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Why We Should Be Working Less

why we should be working less

Recently, over on LinkedIn and Twitter, I posted a few missives about how we have been intentional and committed to working fewer hours every week as a company.

32 hours, to be exact, for the team.

The overwhelming response from 99.99% of people was positive, congratulatory, and encouraging, with many wishing this type of work commitment for themselves.

But some shared their concerns, skepticism, or even their violent opposition to this notion.

And maybe the structures we’re creating in our company wouldn’t work in other industries. But I think it’s worth asking the question and having the conversation around what it could look like to work, not towards an hourly goal, but toward an expectation of output.

One of the commenters asked if I had a playbook that outlines my thinking of the working less experiment and my experiences that influenced my thinking. Those of you who have been with me for a while know that one of my guiding principles is Embracing the Spirit of Experimentation, so I loved this prompt from this commenter. It gave me a chance to pause, reflect, and share (with you) some of what has shaped me up to this point.

My Work History

While I held various part-time jobs in my early days, my first full-time (ok summer full time) job was working as a counselor and then camp director of Four Mounds Camp, which focused on giving young people from low-income areas camping experiences. Next to the work I am doing now, and who I am doing it with, this was my favorite role and organization to work for. Getting to do such meaningful work with young people is fulfilling, but in looking back, I realized it was the team culture we built and the autonomy I was given by my boss that made it incredible.

Little did I realize then that I was learning the foundations for creating a genuinely excellent organization. When you have work that is meaningful beyond the paycheck, when you have people who work together effectively, when people can lean into their strengths and be themselves, when you have played, when you have safety for tears, and when you have autonomy, magical things can happen.

It never occurred to me that this type of work experience could exist outside of the campgrounds, but I always yearned for it until starting this company.

My first official full-time, post-graduate job was working at a Von Maur in town. Retail is not easy work. It’s long hours and filled with emotionally exhausting interactions. The salary was commission-based, and because of that, it often pushed some to make less than ethical choices when assisting a customer with, say, your opinion on a piece of clothing. What I loved about working at Von Maur was the exceptional customer service we were expected to provide our customers.

Something I still (or try to) hold onto this day. Going above and beyond was rewarding, but the competition for commissions and resulting unethical behavior was not.

This experience planted the question – How can you provide deep care for customers without the reward driving being money only?

Wanting my evenings and weekends free for theatre, I took a job as a customer service manager at a school of cosmetology. I thought it would be a perfect fit for my skill set, but I quickly learned that this workplace was rife with transparency avoidance and emotional contempt. On my first day, I was told that the role they hired me for was not the title I would be receiving. The responsibilities would be the same, the pay would be the same, but the title would no longer be what I was promised. The reality was avoidance of hurt feelings because a co-worker who had also applied for this role didn’t get it. My entire employment there was predicated on a lie. I didn’t stay long.

After a few weeks of being there, I remember observing and remarking on how much crying and yelling took place on the premises. One of the leaders tried to convince me that this was the “real world” and what I should expect at any workplace. The environment at that time was built on fear, power, and constant conflict. Not the place for me and most definitely not the place I would want to create for others. I had worked at enough places at this point to know that workplaces don’t ever need to look like this; people shouldn’t be in tears regularly at work that were caused by work. The consistent pattern of disrespect between staff members and leadership, and most egregiously, the students who were core to our mission there, was inappropriate. The stress took a tremendous toll, and when I finally left, Nick (my husband) noted how much happier and lighter I was.

In just two months, this experience defined one of my core rules: work should never be harmful. It can be tricky. It can be challenging. But it cannot be harmful.

I spent the next eight years working for a now-disbanded financial and insurance company following this role. A lot of unique experiences that shaped me occurred during this time. Most of it is productive, but not all. Here, I learned how critical it was to have a team that was connected and had each other’s backs; how crucial a high-trust environment was to weather difficult storms. I was fortunate to also work with some incredible people, but at a pace, that was unsustainable in the long-term. Regularly 60+ hour weeks, more weekends than I care to admit, times when all of us were logged in and working at 10 or 11 p.m.

Even though our leaders didn’t demand these late nights, their actions said otherwise. The consequences of not keeping up were clear. I learned to value the humans on my team and added it to my leadership playbook.

My last boss, Julie at this same company, was the one who planted the seed on how important it was to get people aligned with the skills they possess to achieve success. They often didn’t know how to best leverage my talents, but they always recognized that I had them. Even if you have someone incredibly talented, with many skills to offer, if you don’t know what to do with them or if there isn’t a place for them, not only will they not be able to bring their best selves, but they may suffer along the way and lose themselves in the process.

On my last day there, I mentioned that I was leaving to do leadership development full time. I’ll never forget what my boss said to me: “You know that Albert Einstein quote? The one that goes, ‘Everyone’s a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, you’ll think it’s stupid.’? I’m really glad you found your ocean to swim in.” We both cried.

The Importance of Owning Our Time

I then spent 6 ½ years working for ARAG, a company that, on paper, shouldn’t have been as innovative as it was. A legal insurance company might not be the place you’d expect to find human-focused work, but that was where I learned that it was possible to fall in love with the workplace. My experience with my team and leadership group showed me what was possible when we weren’t consistently burning the midnight oil, when we invested in the whole person, and when you cared deeply about those you served.

This company was the place where I navigated some of the most challenging times personally with my panic disorder, and it was where I was also able to experiment and explore what it looks like to create and provide meaningful development opportunities for team members, not just for the role, but for the whole person.

I’ll never forget my leader Lisa telling me that I didn’t need to ask permission to take time off work, that my time was mine. That she trusted me to get my job done, just wanted to be informed, and everything else was inconsequential.
That took me a long time to untangle my previous experiences where you often worked well over your 40 hours some weeks with no time given back to you, but if you took time away, you were immediately asked when you’d be making that time up.

At ARAG, I learned that love and leadership could come together, the power of trusting team members to own their time, focus on the whole person and not just the role, and amplify gifts of others however you can.

Walking the Walk or Working Less Hours

I share these experiences not to shine a negative light on any specific company but to start conversations about what has shaped me and my ideas. When I began to think about how to create a way to complete work differently, in a way that isn’t harmful to humans, a few key philosophies drive me.

One of the most important is freedom, not flexibility.

When I first started my company, one of the things that surprised me intensely was how different it felt to own my time versus managing my time within a predefined schedule. I could sleep in if I wanted to, I could take a nap if I were sick, I could run errands that needed to be taken care of. And my days look different from the typical 9-5. I work at my highest capacity for innovation, often late at night. The difference is my work time is split between day and night instead of working all day and all night.

I’m working towards and managing expected output, not expected hours. If my employees can get everything they need to be done in 30 hours a week, why shouldn’t they? They can live whole lives and contribute meaningfully to the workplace. They can both exist together.

At a previous workplace, I implemented an experiment to see if this management style helped my team. Instead of working 8 hours a day and having a daily quota of files to complete, I set a stretch goal, and once those were completed, people could go home early.

Guess what happened? Most people were able to leave early with regularity. Some weeks were higher, some were lower, some weeks no one left early, and some weeks everyone did. But the reality was that I saw a net positive in morale, productivity, attitude, in collaboration. My team was excited by their work because they knew what was in it for them.

I took these findings to leadership, excited to share the results of my three-month experiment, and you know what leadership saw and said? “Wow, that’s really great! Imagine if they could work at that pace for the full 8-hours! Think of how much could get done!”

Sadly, the experiment was stopped, and we moved back to the traditional model. They couldn’t see the increase in productivity because we allowed them to own their time after the output was met and not have to fill their time.

My Wish for the Workplace

There’s so much about how the Western world works, how American culture works, that doesn’t work for humans. There are so many situations where people are taken advantage of. People are exploited. They are made to feel unsafe. They are made to feel small and less than worthy. They are left to flounder with no investment in their growth.

I wish to play a part, no matter how small, in changing that.

I’ve had so many people say to me that I could be making more money, doing more, growing more…if only I paid people less. If I worked my people more. If I worked more.

I don’t want to. I don’t want the people I serve to.

I will scale my company in a human-first way instead of profit-only.

I talk a lot about measuring success by your yardstick, and my wish for the workplace is that success would be measured in human-first ways. By the team members who not only are engaged and adding incredible value but who also get to snuggle with their kids at night, those who are spending time with their aging parents, those that can tend to their illnesses, those that can own their time.

For those of you curious about our pay and structure:

  1. I pay my colleagues a complete and competitive salary; there is no reduction in pay because fewer hours are worked.
  2. We have unlimited paid time off, with an expected minimum of two weeks plus our two-week shut down at the end of the year. Monthly reminders are sent to encourage people to schedule time off.
  3. Our weekly schedule is Monday – Friday at noon. We’ve talked about moving to a four-day week, but the team has agreed and prefers to have more flexibility during the entire week instead of one day.

My mission as a business owner is to create a company where team members can have more moments than not where they wonder “How cool is it that this is what I get to do and how I get to do it?”

It may not work for everyone (yet), but it works for us. And I hope, someday, I can convince you it can work for you, too.

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Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.

Comments (5)

I completely agree with the shift to outcomes-based work versus time put in! We have been working towards this for a while now, and unfortunately struggle with a few team members that haven’t been able to get past the idea of not having everyone at their desk from 8-5. Any suggestions for guiding people through this transition? We also have one team member that is paid hourly, how do I keep them motivated when they see everyone else working flexible schedules?

Sandi – Thank you for posing your questions because those are some we hear from many others. I love to hear that you are working towards envisioning a new way to work. When people are struggling with a change as you mentioned with some existing leaders I like to reflect on (And help them reflect on) two key questions – What assumptions might we be making? What are we losing or afraid we will lose by moving in this new direction?” Some people struggle because they don’t know how to manage when it isn’t just hours at a desk, some may struggle because “if I had to struggle to get here so should you”, some struggle because of loss of power, the list goes on. Next time someone says something about it not working or struggling with it, see if you can help them get curious about it. “What is it about this new model that is different or difficult for you?” or “What might we need to do differently to make this work?” Regarding the person who is hourly that’s a different challenge but not impossible. What would it look like to create access to flexibility for them? What’s their PTO situation? Can you adjust their hourly rate to accommodate working fewer hours? I look forward to hearing what resonated and what additional ideas you might try.

Thank you for inviting such delicious, important possibility into the world. I love how you live what you believe with courage, strength and grace.

You’ve helped me find my clarity along the way to get here 🙂

I learn so much from you, Sarah!

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