The Wiki Man

Sod hard-working families: let’s have a four-day week

People are often more productive when they work fewer hours

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

Whenever I hear the phrase ‘hard-working families’ a little voice in my head asks ‘what about the lazier, chilled-out families? Shouldn’t we think about them too?’ If Cameron simply abandoned this Stakhanovite fetish and announced Britain’s move to a four-day working week, he could win the election outright.

It may take decades, but the work week is due for a rethink. It is hopelessly restrictive. Given the attacks on zero-hours contracts, you may be astonished to hear that over 80 per cent of employees on such contracts actually like them. I suspect many are people — carers, parents, students, the semi-retired — who can only work if they can work flexible hours.

Surprisingly people are often more productive when they work fewer hours. In reality, over-energetic people are often a bit of a curse (if you’ve ever worked with the worst kind of American, you’ll know what I mean). Just as highly intelligent people tend to overcomplicate things to give themselves an edge, the energetic make things more effortful than necessary to play to their comparative strength: it lets them neutralise more capable or reasonable people who can’t be bothered to play that game.

An analogy can be seen in sport. For a long time there was a class of sporting heroes who were, to put it politely, a bit porky. Ferenc Puskás and Babe Ruth weren’t slim (it was said the Babe aimed to score home runs so he could jog around the bases without breaking a sweat). The Brazilian genius Socrates was a chain smoker; quite a few great footballers were epic boozers and pie-munchers. But, given their talent, this didn’t matter. Then sport got a bit too serious.

Late in his career, John -McEnroe was asked by a group of young players what he did to keep fit. He looked at them, baffled: ‘I play tennis.’ They had meant weight training, circuits and so forth. The question is whether, had he been born 15 years later, McEnroe would have bothered to be a tennis player at all. At some level, effort can crowd out innate ability, making sport worse, not better. Professional cycling, under this pressure, degenerated from a sport into a testbed for the pharmaceutical industry.

Not all competition is good. When determination rather than skill becomes the deciding criterion for success, you may end up favouring the dumb and energetic — arguably the worst people of all. In the 19th century, Field Marshal von Moltke reputedly categorised Prussian military officers using the following matrix — in descending order:

Intelligent & Lazy: I make them my Commanders because they make the right thing happen, and find the easiest way to accomplish the mission.

Intelligent & Energetic: I make them my General Staff Officers because they make intelligent plans that make the right things happen.

Stupid & Lazy: There are menial tasks that require an officer to perform; they follow orders without causing much harm.

Stupid & Energetic: These are dangerous and must be eliminated. They cause things to happen, but the wrong things, and so create trouble.

The working week is largely a hangover from the assembly-line age: most experiments (for instance in Utah) imply that a four-day week, sometimes with slightly longer days, can be much better. Yet there is a kind of deep-set puritan instinct which prevents us considering that shorter hours might mean more productivity; the same instinct which causes Americans to regard Germans as lazy for taking more than their meagre two weeks’ holiday — even though the Germans achieve as much in their 1,400 hours each year as Americans do in 1,800. With hindsight, ‘No Taxation Without Vacation’ might have made a better rallying cry.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments
  • davidshort10

    Brilliant observations as usual from the Wiki Man. The worst type are those who work for organisations who do not have the profit motive or share price as markers for success, such as the UN and other international organisations. They work all hours God sends to produce lots of useless bumpf, and the worst culprits are US singletons pushing middle age, many of whom resemble (and probably worship) Hillary Clinton. (At first, I thought the pic was of Blair!}.

  • davidshort10

    At least we have now seen the back of the phrase ‘hard-working families’. Comedians have successfully parodied into extinction but politicians have started saying ‘working families’ instead….Does this mean there are families who are putting their children up chimneys and down mines?

    • Dogsnob

      One step at a time, eh?

  • Ahobz

    The law is bad for this. The billable hours culture, nurtred in the USA and imported happily by UK law firms (who to be fair are now competing for work against US firms) actaully works against productivity.

    When I worked with US lawyers, I often foond myself astonished at how may people and how many hours it took them to do things. When you learned that their jobs depended on them acheiving 1800 or more billable hours in a year, it became obvious why everything needed so many hours devoted to it.

    • rorysutherland

      This is also true of management consultancy (and advertising, to an extent, since we have adopted the same system). This is not to say that consultancy cannot be valuable, but the billable hours culture requires them to construct insanely elaborate, time-consuming interventions in order to command reasonable recompense for what could be a quite simple insight or idea. Payment by the hour is essentially a bit Marxist, too: based on a kind of labour theory of value.

      • davidshort10

        I once had a nice little editing job from an international organisation. if I had been paid for the time it took, I would not have bothered They were the ones who said ‘oh, it’s about ten working days, we think’ – which reflected the work rate and efficiency I suppose of its staff. I sat in the quiet room where they allow computers in the Muthaiga Club in Nairobi for two and a half days and finished the job, but getting paid for ten. That’s the billable culture I would like in my later life – and I have officially arrived there!

  • john p woods

    I thought the trouble with zero hours was that the flexibility card is pretty much in the hands of the employer? Incidentally some endeavours require more application than ingenuity. Admittedly it could be posited that, today, the balance is a bit out of kilter. That said, I shall be most positively applying my efforts when Sunday comes at the London Marathon.

    • rorysutherland

      I think this undoubtedly *does* happen in certain cases, where the employer holds the whip-hand completely, but according to a civil servant I met at DWP it is much less common than you or and would think, and a lot less common than Polly Toynbee would suggest. In most cases, the arrangement is fairly amicable and results in mutual benefit.

      It is worth remembering that someone you know, like and trust and who already knows the ropes is a much more appealing employee than someone new picked at random. So anyone who has established themselves has an advantage over others. In addition, a willingness to be flexible is a valuable attribute in any employee, especially in service industries where the workload may be highly variable. So it does not seem that unlikely to me that you would accept the occasional “No, I can’t do this Wednesday” from a reliable and trustworthy person as an acceptable price to pay in return for not having to pay them when you don’t need them. Contrary to what labour market economists may assume, the relationship between employer and employee is not wholly one-sided, and not wholly financial. A reputation for reasonableness benefits both sides.

      • rorysutherland

        Incidentally, there is also a value to anything which prevents total unemployment. Complete unemployment for long periods has a psychological cost in addition to the financial cost: so having people do some work, for some part of each week, has an additional value in keeping people from the slough of despond. I suspect this is not only about poverty: even if you paid me my current salary and told me I did not have to do any work for 12 months, I would quite likely slump into a state of complete inertia after the first very enjoyable few months.

        • john p woods

          Rory, I’m not sure inertia would ever be your m.o.

      • davidshort10

        I have had the equivalent of a ‘zero hours’ contract with an organisation which involved when necessary remote editing of documents and where I got paid so much per day and generously. It had the added advantage to me that it ran concurrent to another contract that required me to be at my desk whether there was any work to do or not and I got paid whether I did any work or not…..A perfect arrangement, of course….I’m sure some zero hours people are being exploited but the system does not by any means deserve the automatic opprobrium it gets.

      • Not only in service industries but in parts of the country — any country — where the work is or may be seasonal in nature. Places that are tourist magnets at certain times of year are the chief example (Cornwall; Florida; the Smoky Mountains, USA….).

  • Simon de Lancey

    I often fantasise about having an old-fashioned 5-day week and a holiday once in a while, but I need the money.

    • little islander

      You are also more easily fired in UK and the US than in the European countries. Already more than 30 years ago when I visited my London office from Singapore, I was amazed my British colleagues kept their heads down at their desks through the working day. My Swiss friend shared the same observation. When wind of retrenchment of some lower-level French colleagues in France reached the office in Singapore, several colleagues joined in a petition threatening to resign en-masse and the head office in Paris backed down. Many Americans with experience and master degrees were begging for jobs in Asia in the 1990’s. The mainland Chinese as late as the last decade were still taking siestas, not sure they have stopped, while their Hong Kongers logged the second longest working hours in the world. Personally, I find the political and business leaders in USA, UK, HK and Singapore to be rather contemptible with some exceptions and their philantrophy just don’t make up for that. Francis Ford Coppola best summed up the way of life: rob everyone blind, then give to the poor.

      • I’d rather live in America and England than almost anywhere else. Except Switzerland, and it wouldn’t have me.

        • little islander

          Singapore, Malaysia, Great Britain, Hong Kong, New York. Switzerland? As someone once wisecracked, “can’t stand the effing views”. Really.

          • Could you make your meaning a little plainer? I like living in freedom and don’t think caning for a minor offence would suit me.

          • little islander

            I am not in the habit of vandalising public properties nor in the business of selling chewing gum, which some people used to mess up the public train doors during rush hours. Take your pick. Does not concern me at all.
            Freedom? It’s something the Brits and the Americans use to flog their countries or others with (convenient for robbing your peoples blind, me thinks)?
            Plainer meaning. I get around easily in those places because English is spoken, they are familiar, and the big cities have either mass transit systems and/or inexpensive cab services. Oh, Malaysia and GB have the lowest income inequality and free medical services for the have-nots. So tops, for I am a socialist. No champagne, please. Gives me the asthma. Singapore is the little island I call home.

          • America has have-not medical services, free for the user but not the taxpayer, of course. They are called Medicaid (for the poor) and Medicare (for the aged).

          • little islander

            Would you not spare me further flogging? My employer couldn’t force me to sell dodgy derivative products concocted by the Americans, way back in the 1990’s, and I know someone who shot himself in the head when the shit hit the fan as the Americans pulled the proverbial rug from under him (yes, he had only himself to blame, but really?), and I met Americans who are so clueless about their country it would be funny were they also not Ivy league graduates, and,……it breaks my heart to see young American MBA’s sent out to the world to flog in the late 1990’s what would become the financial disaster of this century. As the shark which became sick after eating the American said when asked what it tasted of, ‘Bullshit’.
            It may not matter to you but GB is Happy Planet’s no 1 western nation whereas Singapore, USA and Hong Kong are among her worst offenders. Hong Kong and Singapore put up with a lot of people on very little. What’s the excuse of USA. This is not a question.

          • I love the USA. I love the people, the natural beauty, the cultural ferment, the creative adventures, the freedom…. Come and see us some time.

          • little islander

            thanks. many times, all over. most memorable from denver thru the yellowstone, mount teton and the 3 canyons. just a reminder: I was talking about the leaders. however, to be fair, with superpower comes super responsibility, as spiderman’s uncle might have said to tobey mcguire.

          • True. And given the power of the governors, there must also be strong provision for the governed.

            That’s what worries me about Britain. Does it have the needed checks and balances (do any of us, really?)?

          • little islander

            Long ago I came to realise I must remain unfazed by my people or the governors. Nothing that a good sleep could not overcome. As Harold Wilson said, the important thing for a leader is he must be able to sleep. Friends and colleagues tell me they are ‘proud’ their children are now living in the West (Aust +NZ included). One told his children not to come home, by hook or by crook. They are losers. Sometimes one lives abroad for work, a different lifestyle or for marriage (in your case, I think), and that’s that. No need to rubbish the country or the politics like you were so privileged or intelligent to leave behind and full of pious pity for the scornful masses who have no choice in hell but to get on with their miserable lives. I am merely describing some dear friends who left for the States. Hope you don’t share their misplaced sensibilities.

          • I love England. I’m in America by choice and by economic necessity (England is a hard place to get on in if your family isn’t already monied). I’m much more fascinated by what’s going on over there than over here — but with everything I see, I doubt that I’ll ever return: they’re just not free enough or prosperous enough for my needs.

    • Remember 9-5? (You may all laugh hysterically now).

  • Tom

    Our big fault is equating time spent x effort = productivity, which promotes working harder and longer.
    Instead if we though of productivity as = meaningful accomplishments, we’d all do a much better job working in better ways.

    • rorysutherland

      I think there is a fascinating example from nature where a certain proportion of bees ignore the waggle-dance (it depends on the environment what proportion this is). There is a certain, optimal amount of randomness and short-term inefficiency necessary in any complex system which is “convex to luck” as Nassim Taleb would say. Most of the random bee journeys are wasted, but a small proportion will discover an altogether new source of pollen.

      When this was first discovered, fascinatingly, people were baffled that bees weren’t more “efficient” and therefore more compliant with the dance – until they modelled it mathematically and found that, without the random bees, the hive would get trapped in a local maximum and often starve to death.

      • Tom

        This is incredible. A HBR piece in this for sure. An extension of the diverse teams outperform stuff that McKinsey used to peddle.

      • Tom

        & someone needs to set up an ad agency right now called the “rebellious bee”

        • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

          The triumph of pessimism.

  • E Hart

    Couldn’t agree more. I used to phone up Germans, Belgians, Spanish etc. and find that they were at lunch. Talk about wish you were there. Their British or American equivalents would be wielding a tuna torpedo or such and sitting at their desks getting stale.

    The football examples are good ones. Puskas could have played in any team at any time, just as Socrates could, or indeed Babe Ruth. Habits and weight aside, they all had one thing in common, they were preternaturally talented, loved the game and through skill made their own time. This is important, as you say, because the alternative is die-cast tedium, where people are shaped to fit rather than fitted to shape. This is evinced everywhere in every field where there is a division of labour. Ant and Bee didn’t make this mistake, Adam Smith didn’t and nor did Marx. However, we are left with a working and sporting culture where people happily flog a dead horse in the hope that it will magically spring back into life. To use another sporting analogy, see how far England’s football team has fallen by emphasising physical fitness, aggression and organisation to the exclusion of skill or invention. Remember, it couldn’t find room for Tony Currie, Alan Hudson, Rodney Marsh, Matt Le Tissier…

    We do need time to stand and stare. Part of this is the fault of our sado-masochistic culture, which rewards toadying and compliance as virtues because of the short-term expedient they offer in protecting egos and setting out the “appropriate” pecking order. As a result, when the messenger arrives he usually beaten to a pulp because he’s a messenger. Pure idiocy.

    • Dogsnob

      Superb post.
      (Matt Le Tissier: finest footballer I ever saw in an England shirt, and yes, look how they squandered his talent; returning to the ‘knock it up to the big boy’ model.)

      • E Hart

        Thanks. The man was an artist, loved the game for its own sake, was a great team-player and understood more than most that glory lies in the art not in the statistics.

        As an aside, Glenn Hoddle was dropped by Ron Greenwood after side-footing the ball into the net from 25-yards in a friendly against Bulgaria. Greenwood offered this by way of explanation: “Well, football’s all about disappointments.” He wasn’t wrong in England’s case, was he?

  • Dogsnob

    Four day week at 55. Three days at 60. Please.

    • rorysutherland

      My view exactly. Actually I would happily work until 70 three days a week if fit enough to do so. It’s good to do some work: it’s just that, in later life, you don’t want to be getting up at 7am five days a week.

      • Dogsnob

        Try 5:30….at 58! Not what I had planned!

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      Bertrand Russel advocated the 4 day 30 hour week in the 1930s. Not just to cure unemp!oyment ,but as a sign of progress and civilisation. We were again promised this in the computer age, but again the work expanded to fit the time available and we are all bullied by the protestsnt work ethic and presenteeism.

      • Dogsnob


        • rorysutherland

          Presenteeism and Credentialism are two of the curses of the age: they come into the category of words which aren’t elegant but are useful.

          • Dogsnob

            Looked em up and I agree. Never got on with all this ‘lunch is for wimps’ mindset. In fact, no; lunch is for a pint of either beer or cider. Then perhaps a short nap.

          • Ah, that’ll be your refined carbs (never mind the alcohol) dulling you down of an afternoon.

          • Dogsnob

            No carbs, just alcohol. 15 mins boboes and I’m once more out the van like a young gazelle. And all that.

          • Paul O’Connor

            Agree on both counts. The other problem we tend to have is a concept called the “Peter Principle”. People sometimes get promtoed to the point of incompetence. Typically in a leadership role.

            Would like to see more use of probationary periods for internal promotions etc. Benefits both parties as it allows them a test period however, not sure how this would fit into our industry.

          • Why so called?

      • little islander

        There’s a real problem with fewer working days. If weekends got longer, countries where currency strength is important for the functioning of the financial system would ‘suffer’ from too much travel to neighbouring countries. When Singapore shortens its work week from 5.5 days, the customs had to tighten up the land crossings to Malaysia. And the queues and jams worsen during 3-day weekends. (If only Greece were geographically nearer, the Germans would probably be more ready to spend their money there to tide things over.)

        • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

          So sacrifice progress to avoid traffic jams.Why would the weekend have to be longer? We just expect fewer hours work. In fact two people in a 3.5 day a week job share means businesses can eradicate weekends altogether.

          • little islander

            Spend where you earn. That’s all I am saying. Like the Japanese. Especially when your fiscal and current accounts are not favourable.

    • If you’re still working. I’ve told my husband that for the sake of his health and the well-being of our relationship, next year should be his last (he’s 47 now). Fortunately, he agrees.

      • Dogsnob

        For his sake, I hope you mean his last working year!

  • PetaJ

    I liked Field Marshall von Moiltke’s criteria for categorising officers, but to the first one (Intelligent and lazy) he should have added that they are the best delegators, getting more done for less effort on their part.

  • NickM

    Great article. Here’s a review of the successful adoption of a four day week in Utah from The Guardian in February 2013

  • Joe Mckay

    Good stuff as always, Rory (you really should compile your columns into a book).

    And as for the point about the merits of lazy people? Bill Gates agrees:

  • Frank Heaven

    This theory partly explains why public schools produce so many successful people in industry and politics.

    Public schools are measured by exam results, so their education is entirely about practicising for these exams. They don’t worry about the grand ideals of a ‘proper education’ like the state sector does.

    As a result, not only do they produce good exam results, they produce people who are very good at working out the quickest way to find a solution to a problem. Or as your Prussian general might say – people who are ‘intelligent and lazy’.

    • I think it’s more about the quality of their education and the fact that they are not allowed to fail. (If they are falling behind, they are given tutors and brought up to speed.)

  • nicgrev

    Rory Sutherland for Prime Minister!

  • CommonSense Matters

    This is something I too would be promising if I were running for Prime Minister. I think this is the norm for a lot of people but would need a seismic attitudinal shift for broad acceptance, especially with the Rightys on here equating it with socialism.

    • Somehow I think you wouldn’t know your Lefty from your Righty and especially you wouldn’t recognize anything less Manichean and more complicated.

      • CommonSense Matters

        When you wrote the above how spangled were you? Enquiring about your blood alcohol level, or was it narcotics?

        • That’s right: evade and go for the ad hom. Typical Lefty.

          • CommonSense Matters

            If you reply in understandable English I will respond…what’s your beef spangly?

  • if you’ve ever worked with the worst kind of American, you’ll know what I mean
    I have, and I do.

    I also think that requiring teachers to be at school behind their desks at 7:30 is Draconian. I think that starting classes at 8 in the morning when adolescents need all the sleep they can get is unkind. In fact, the research was so overwhelming that even the Head had to acquiesce and allow classes to start at 8:30. But the teachers still have to be there an hour earlier. Many have long commutes or have to get their own children ready for school (the precise location of the school is not ideal and many can’t afford it, anyway). The too-early start is no help at all and leads to a lot of sleep deprivation. And my husband works weekends to prepare as well. It’s not much of a life, really.

    Isn’t there something absurd about the idea of ‘professional cycling’ to begin with? Tennis as a game makes a kind of sense. One must be responsive, versatile, agile, strong, and calculating: a player. What does cycling demand besides a great pair of lungs and well-muscled legs?