The Five-Hour Workday, Revisited: How One Company Made It Work

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Employee Engagement: The Strategic Priority of HR

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Stephan Aarstol, an entrepreneur who secured funding from Mark Cuban on the ABC TV show, “Shark Tank,” and who went on to champion the idea of a five-hour workday. Aarstol shared quite a bit more than I was able to squeeze into that post about what enabled him to implement a five-hour workday in his own company, Tower Paddle Boards, so a follow-up is warranted.

I opened this portion of the interview by mentioning that in my experience, meetings tend to be a huge time sink, with the agenda and discussion often needlessly inflated to fill whatever time period is allotted for the meeting. So I asked Aarstol if he had implemented any kind of policy or approach to meetings that helps make a five-hour workday doable. I should have known. He said they don’t have meetings:

Every other week, we have what’s called our Tower Tuesday, where the team gets together, and we’ll go out and do a Segway tour or some other fun activity. We’ll have a brief meeting before that where we’ll watch a Ted Talk or something; we’ll do what we call a ‘Stoke Report,’ where we’ll go around and everyone will tell us what’s going on great in their life. We’ll talk over some other stuff briefly, 15 or 20 minutes — that’s our meeting. We feel that everything else can be handled one on one. If you have a question and want to meet with someone, just walk over to their desk and chat it out. So we don’t have formalized meetings.

A huge enabler has been tapping software tools that save enormous amounts of time, Aarstol said, adding that companies are often completely unaware that these tools exist:

A lot of these productivity tools that are out there, freely available or very cheap, people are not using. An example of a tool like that is one called Panjiva. This is a sourcing tool for getting new products made overseas — identifying factories, which historically has been a very slow process. Panjiva aggregates Homeland Security data of all the containers that come into the country — this is all public information. It includes what factory or business it came from, what the weight is, the general description of content, and where it’s going.

I can go into Panjiva and search ‘paddle boards,’ and it will show every container with paddle boards that came into the country. I can zero in on a factory that seems to be shipping a lot of these containers, and find out who they’re sourcing for — all of my competitors that they’re making boards for. I can zero in on every one of those competitors, see where they source all of their products, and whether those shipments are going up or down over time.

You can almost see market share data — it’s this magical data that’s available. This site has been around for 10 years. I’ve been using it for 10 years. I’ve been sourcing stuff for over 10 years, and the first time I went to China was in 2015. Nobody has a clue this tool exists. There are so many tools like that that are so powerful, that people are just clueless about. They’re not looking for them, because they don’t have too — there’s no pressure on their time for them to get their work done.

I found it interesting that when Aarstol put the five-hour workday in place last year, he also implemented a 5 percent profit-sharing plan. I asked him which of those two initiatives has been more highly valued by the employees. He said far and away, it’s the shorter hours:

People like making a little more money, but that’s not why people are coming to our company. Two out of our three most recent hires were making $100,000 a year — they were young kids, salespeople being worked to death. They got a job with us, and they’re making about $55,000 right now. So they’re willing to take a huge pay cut for this. We’re a startup company, so we can’t afford to pay people 80 grand out the gate, until they really prove themselves. As we get to be a bigger company, we’re basically going to be able to steal talent from everybody in town. That’s the strategy here.

The idea behind the profit-sharing plan, Aarstol said, is to get the employees to feel more like owners:

Now, your pay is determined by what you are producing — we want that mindset. When we rolled that out, because we’re reducing the hours — we went from working 2,000 hours a year to 1,250 hours a year — the average person who was making, say $40,000 a year was making $20 an hour. We had seven or eight people at the time, so with the 5 percent profit-sharing, each person was making, on average, another $8,000 a year. Now that person is making $48,000 a year, divided by 1,250 hours — that person is now making $38.40 an hour — their per-hour earnings nearly doubled, overnight. The beauty of this is there was no increase in expenses to the company.

So you can highly compensate people, give them their time back, and it’s risk-free. When we rolled it out, it was June 1, and I said, ‘We’re going to do summer hours. This is a three-month test, and in the fall we’re going to roll it back to eight hours. I’m going to give you this 5 percent; we’re going to reduce your hours, which nearly doubles how much everybody is making per hour. But here’s what I want from you: I want you to do the same amount of work you were doing in eight-hour days. If you can’t do that, you’ll be fired. This is the deal.”

Aarstol wrapped up the conversation by sharing his view that life shouldn’t be all about work. Instead, work should empower life:

That has basically been flip-flopped over the past century in the U.S., to where we’re very heavily defined by work, and we put everything else to the wayside. I think it’s creating a lot of problems in society — health problems, a lot of stress-related disease, a lot of obesity, a lot of divorce, and a lot of unhappy children. Studies of the happiness of children in industrialized countries have shown that we’re way down the list — we’re in the bottom 10 percent. Why is that?

It’s similar to the problem that happened during the industrial revolution, where they put in the assembly lines and drove people harder and harder, and people were dying on the job. When you look at what’s happening today, with heart disease and obesity and all of this stuff, the same thing is happening, but it’s not as obvious, because people aren’t dying on the assembly line. They’re dying from diseases that stem from stress and overwork. By reducing the workday, what you’re saying is, ‘We can do stuff faster now. We can alleviate all these health risks.’ Anybody can try it, and see what happens. You’ll be amazed.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.


Aarstol’s experience is chronicled in his forthcoming book, “The Five-Hour Workday: Live Differently, Unlock Productivity, and Find Happiness,” to be released on July 15.


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