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Book Review of: Shorter

Work Better, Smarter and Less--Here's How


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Review of Shorter, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, PhD (Softcover, 2020)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


Shorter espouses principles I unilaterally used during the later years of my corporate life. For example, Dr. Pang talks about all the time wasted with meetings. I used to shock people by just getting up and walking out of meetings. While my spineless coworkers at one particular manufacturing plant sat there for the next three hours (aside from potty breaks) accomplishing nothing all morning, I racked up some impressive resume bullet points by using the time productively.

There are other ways people waste time, for example by doing unnecessary tasks that don't "move product out the door." Or not understanding what their job actually is and filling their day with pointless activity. In 1996, I accepted a job as technical editor at a trade magazine. I had never worked for a magazine before. The Senior Editor at that office decided to mentor me, but after a few days I told him I would be fine on my own. He just did not strike me as being efficient. I asked the managing editor how many articles I was expected to write, and she told me the Senior Editor produced 13 per year. My first year, I produced 115. To his 13. And unlike his, which needed extensive editing to get them down from 5,000 words to 2500, mine needed no editing.

Now, look at those numbers again. I did not go to a 30 hour work week, I worked full-time.

A weakness in Dr. Pang's perspective is he compares the results of 72 hour weeks (or similar) complete with burnout, disengagement, wasteful practices, lack of focus, etc., with the results of a solid 4 day week and then concludes the 4 day week is the solution. While 30 to 35 hours concentrated properly will produce more (and better) than 72 hours filled with pointless meetings and other timewasters, that's not an adequate comparison. If you have a fully engaged worker who loves what he does and he puts in five 10 hour days, you will get 50 hours of solid work. I know this, because that is my track record except I put in longer hours than that.

In the USA and Europe, about 75% of workers are disengaged and over half actually hate their jobs. So if you fix the disengagement problem and fix whatever makes people hate their jobs, you fix the low productivity problem. Yes, you can do that by shortening the work week and cutting out the nonsensical activities that plague the typical office. But you can also do that just by cutting out the nonsensical activities that plague the typical office.

And that brings us to another issue. Not all jobs are office jobs or chef jobs (he looks at chefs extensively). Consider a plumber. This person goes out on a four hour service call to replace a toilet and a faucet. He's a skilled laborer and he enjoys what he does. The concept of burnout doesn't even occur to him. He puts in 40 to 60 hours a week, and every day is satisfying to him. Same for any skilled tradesman. If you cut the work week to 4 days, he's not going to be more creative or more productive; the work is what it is.

I can see the advantage of reducing the work week for people who want more leisure time or for people who work ridiculously long hours. But Dr. Pang did not make the case (only the assertion) that in and of itself it's any kind of solution for those working normal hours and not afflicted with meaningless work or pointless meetings while doing so.

Something he did bring up and cover quite well was this idiotic concept of face time. That job at the magazine? I had worked in manufacturing and construction, where our day started at 0600. At this job, we were expected to work 7.5 hours per day. So I would start at 0700 and have my nose to the grindstone until I had put in my expected number of hours. Then I would leave. But many people were transplants from New York and were used to starting their day at 0930. They didn't see me come in 2.5 hours before they did, because they were still asleep when I started my day at the office. But they would see me leave, because they were standing around talking about things that were not even related to work (e.g., ball games). I didn't realize this was a problem, until my boss (who worked a couple thousand miles away from this office and visited once a month) gave me low marks in my annual performance review because of this. People had complained to him. Actual work output was irrelevant. That kind of toxic situation arises from sheer stupidity. That boss, so grossly incompetent, found himself replaced a couple of years later and my new boss was excellent.

I think this book brings valuable insights into making for better workplaces. I just don't agree that shortening the workweek is required for that.


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