Published November 29, 2022 | Updated August 3, 2023 | 6 minute read
In Summer 2022, August embarked on its first experiment with a shortened work week. We closed the office on Summer Fridays, starting with half days and graduating to full days after 6 weeks. At the end we held a retrospective to discuss what worked, what didn’t, and what we learned. This blog is the third in a 4-part series reflecting on our discoveries.
I’ve got to be honest - our 4-day work week experiment was a struggle for me.
I couldn’t take Fridays off without feeling like I was compromising my client relationships. Many weeks, I worked solo on Fridays just to maintain my perceived “value” to my clients.
It has been really difficult to let go of the belief, deep down, that my personal and professional value is defined by how much I work.
I’m betting you can relate. Many of us have been conditioned from childhood to measure productivity by inputs (hours logged) rather than outputs (projects achieved).
We’ve internalized this through a cult of busyness, which has convinced us that our worth, integrity and importance are measured by how much we work and how little we rest.
This is undoubtedly a huge part of why the 4-day work week is such a hard sell.
The 4-day work week challenges one of the biggest lies of American capitalism: That our value as human beings is determined by how much we work.
Maybe measuring by inputs just feels easier and more reliable. Or maybe it’s a legacy from the days when manufacturing and agriculture dominated our economy.
If we want to give the 4-day work week a fighting chance, we have to start measuring productivity by outputs, not inputs. Doing so will require us to decondition ourselves from a cultural belief system that traces back to the founding of the American economy.
America has a troubled relationship with work.
Americans are conditioned to believe that hard work is inherently virtuous, and that the amount of labor one performs is directly proportional to one’s success.
Sounds harmless enough, right?
The trouble with this belief system is that it positions those who don’t succeed as the ones who don’t work hard.
It’s not a big leap from, “Hard work leads to success!” to biased and harmful stereotypes like: “Poor people are lazy.” “Women are too focused on family instead of work.” “People with disabilities can’t do the job 100%.” “Black candidates just aren’t as qualified.”
The American myth of hard work is a key driver of the racism, ableism and sexism that pervade our culture today.
The Hard Work belief system traces back to the earliest days of American capitalism, when the myth of the “self-made man” first took shape.
The rich agricultural opportunities of the South, the Protestant work ethic of the North, and the rugged individualism of Westward expansion coalesced into a collective ideal of individual industriousness.
“Hard work” thus became a hallmark of the American identity.
Never mind that the most successful early American capitalists achieved their profits through chattel slavery and stolen land, or that Westward expansion was paved by exploited Chinese immigrant labor and Indigenous displacement and genocide.
Even after slavery was abolished, exploitative labor practices were so extreme that by 1890, manufacturing employees were working an average of 100 hours per week!
These Americans, both enslaved and free, worked f*cking hard. Yet the American dream of self-determination was largely out of their reach. And this is still largely true for workers today.
It took labor unions 75 years of activism, strikes, petitions and protests to win us the 40-hour work week. We owe them a massive debt of gratitude.
And the fact remains that American employees work longer hours and have fewer protections and rights than workers in almost any other industrialized nation.
Meanwhile we perpetuate the Hard Work mythos by rewarding schoolchildren for perfect attendance, celebrating a relentless hustle culture, and amplifying time-based myths of “earned genius” like Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.
We need a healthier relationship with work.
Deconditioning the myth of hard work isn’t easy, and our individual ability to embrace an alternative mindset is deeply rooted in privilege.
Immigrants, BIPOC and employees with disabilities have to prove their worth in the face of systemic bias and scrutiny that just doesn’t apply to more privileged professionals.
My own dad, and many other immigrant and Black parents like him, drilled the message into me growing up, “You have to be twice as good and work twice as hard to be considered half as good as your white peers.” And…he wasn’t wrong.
But we have to start somewhere. Decoupling our sense of personal worth from our hours on the clock is a massive undertaking that’s best broken down into small steps. Here are 3 to start with.
1. Let go of the belief that your job should be your passion.
The saying, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” needs to be drop-kicked from the lexicon of popular career advice.
To believe that your job should be your passion is to conflate your identity with your work, further reinforcing the idea that “hard work” is the path to individual fulfillment.
Meditation, therapy, hobbies, volunteerism, and spending time with loved ones can be supremely helpful in deconditioning us from the belief that we have to work more in order to be worthy of recognition, respect and love.
2. Protect your rest as your divine human right.
Taking time off is an expression of self-ownership and refusal to live according to the dictates of capitalism. Whenever you feel guilty for taking time off, remind yourself: You are resisting the lie of capitalism, and reclaiming your innate self-worth.
Of course, rest can certainly be harder to access for people from marginalized groups. But we need to resist thinking of rest as a privilege. It’s a divine human right. As Equity Meets Design so eloquently describes it:
“Rest is a quietly subversive act, daring us to suspend our inequitable earn-your-worth reality and inviting us instead to speak to a new, more beautiful, and freer future by reveling in our own sovereignty and deservingness.”
3. Work less.
The 4-day week isn’t beneficial if workloads don’t scale accordingly. A shorter work week forces prioritization, which ultimately leads to efficiency and growth – but not if you’re still trying to achieve 5 days’ worth of work in 4 days’ time.
At August, we made several conscious trade-offs up front, in anticipation of our truncated week. We deprioritized team-building. We streamlined our meeting schedules. We asynchronized as much of our communication as possible.
As a result, workdays for the most part felt packed, but focused. Working less meant working smarter, and consciously leaving lower-priority work undone. No more zero-inboxing. No more eternal availability. We set clear boundaries with clients and with each other. Boundaries can be scary, but – as I’m still learning – they’re crucial to reclaiming your self-worth.
Leaders: Let go of the belief that your employees’ value lies in how much they work.
As much as reclaiming our value is deeply personal, it’s also structural. Which means it’s on leaders to lead the way.
If you’re in charge of leading people, start working on disconnecting your perception of their value from their hours worked.
Shift your focus towards their achievements, their outputs, their qualitative and quantitative contributions. Pay attention to what they do, more than when they do it (or how busy their calendar looks).
Employees increasingly want and expect a 4-day work week. For this to become a viable reality, American workplaces need to let go of the capitalist lie, and learn to recognize human value as something that is innate, not earned.