Do shorter workweeks shortchange learning?

Last month I saw a couple article articles that argued that while the 4-day week might be good for workers in the short run, it could have an unintended downside. It started off with an article in Business Insider arguing that “there’s one important downside to the 4-day workweek, even if it does make you more productive:”

A shorter workweek could mean less time for opportunities that may advance an employee’s career in the long-run, like networking with important industry peers.

That’s according to Laura Vanderkam, a time-management expert who has written several books on the topics of productivity and work life-balance, including “Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done.”

“People do the immediate stuff of their job that has to get done, but then you wind up shortchanging kind of the longer career-development stuff,” Vanderkam told Business Insider.

For example, a person working only four days per week may decide not to have lunch with a colleague or client that could have led to an important project in the future because he or she didn’t have expendable time to do so.

Jessica Stillman adds:

In other words, while 30 hours a week or so might be enough to get through all your most pressing tasks, there is often not enough time left over for less urgent but highly important things like training, learning, and big picture thinking.

This isn’t to say Vanderkam is completely skeptical about cutting down on Americans’ comparatively long hours. “I think there are definitely arguments to put a cap on hours that have been inefficient before,” she says, but she adds, “I think there’s also a point where you cannot be more efficient without really losing some of the higher-value things that are important but not urgent.”

Is this really a worry? I put the question to several leaders of companies who have moved to 4-day workweeks, who I all interviewed previously for my book SHORTER (US | UK) and I got a very different perspective.

Natalie Nagele, the CEO of Wildbit, responds:

Working on the wrong things is exactly what shorter, intentional work weeks set out to solve. With a shortened week you spend your energy prioritizing on what matters. You trade “urgent” for important. At Wildbit, we didn’t just drop a work week and continue to work as we did 5-days. We reflected on how we work as individuals, and how we work together. We dropped unnecessary meetings, prioritized asynchronous communication, and most importantly, started to really focus on longer term planning. This extends past the product to each individual. We’re asking everyone to set their goals for the year, and then prioritizing them throughout the year to make sure they are making progress towards their own career ambitions.

I want to make sure we remember, working 5-days a week is not a natural law. We used to work 6 days. The hypothesis we set out to solve is that we can get enough done in less hours, because we spend a lot of our time doing things that don’t matter. If we’re more intentional with our time at the office, we gift ourselves more time at home and more time for our brains to rest.

Here’s Henrik Stenmann, the cofounder and CEO of IIH Nordic:

For us, the shorter work week has meant transforming our business and adapting techniques, habits and technologies to improve productivity. This doesn’t mean we rush through work to get the job done, we simply do them faster by applying the proper techniques. This still leaves our employees time, energy and motivation to do things like upskilling, networking with industry peers, etc.

Chris Downs, the managing director of London agency Normally, said:

Working a four day week has vastly improved our mental and physical health, given us time with our families and has contributed to a much greater sense of wellbeing. Who in their right mind would put ‘long-term career development’ ahead of that? Why have we created a society where that even seems like a valid trade-off?

It also suggests that by working a four day week, we do *nothing* on our fifth day. The statement suggests that our fifth day does not contribute to progress or our long-term futures…. [But if] I exercise on my fifth day – I am literally adding to my long-term future. If I work long hours my life is going to be short – so no matter how well my career progresses – I won’t be around to benefit from it. But I don’t just exercise. I read books and articles that help me step back from work and understand the wider context of my work – so I’m better informed and can make better decisions. If I’m not exercising or reading, then I’m likely to meet up with an old friend or work colleague – using this time to maintain professional relationships outside of my immediate work.

If anything, having the freedom to do what I want on my fifth day gives me the opportunity to invest in my long-term career. If I spent that day *at work* I would just be dealing with the immediate tasks at hand.

Rich Leigh, founder of Radioactive PR, told me:

I think there’s some truth to what she’s saying, but it’s always been the case that while career-development can and does happen within the working week, it’s hard to pack everything in with a job to do, too if you want to go above and beyond.

A lot of my time spent developing myself and building my profile in and around the industry has been by doing so in time I wasn’t salaried for, outside of the office. That doesn’t change because of a 4 day week; you can always tell the people that are serious about their personal and professional development because they’re the ones getting involved in industry chats on Twitter, listening to podcasts, reading, writing a piece for a publication, thinking about tools, tips or resources to share and improve their own understanding as well as that of others….

I think, and hope for quite the opposite. I think learning skills in being decisive, value aware, purposeful etc will benefit individuals hugely in their career. So at the very least it’s supplementing one opportunity (I.e. networking) for another (effectiveness).

But bigger than that is the gift of balance. A steady home life, time for hobbies, jobs, being you. As you’ll well appreciate, distracting your conscious mind with physical activity enables your subconscious. By working 5 days we close the door a little to this kind of background processing.

Give me better effectiveness skills and a balanced life over networking opportunities allll dayyyyy looooong.

Finally, here’s Tash Walker, founder of The Mix:

I would disagree that it means you sacrifice career development.

I think it means you have to be more creative for sure, but I’d say we do more now than we ever did!
Working a 4 day week, means making a mental shift to prioritise people in the business and I think that means you are more conscious about their development as a whole person.

For example, we now do weekly free Spanish lessons after hours for the whole team because we recognised it would help us as a business and was of real personal benefit to the team.

We also have 1 afternoon a month where we do career development by way of external and internal training sessions.

So I’d say that if you approach it in a reductive way, i.e. you are just trying to do the same amount of stuff in less time, then yes this would lead to less time on career development but if you approach this as a creative challenge and redesign how you spend your time, then I’d say it is perfectly possible to do just as much if not more!

Now, there is an interesting question around how many hours per week are necessary for professional development, for the maintenance of skills, and for learning new ones. The most detailed debate I’ve seen about this issue is in medicine, around the length of time residents need to develop into competent doctors. Anupam Jena, in the Harvard Business Review, recently wrote about this debate in the article “Is an 80-hour workweek enough to train a doctor?”

In 2003, new rules were implemented in the US that limited hospital residents’ workweeks to 80 hours, and individual shift lengths to 24 hours. The idea was that this would cut down on fatigue-related accidents, but

for many doctors the 2003 reforms raised concerns that the quality of medical training would be diminished by a shift-work mentality, an erosion of professionalism, and an inability of doctors-in-training to witness firsthand the hour-by-hour progression of a critical illness, all of which may lead doctors to have less experience on which to base future treatment decisions and insufficiently prepare them for the long hours and patient commitments required in real-life practice.

The cohort of doctors trained before and after 2003 constitute what we like to call a “natural experiment,” a real-world situation where one variable– in this case hours of training– is manipulated, but everything else stays the same. Jena and his looked

500,000 hospitalized patients in the U.S. who were treated by newly independent doctors with varying exposure to work-hour restrictions during their residency training…. Because residency work-hour reforms were implemented in 2003, internists who completed residency after 2006 would have been exposed to a cap of 80 hours per week for their entire three-year residency, while internists who completed residency before 2006 would have worked longer hours for one or more years of their training. We compared the patient outcomes of newly independent doctors — first-year internists just out of residency training — before and after 2006. (These outcomes were patient mortality and readmission to the hospital within 30 days of being hospitalized, as well as the costs of care.) We also looked at second-year internists — those who completed residency two years earlier.

So what did they find?

We found that newly independent doctors who trained in a period where their residency work hours routinely reached 90 to 100 hours per week had no better patient outcomes, despite the additional hours spent in training, than doctors whose residency training involved substantially less time in the hospital.

An 80-hour workweek seems sufficient for training a doctor.

In this case, reducing hours didn’t have a big negative impact. Of course, medical residencies are also highly structured, and are designed to impart a lot of knowledge to young doctors, so you could argue that in less structured environments, people may need more time to absorb and learn.

But as quotes from company leaders who’ve switched to 4-day weeks suggest, many of them invest in programs and activities. And here are lots of other things these companies to do ensure that a 4-day week offers plenty of space and structure for learning and professional development– as I explain in detail in the book.

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