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The future work week: do more and work less

Andrew Barnes, founder of the New Zealand based Perpetual Guardian, a company that manages wills and trusts with over 200 hundred employees, has recently made headlines for reducing his company’s work week to four days. The reason behind Barnes’ decision to cut one day off of work for his employees was to increase wellbeing in the workplace with a more balanced work-life routine and with that, boost productivity and reduce burnouts that result in sick days.

What Barnes initially referred to as a workplace experiment—where all employees had the opportunity to shed a work day from their week but maintain their five work week paycheck—ultimately stacked up extremely positive results. After a two month trial from March to April of this year, 78 percent of employees reported that they could manage their work-life balance as opposed to a prior 54 percent. Independent surveys that were conducted during the trial period by the Auckland University of Technology and the University of Auckland also show that employee stress levels reduced from 45 percent to 38 percent.

Since the dawn of ‘work and life’ culture synonymous with ‘digital nomads’, startups have attempted to iron out the old-fashioned creases from a standard office work week. From flexible hours, to working remotely and even trying to imitate a home environment within the office, the concept of a nine to five, Monday to Friday is going through an identity crisis—and not necessarily for the better. Because what has so far been lacking from the startup reimagination of work, and what makes Perpetual Guardian unique in its approach, is that the intention to truly reduce the hours worked has never quite been a part of the package to date. Sure, you can work from home or from a bench in a Canadian national park using solar panels, but have your Slack open, Trello blazing; Gmail notifications ON. By reducing the working hours and maintaining the pay the same, Perpetual Guardian has tested how productivity can be reassembled along the working week—and how hours in the office (or outside it) by no means correlate to hours worked.

There’s another positive twist to the plot. An additional day off means that a 240 strong company gets to rotate the days all of the employees are in the workplace. As Barnes says, “if you have fewer people in the office at any one time, can we make smaller offices?” ‘Yes’ is the definitive answer to that question. Following the trial and the positive surveys that followed, Perpetual Guardian is now seriously working through how it will implement the four day work week for good, while New Zealand’s Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway is encouraging more companies to tweak and adjust their own work week standards.

Employees and office spaces are the highest expenses of any company—yet the way they are treated, despite a startup revolution that seems to have disrupted, decentralised, and monetised any industry out there, has remained pretty much stagnant since the crack of dawn. Real change that isn’t disguised behind plants, meditation rooms, and work from home perks has now proved to have serious positive impact. “It was just a theory, something I thought I wanted to try because I wanted to create a better environment for my team,” Barnes tells The Guardian in an interview. What’s to follow is probably the true office work shake up we’ve been waiting for. No more plants. And please, no more Trello.

Rise and shine, forget about getting that bread for a minute

You probably haven’t heard of Lester Young, despite him being an important jazz saxophone player. It’s not a surprise given that he was most popular in the 1930s, in a niche genre. He is, however, responsible for popularising a few sayings that you are no doubt familiar with. According to jazz historian Phil Schaap, he was one of the first people who used the word ‘cool’ as a term of approval, and was the creator of Billie Holiday’s nickname ‘Lady Day’. He also regularly used ‘bread’ as a moniker for money, often responding to his manager after being requested for gigs, “But how does the bread smell?”

Bread as slang for money came around again seventy years later in 2007. Music had changed. This is why I’m Hot by Mims and Buy U a Drank by T-Pain hit the top of the charts, while Release Therapy by Ludacris won best album at the 49th Grammy Awards ceremony. While it wasn’t a fantastic year for Hip Hop, it was an important year for the term ‘bread’ and all those who made it.

Alabama rapper Rich Boy, the artist most famous for Throw Some D’s (On that bitch) released a song called Let’s Get this Paper in March of 2007. In it he wrote the lines “R.I.P. Pooh Bear, that’s my dead homie / Fuck that other shit, hey, let’s get this bread homie.”

And then, in 2017, twitter user @carlyxnicole tweeted this photo, and the reaction was immediate. Image macros with captions based around ‘getting this bread’ appeared on the internet, with @fuckjerry getting on board. Initially, these posts were ironic, but were soon adopted by genuine go-getters and the intensely-employed-and-proud-of-it. It became a marketing tool. And thus, the horse was beaten. As quickly as it rose to prominence, the joke died.

Memes, like all jokes, are good when they are rooted in the truth, but are best when they come from a place of discomfort or even pain. Much like the student-athlete tweets that went around in early 2017, ‘let’s get this bread’ began as an opportunity to mock the overzealous commentary of obnoxious self-starters who wanted to make it clear in abundance to their social media following that they work hard enough (without break) to warrant a morning post reminding people of how hard they work. It becomes a cycle, forcing viewers to ask themselves, “Do I work that hard? Why am I not as happy in my own success?” But when did it become impressive to publically shirk your access to free time?

It seems that today we are expected to celebrate our accomplishments, and people are expected to take notice. But this pressure isn’t a good thing. The Prince’s Trust eBay Youth Index report found that 57 percent of 16-25 year-olds believe social media creates an “overwhelming pressure” to succeed, while 46 percent say that comparing their lives to their friends on social media makes them feel “inadequate”.

To wake up every day and see pictures of people that you feel are smarter, more interesting, and more successful, even when they may not be, leads to frustration. This is conspicuous consumption at its worst. Bragging about the fact that you ‘never stop’ just sounds exhausting, and does far more harm than good.

I recently asked a coder what they would expect from a new hire. Proficiency in Java, HTML, ability to communicate with clients, creativity, and the fact that they code in their spare time were all answers. I asked a friend who worked in PR; experience was a key factor, but the ability to show leadership and communication skills in their day to day interests was also an important aspect. I asked someone in journalism; writing ability, experience, and “a passion in their work that extends to their spare time.”

Why are we expected to live for our work, and why do hirers expect people to do work to improve our abilities, and therefore their worth, for free? Our outside interests are only regarded as useful if they can be turned into the impetus and focus of our work. Our ability to live as humans is measured upon our ability to ‘get that bread’, and if we can show our following on social media that we are going through the necessary steps to do that, we are rewarded.

Before I had even really had a chance to think about what I wanted to do with my life, I had a teacher who told me that he was worried that people had lost sight of the important activity of navel-gazing. Navel-gazing isn’t mindfulness, because it’s not done to gain anything. It’s just staring at your belly button, not thinking about anything at all except for your belly button. In a sort of Tao of Pooh moment, he told us that “the importance of navel-gazing lies in the fact that it is not important.”

Jokes are important because they reflect the truth that we may not want to admit to ourselves in a more serious setting. This focus on ‘rise and shine, let’s get that bread’ initially began as a way of mocking urges to brag about success, before it became subliminal punishment for those who have any impulses or wants outside of work, and labelled anything not immediately profitable as useless. It began as a backhanded criticism of the system we live in, and was killed as a reflection of our obsession with success. It is a reminder that, within this capitalist hellscape, there is no fun without profit.

Tomorrow when you wake up, if you’re anything like me, you’ll reach for your phone. I want you to take five minutes before looking at what happened overnight to consider, deeply and intimately, with no judgment or preconceived notions, your belly button. It will be tough and awkward and even may feel stupid or pointless. And that’s exactly the point.

This article was written as a collaboration between UnderPinned and Screen Shot.  You can check out Shira’s article for UnderPinned here!