their colleagues. So, working for only four days a week and being more productive and creative seems counter intuitive and challenges all our conventional notions of work and our workweek.

In his book Shorter, Dr. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang makes an argument for a shorter workweek. (with no changes to compensation) He says, that the forty-hour week (or five-day workweek) is a carryover from the Industrial Age, when the rallying cry for Unions was “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” This, he states, is not relevant today and especially for professionals in creative and knowledge intensive industries.

While currently instances of four-day workweek may be more prevalent in Western countries, China may soon join this movement. In 2018, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences proposed that China move to a four-day workweek by 2030. Major cities and departments are now on a graded plan to attain this.

Dr. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang studied multiple companies that operate on a four-day workweek, most tend to be small or medium sized enterprises, led by founders who have the leeway to make dramatic changes and these companies also tend to operate in creative spaces – a shorter workweek burnishes their creative credentials. Business leaders, described in the book as recovering workaholics, who having suffered burnout, seem to be leading the charge to make this dramatic transition. 

With a four-day workweek, the extra free time when used by employees for rest and in the pursuit of other activities and interests, ensures they have newer and richer experiences. This, when combined with short bursts of focused work helps them be more productive and creative. That’s the crux of Dr. Alex’s argument,

Using the design thinking framework, the author explains how companies can make their own shifts to a four-day workweek.

Shorter has great tips to redesign meetings, to make them shorter, more productive and to create time for yourself. These are invaluable tips, even if a four-day workweek seems an impossibility in your current work place, Attention is social, is another great concept introduced in the book. Your ability to focus at work also depends on other’s willingness to not interrupt you (and vice versa).

The impact of shorter workweek on an ageing society, on the environment and society are rushed through, almost perfunctorily. Some stories of companies that have made the transition, seem repetitive. But, Shorter, is a great read in its explorations of a counter intuitive concept. However, the four-day workweek’s use to burnish creative credentials by companies, reveals a certain hollowness. In urging leaders to be clear of their revenue goals and business aspirations ahead of making the shift, Dr. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is probably indicating that it may not work in businesses chasing audacious goals or when leaders are hugely ambitions. Truth be said, Zen-like qualities, moderation and balance, are rarely tolerated in businesses today.  

But to me, Shorter and its argument for working fewer hours and fewer days each week poses a different question. What does work mean to us? When our identities are tied to our work, what will we do if we get an extra free day each week?  How will we spend our time? It’s a question, posed in a different context, in Daniel Susskind’s A World Without Work. (plug warning, you can find the Review and Book Summary on my blog.) The answers probably lie in pursuing interests outside of work and evolving an identity that’s not tied to professional titles. Its only then that a four-day workweek will seem attractive.

Read the summary here.