Illustration: Craig Stephens
by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Why companies should say goodbye to the 996 work culture, and hello to 4-day weeks

  • Overwork is counterproductive and economically irrational, and it need not be an inevitable feature of the always-on global economy. Around the world, companies have adopted four-day weeks, or six-hour days, without sacrificing productivity
The recent debate over working hours at China's tech companies hinges on a question: are long hours truly necessary, or are they simply exploitation?
Advocates of the 996 work schedule – 9am to 9pm, six days a week – say it places young professionals on a fast, steep learning curve, allowing them to unlock achievements they would have thought impossible. It shows companies which employees are most passionate about and devoted to their work. It is necessary for companies that want to do world-changing work. And in a highly competitive, always-on global economy and job market, long hours are the inevitable price of success.
Yet, every one of those statements is wrong. People and companies can go into overdrive and put in long hours for short periods – think harvest or exam time – but after a few weeks, overtime becomes counterproductive.

Studies of factories have shown workers who try to work 10- or 12-hour days make more mistakes, are more prone to burnout, and are more likely to quit than those who work eight hours. As a result, cumulative disruption to factories can drag their productivity below the level achieved during normal hours. Studies of doctors, nurses and other professionals have found that after long periods of overwork, people are more likely to slip up, cut corners, cheat or mistreat customers and coworkers.

Overworked employees are also more likely to leave and more prone to chronic diseases. Losing highly-skilled workers costs companies time and money, as tasks go unfinished or projects slow while new workers are being recruited and trained.

Globally, employee burnout costs economies an estimated US$300 billion a year. And the human cost, in lost earning potential, happiness and creativity, is incalculable.

Long hours don't make people more creative. Like the ideal tech worker praised by Jack Ma and Elon Musk, some of history’s most accomplished scientists, mathematicians and artists organise their lives around their work; but rather than work long hours, they work intensively for four or five hours a day and leave themselves lots of time for long walks, hobbies and exercise.

These apparently unproductive hours are actually when they have some of their sharpest insights. It also allows them to have longer, more sustainable careers.

But even if overwork is counterproductive, self-defeating and economically irrational, isn't it an inescapable feature of today’s 24-7 economy?

Yusaku Maezawa is the CEO of Japanese online retailer Zozo and will be the first private passenger on a SpaceX voyage around the moon as early as 2023. Zozo has a six-hour workday, while SpaceX founder Elon Musk works 80-hour weeks. Photo: AFP
Actually, it's not. I've been researching companies that have adopted four-day weeks or six-hour days, without cutting salaries or sacrificing productivity. These include software start-ups, e-commerce companies, design houses and financial services firms in the United States, Europe and Asia. Woowa Brothers, South Korea’s leading online delivery company, works a 35-hour week. Zozo, Japan's online shopping giant, has a six-hour workday. Michelin-starred restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen now work four-day weeks.
Leaders of these companies know from personal experience that long hours don't really work, so they encourage short periods of intense, very focused work. Time-wasting water cooler chat is replaced by group lunches and fika, the Swedish coffee break. They cut out unnecessary meetings, sharpen processes and discourage distractions like email and social media. Technology has enabled huge productivity gains in the last few decades, but we've buried them under layers of bad management and poor focus. Tear that away, and companies find that they can do the same work in fewer hours.
These companies report reduced burnout, increased retention and improved recruitment. Workers are more productive in shorter days, and more creative. They have time to explore new ideas, think about problems in a more relaxed atmosphere, and to tinker. And of course four-day weeks or six-hour days dramatically improve work-life balance, especially for women professionals.

A sceptic may object: this sounds great, but what about profitability and client satisfaction?

Because they are more productive, do better work and are more creative, companies that shorten their hours actually become more profitable. And if this transition is explained properly, clients are fully supportive. They suffer the same problems of overwork and burnout, and watch these experiments to see what lessons they can apply to their own workplaces. I've studied 100 companies that have moved to shorter hours, and heard of exactly one client who dropped a company when it adopted a four-day week.

So how can the 996 companies make the switch to a more sustainable work culture?

First, the change has to start at the top. Changing corporate culture, worker expectations and the way companies operate requires leaders who have the courage to challenge conventional notions of productivity.

Second, workers must be free to identify and eliminate problems, and experiment with new tools to help them work more effectively. As one CEO told me, “A four-day week is a leadership-instigated change, but you really need everyone to take ownership of it.”

Third, companies need to root out inefficiencies and distractions. This means making meetings shorter, relying less on email and Slack, and most important, redesigning daily schedules to allow for long periods of uninterrupted, focused work.

Finally, the change must be communicated clearly to clients. Shorter workweeks aren't about neglecting clients; they are about doing better work on their behalf.

These changes aren't easy, but moving to shorter hours helps companies become more productive, creative and profitable. Figuring out how to do more in fewer hours, not more, carves out a more sustainable path for companies and individuals. And it’s far better than burning out.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is author of “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less”. His next book, “Shorter: How Companies are Redesigning the Workday and Reinventing the Future”, will be published in 2020