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Is your company wasting your time?
Thoughts on the 40-hour workweek.
Jon Cheney thinks most companies are wasting their employees’ time.
As CEO of Velocity Access and founder of Ocavu, his employees work a four-day workweek—not that he’s counting. He could care less when or how his employees get their job done as long as they get it done, and they all earn a full-time salary doing it.
For the record, Cheney doesn’t think this is all that revolutionary. He thinks most employees work much less than a 40-hour work week anyway, even as a salaried employees. That goes for him too. He’ll often watch an episode of “Psych” during lunch, and admits there were times during the pandemic when he was glued to his newsfeed, pressing refresh on the Covid charts three hours a day.
“Even as the CEO and founder—supposedly the most important job in the business—I would spend a solid two to three hours of an eight-hour workday basically doing nothing,” he told me. “I was reading the news, I would text somebody, I would go to lunch. And then I had like two hours, honestly more like one hour, of crazy intense work every day. And I got everything I really needed to get done in that one hour.”
That’s when he decided to implement the four-day workweek company-wide. “People feel like they have to sit at the office from nine to five—it's incredibly inefficient. Employees are not using those 40 hours properly and that’s wasted free time. I think people would rather do that wasted free time at home—with their kids or their hobbies.”
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Oddly, many companies contribute to the problem by giving their employees nonwork-related tasks during business hours—often in the name of “culture.” Last year, I had a hunch that most employees weren’t working 40-hour weeks and I wrote about it on LinkedIn. Brent Allgood, founder of Adaptive Workshops, responded that his friend’s company discovered during an audit that 30% of the company’s resources were being used for Fantasy Football—a bonding initiative employed by the company themselves.
I will go on the record as saying that I believe “company culture" is a waste of time—let people have culture outside of work and pay them to get their work done. That’s what Sahil Lavingia does. As founder and CEO of Gumroad he calls his method "minimum viable culture—and it all started because Lavingia wanted to work less. “From 2011 to 2016, building Gumroad was my singular focus in life,” he said. “Because I was burned out and didn’t want to think about working any more than I needed to, I instituted a no-meeting, no-deadline culture. For me, it was no longer about growth at all costs, but ‘freedom at all costs.’”
What started as a personal quest soon went company-wide. The company now has no full-time employees, not even himself. Everyone is a contractor earning between $50 an hour (customer support) to $250 an hour (head of product)—regardless of location. “There are no retreats planned, and no social channels in Slack. There are limited opportunities for growth. And we can’t compete with the comp packages that big tech companies can provide. But we can compete–and win–on flexibility.”
“Gumroad’s Chris Maximin says, ‘this way to work is responsible for the highest level of productivity I've ever experienced. The ability to focus on actual work creates a virtuous circle benefiting both the company and the workers: 1) the company does not have to pay expensive engineers to sit around in endless, useless meetings, and 2) the engineers get to do more and learn more, which benefits them in the long term.’”
As a result, “working on Gumroad isn't a majority of anyone's identity. People work at Gumroad as little as they need to sustain the other parts of their lives they prefer to spend their time and energy on: a creative side-hustle, their family, or anything else. Gumroad engineer Nathan Chan says, ‘I produce more value for my time than at any other company in my career, and I’m able to fully participate in parenting and watching my kiddo grow up.’”
In 2021, Lavingia hired Daniel Vassallo, a former engineer for Amazon Web Services, to be his product manager. “Before Daniel quit his job at Amazon, he was making over $400,000 a year,” Lavingia said. “We pay him $120,000 a year. How? He works 10 hours a week.”
In this trade, Lavingia gets a quality employee but doesn’t have to foot the bill for his lunch breaks and meeting time, and Vassallo gets to earn $120,000 a year working 10 hours a week, focusing only on the priority tasks that will make the product more profitable. Isn’t that a win-win? And how much more engaged would employees be if they had only 20 hours a week to get their job done? Might they cut out some of the less efficient tasks to do it? Rather than inflating their day to fill it?
When eFileCabinet decided to keep the salaries but cut back to a four-day week, the time constraint forced them to become more efficient. “We've adjusted how and when and how often meetings are held, for example, because for our business we found that some of those were productivity drains,” Mike Plant, the company’s CMO told me. “We also tightly align the entire organization around standardized business targets and performance metrics, so that we can collectively prioritize things that will get us to those goals, and deprioritize or even eliminate distractions.”
In other words, the only thing that happens when companies reduce workweek hours is that employees cut out the nonwork activities.
If this feels transactional, it doesn’t have to be. Not engaging in cultural activities doesn’t mean a company is ill-treating employees—just the opposite. It just means the company is giving employees the ability to choose how they spend their free time. And that time could be spent in community with their coworkers, or not. And that could make a huge difference for families who might rather pick their kids up from school than attend a company hike or happy hour.
“You have families that have two working parents, what do you do?” Cheney asks. “You have to get work schedules that are flexible and allow you to pick up kids and take them to sports or piano practice and whatever.”
It is this very equation that often determines whether both parents work and make enough money working that they can afford childcare, or whether one parent stays home so they can provide childcare. A single parent is left out of the equation altogether. The result is that parents don’t see their children as much, or seeing them more means taking a pay cut. This dynamic is nearly eradicated if parents are suddenly working 30 or even 20 hours a week. They’re home when the kids get home.
“Work is why the system is stuck like that,” Cheney says. “The whole system kind of has to change at the same time.”
A more efficient workweek suddenly unlocks a new way for people to spend their leisure time: not chained to the desk just because the whole system is based on a 40-hour week, but able to knock out the work so they can spend their leisure time in a rather revolutionary way: however they want.
Recently, Jon Cheney has been working 18-hour days. he’s been working around the clock to raise capital and usher in an acquisition. Still, he says, it’s a season. He doesn’t always work this much and when he does it’s because he wants to. There are other seasons when he prefers to compose musical albums, produce whitewater kayaking videos, and write a book. And that’s precisely the point. Cheney chooses how he wants to spend his leisure time, he wants his employees to have the opportunity to do the same.
“Ideologically, do I think people should work less? Yes I do,” he says. “I tell my employees work should be the fifth most important thing in their life.” Cheney puts work behind self-care, family, religion, and even hobbies. “If I can't compose music or go whitewater kayaking—if I can't do the things that I love to do—well, then I need to get a new job as well.”
There are many advocating for a shorter work week today, and several companies have been piloting four-day weeks, 32-hour weeks, and fractional and/or contract work as a way to get there. But economists largely agree that one thing would need to happen to make all of that the norm: the government would have to decide upon a new work week and set it into law—just like they did last time.
“The laws have to be adjusted—what does full-time even mean? Is it 40 hours? Is it 32? What if it was neither? What if it’s about a certain level of productivity and an employer could deem them a full-time employee even if they're only working 20 hours a week? Sometimes I hire people that I know are only going to need to work 20 hours a week, but those 20 hours are so valuable to me that I'll just pay them a salary and not put any sort of hourly requirement on them. If the job's done, I'm going to pay you a check every two weeks.”
As it turns out, government legislation is on its way. In 2021, Rep. Mark Takano introduced an amendment to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act—the one that reduced the work week to 40 hours in the first place. Known as the Thirty-Two-Hour Workweek Act (H. R. 4728), it would reduce the definition of a full-time workweek to just that: 32 hours. And maybe that would change things for all jobs nationwide. Just as the last piece of legislation did.
“A shorter workweek would benefit both employers and employees alike,” a press release about the act stated. “Pilot programs run by governments and businesses across the globe have shown promising results as productivity climbed and workers reported better work-life balance, less need to take sick days, heightened morale, and lower childcare expenses because they had more time with their family and children. Shorter workweeks have also been shown to further reduce healthcare premiums for employers, lower operational costs for businesses, and have a positive environmental impact in some of these studies.”
“After the Covid-19 pandemic left so many millions of Americans unemployed or underemployed, a shorter workweek will allow more people to participate in the labor market at better wages,” Takano said. “This is a groundbreaking piece of legislation and I’m grateful to the organizations and colleagues that firmly stand behind it. I look forward to continuing the work on this issue so that people may experience the best possible working conditions—the working conditions they deserve.”
As we move toward more skilled positions (just as we have in the past), won’t that mean we’ll earn more money (just as we have in the past)? Ford and Kellogg once cut their factory workers from 70-hour workweeks down to 40-hour workweeks and paid them more. When the government scaled that change to all companies nationwide it did the same for all employees, regardless of industry. And I can’t help but wonder if the 32-hour week might do the same today.
But I’d love to know your thoughts:
Thanks for reading,