Is the 20-hour workweek the future of work?

Innovator Renae Smith stemmed debilitating burnout by implementing a 20-hour workweek at her Australian PR firm. Now, working less means working better.

 

Ten years ago, Renae Smith founded her own public relations company, The Atticism, in Sydney, Australia. For years she worked long hours, building her business from the ground up, chasing clients, and answering emails at all times of the day and night.

“I was working 24/7,” she said. “But then, in the middle of last year, I hit burnout.”

The Atticism's 20-hour workweek
Atticism Founder & Director Renae Smith

First, Smith decided to take a vacation. She had always dreamed of visiting Paris, so when her boyfriend invited her to visit his family in London last year, she knew the timing was perfect. She booked that dream trip to Paris, planning the ins and outs of her daily schedule — what she would eat, what she would wear and what she would see. Then, she arrived in the city and found that she couldn’t turn off her work. She woke up at 6 a.m. every day to chat with her Australia-based clients and worked until lunch time. Then she’d explore the city in the afternoon, but despite the beauty of Paris, her phone was ringing off the hook. She wasn’t fully there, and she definitely wasn’t having fun.

“I cried,” she said. “It was one of the first moments where I realized: My work is out of control.”

Shortly after Smith returned from her trip, the trouble continued. She felt pain in her arm and thought she was having a heart attack, so she went to the hospital. But still, she couldn’t stop working. Her clients called her while she was in the hospital, not caring that she was sick.

“I remember sending a picture of me in the hospital to a client, to prove that I was there,” she said. For her, it was the final straw. “I thought I was dying, and I was still taking business calls while plugged into heart monitors.”

Smith knew something had to change, so she started by taking one day off per week to go to the beach. But she found that it was still hard to turn off, even on the beach. Next, she offered to let her employees work at whatever time they wanted. But that didn’t solve the problem either, as they were all working at different times and had little overlap. Plus, she realized that she was skirting the real issue: she and her employees were simply too available.

Smith says that PR professionals typically pitch members of the media on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, because the media tends to be less receptive to pitches on Mondays and Fridays. So during September 2016, Smith decided to limit her team’s work hours based on that idea: They would all work approximately 20 hours per week, only coming into the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays and Fridays, they would try not to work, and they wouldn’t take emails on those days at all.

“I also suggested that we add that information to our email footers so clients would be aware of our limited availability,” she said. “Some clients weren’t happy about having less access to us, of course, so we let them go nicely if it was a problem.”

According to Smith, though, most clients have been happy with the experimental switch. She said she’s busy, but because of that she’s much more productive and efficient with her work time. She’s also noticed that her interactions are much nicer, which makes a world of difference in PR. And after adding notes to her company’s website about being a wellness-focused workplace, her business has started attracting clients who value balance, too, which is a win-win.

“I’m a better boss, a better mother, and a better worker now. And my staff is better, too,” she said.

Smith admits that she’s living on a bit less financially these day, but said it’s worth it because of the sanity she’s gained. Her employees aren’t complaining, either. They all got pay raises of between $5 and $10 (AUD) per hour when this switch went into effect in September. So, while they work fewer hours, it’s at a higher rate. For example, The Atticism’s youngest employee is 23 years old, and she makes close to $40 per hour (roughly $30.66 in USD). That puts her at a rate that’s about $50 ($30.82 USD) per week less than that of her peers who work full time at other Sydney-based PR agencies, which she sees as worthwhile.

Recently, Smith took this experiment one step further by altering The Atticism’s availability over the Christmas holiday. She offered her clients two options: a month of no availability free of charge, or a month of limited availability at a halved rate. She said most clients choose the no availability option. Because of this, she and her staff were able to fully disconnect, and she spent three weeks with her family in India.

“Health-wise, it was the best thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “I was never on my phone.”

Should everyone embrace a 20-hour work week? That gets complicated, Smith said, because it depends on the industry. But for her, it all comes back to one big question: How much do you really need to get done in one day? “The world keeps spinning if it takes three days to answer an email,” she said. “I think we need to chill out.”

She’s careful to remind her critics that this isn’t about being lazy or stopping work, either. “It’s not working less, it’s working better,” she said. “People seem to think we’re not working here, and we are. We’re just working with more focus for less time. That’s the key.”

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