The Argument for a Five-Hour Workday

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    Stephan Aarstol managed to convince billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban to invest in his company on the ABC TV show, “Shark Tank.” Now he’s out to convince the rest of us to buy into the notion that companies would prosper, and society would benefit, if we’d switch to a five-hour workday.

    Aarstol, founder and CEO of Tower Paddle Boards in San Diego, insists that the eight-hour workday is as harmful as it is antiquated, and that the knowledge workers of today function much more efficiently when three of those hours are given back to them. In his forthcoming book, “The Five-Hour Workday: Live Differently, Unlock Productivity, and Find Happiness,” Aarstol askes a compelling question: Why are we doing this to ourselves when it’s so unnecessary?

    With his own company as a laboratory, Aarstol has set out to prove his case. I recently spoke with Aarstol about that experience, and about what drove him to test his theory that there had to be a better way. Aarstol opened the conversation by explaining that software has obviated the need for an eight-hour workday:

    Much like the industrial revolution 100 years ago, when machines took over the heavy-lifting and manual labor, today in the information age, software is taking over a lot of the work of knowledge workers. Smart companies are using software to replace slower processes — as an entrepreneur I learned that, and all of my friends were doing that. We were running one-person businesses. I did that for about five years, and now with the paddleboard company, I said, “OK, wait. Why can’t we have a whole company do that?” So we’re applying it to the whole company, and making everybody their own efficiency expert by finding software solutions to allow them to do this — to do 10 hours of work in two to three hours.

    The sad thing is that the business world hasn’t changed the hours for knowledge workers. We still work this eight-hour day, which is really about a 9.4-hour day, on average. You have 50 percent of the population working more than 50 hours a week, 25 percent working more than 60 hours a week. So as productivity, the ability to get stuff done quicker, has skyrocketed — up 80 percent over the last 40 years — wages have gone up 11 percent.

    Aarstol acknowledged that a lot of the tools he’s talking about are double-edged swords:

    If you take Facebook as an example, a lot of people would call Facebook a time-waster. But it’s actually a productivity tool, in a sense — you can organize a class reunion in a couple of hours, as opposed to taking months of time. But, on the other hand, you can waste time with it. So what’s happened during the workday is people are not using these tools efficiently, because they don’t have to — they’re just throwing time at things. They’re trying to fill the rest of their time, because now it’s understood that you can do a full day’s work in two to three hours.

    My opinion is if you have a good knowledge worker, that person is getting two to three hours of good work done in a day, and most companies are perfectly happy with that. This is why you have the growth in telecommuting and flex-time, because basically people are saying, ‘We all know this is kind of a joke. I’m going to figure out how to extract myself from the office and do my two to three hours of work. Everybody in the office is happy, and nobody’s the wiser.’

    That, he said, is a horrible solution, because you need knowledge workers in one spot:

    There’s this idea effect that goes on between workers, and when you pull them out of the office, you’re losing a lot of that. So we feel the five-hour workday, 8 AM to 1 PM, is a better solution. That’s a baseline, just like an eight-hour workday is a baseline. Certainly you can put in a 50- or 60-hour week when you need to. But the shorter workday compresses the workday, and it puts pressure on people to use existing tools. The productivity of our work force is going up, while the number of hours worked is going down.

    So we think a readjustment needs to be made where we start working fewer hours, because what’s happening right now is employers are pushing these workers harder and harder; corporations are more profitable than ever, but all the profits are rising to the top. So labor needs a renegotiation, and I think a renegotiation in terms of time makes much more sense than just paying people a lot more.

    I asked Aarstol what he’s found are the downsides of having implemented a five-hour workday. He said there really aren’t a lot:

    It’s something I’ve been doing myself — I haven’t been working a strict 8 AM to 1 PM workday, but I go into the office, I get my stuff done, and I get out. This is pretty much what anybody who doesn’t have a boss looming over them does. So it’s been all bonus from a lifestyle perspective — it transitions your life from being all about work during the week and living for the weekend, to your work week being better than most people’s vacation weeks. Work is just something you do in the morning to pursue this extraordinary life you have the opportunity to pursue.

    I wondered if his employees actually conform to the five-hour schedule, or if they tend to work longer. Aarstol said they conform to it:

    It makes me nervous sometimes — if I’m working at three o’clock and nobody’s in the office, I’m thinking, did I make a mistake here? It’s a very psychological thing — if people aren’t physically there you’re worried that you’re doing something crazy. It was a big leap of faith for me to jump off of that bridge. But our productivity is great, our company is growing — in 2014 we were the fastest-growing company in San Diego. Last year we were No. 239 on the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing companies. So yes, people cut out right at one o’clock, and there’s no guilt. If the people are getting their work done, great. If they’re not, we’ll fire them.

    It seemed to me that it would kind of defeat the purpose if employees used that extra time to work someplace else, so I asked Aarstol if they have that option if they want to. He told me not to think of that as defeating the purpose:

    This is a retention and acquisition-of-talent strategy. A lot of your smartest people are going to work side jobs — the average millionaire has something like seven sources of income. So I want people to work part-time jobs — if they’re doing a little consulting or Internet marketing on the side, everything they learn there is going to be used for our business, as well.

    I think a lot of employers have been really fearful about people doing side jobs. But if you’re honest with yourself, your smartest people are already doing that. That’s where the world is going — the smartest, most efficient people in any office are doing three to five times the work of the other people. We’re trying to only attract those people, and give them their time back to them. If they’re straight out of college and we pay them X salary, and they want to go make more money, they can go do that.

    All of that said, Aarstol acknowledged that there is a caveat:

    Obviously, the five-hour work week doesn’t work for some people, especially people who have been in an hourly-wage job for a long period of time. When they see a five-hour day, they’re thinking, ‘OK, they only need me here for five hours, I’m not going to change anything else. I’ll just get out at one o’clock.’ Check in at 8 AM, check out at 1 PM, because they haven’t been indoctrinated into the salary-type job, where you’re paid for productivity. If you need to travel over a weekend, you travel over a weekend. Knowledge workers who are productivity-based intrinsically understand it.

    Aarstol shared other facets of this experience, including having accompanied the five-hour workday with a 5 percent profit-sharing plan, and having discovered software tools most of us have never heard of, that demonstrate why an eight-hour day is unnecessary. I’ll cover those in a forthcoming post.

    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.


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