It's Time For A Summer Slowdown

Your workers are burned out. Give them back their summers

Welcome to Galaxy Brain — a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology and culture. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. You can also click the button below to subscribe. And if you’ve been reading, consider going to the paid version.

It’s starting to feel like a real summer out there. Which means one thing: time for some seriously bad ‘future of work’ takes!

I’ve written about a few of these takes in past newsletters (don’t threaten your employees in a major newspaper!) but last week offered a new batch. The Boston Globe published an essay by a behavioral scientist suggesting that hybrid work is likely a fad. He argues that remote work will hurt trust, cause employees to go unseen, and make them feel isolated (things that are only true if your organization refuses to evolve and do the bare minimum to meet the challenges of hybrid work). My favorite of his arguments was this big-brained idea:

I’m not explicitly anti-commute — it can be helpful to have a forced excuse to segment one’s days. And I agree with the author that breaking up one’s day is healthy. “Of course, remote workers can plan breaks into their days,” he writes. “But most people aren’t very good at putting boundaries on their time.”

Left unexplored: why workers might be bad at putting boundaries on their time spent laboring. It could be that many people do indeed lack self-discipline or that they love their jobs and want to work more. It might be that, during the pandemic, working and quarantining and home schooling one’s kids leaves basically no time to even attempt to break up the day with some ‘me time.’ All are likely true for some. But I’d also argue that a big reason employees struggle to put boundaries on their work time is that they’re conditioned not to. Many work for companies that worship at the alter of productivity for productivity’s sake. Their employers may talk about work/life balance, but they rarely practice it and tend to reward over-work. Or worse, they leave the ‘putting up boundaries’ responsibility up to the employee.

My co-author (and partner), Anne Helen Petersen, dubbed this as the tyranny of ‘feel free to take some time if you need it’:

Whatever shit the world throws at you, the work endures. It’s not that you want to be a heartless robot; it’s that the market is hostile to those who aren’t, no matter what your manager assures you. The manager’s crisis refrain of “feel free to take some time, if you need it” is fundamentally a sorting question: are you someone who needs it or are you someone who can ignore that you do?

She goes on to argue (as we do in our forthcoming book) that what workers need isn’t friendly self-care language, but actual guardrails against the encroachment of work into our lives. That means real policy (in many workplaces, achievable through union power and actual shifts in labor laws) as well as revamped corporate practices (like getting rid of unlimited P.T.O., which ultimately discourages taking time off, and having managers model taking personal/sick/vacation days). You cannot preach the gospels of growth at all costs and work/life balance at the same time — the former cannibalizes the latter.

Which brings me to summer.

All of us are emerging from the darkest days of the pandemic with a good deal of unprocessed trauma and a bone deep fatigue. It’s been described as burnout or hitting the pandemic wall. Some of it is the result of existential depression, and some of it is a sense of isolation or languishing. Organizations have tried to acknowledge the difficulty of the moment — while also expecting their employees to continue working, with little to no fluctuation in actual productivity.

In one reading, this makes sense: the show, according to current business logic, must always go on, preferably as it’s gone on before. But does it?

The last year of remote work has required a concerted effort to ignore the giant Covid-shaped elephant in the room. There were very, very few formalized HR policies to address the dull ennui of extended quarantine or the particular type of anxiety that accompanies a year of worrying a grocery store run could leave you or a loved one in the ICU. And so privileged remote workers labored (safely) on, through exposure scares and terrifying push notifications and attempted coups and insurrections. There was work to do — and very little else.

But for those who’ve been vaccinated, components of pre-pandemic life are returning: hugs, extended family, indoor dining, and all kinds of glorious, time-wasting bullshit. In other words, perfect excuses, after 15 months of isolation, to not be productive. Cue: Our broken modern work culture and its magnetic aversion to anything that threatens short-term productivity.

Consider the annual discussion in business trade publications about the dreaded “Summer Slowdown”— that time of the year where employees selfishly check out, take time off, and spend time with (gasp) friends and family. “The summer with all of its disruptions is the enemy of hard work,” a New York Times article from 1998 declares. “One long seasonal siesta.”

Here are some more recent iterations, starting with this doozie from JUST TWO MONTHS INTO THE FUCKING PANDEMIC WHEN I WAS STILL LYSOL-ING MY GROCERIES:

The rhetoric deployed here is telling — don’t just counter the summer slowdown, fight it:

And don’t just fight it — beat it:

And here’s some advice from a company that definitely has worker interests at heart, yes sir:

The American productivity obsession doesn’t just make workers miserable. If you believe this recent W.H.O. report, it’s also contributing to the premature death of 745,000 people a year. And yet: there’s work to do, and anxiety over dips in productivity. Which means that this year, as with past years, bad managers and employers will try to resist/fight/murder the summer slowdown. They will cite a fragile, recovering economy and increased post-lockdown demands. They will argue that the office is open, people are vaxxed, and it’s time to get back to normal, baby! Wait, don’t you want to get back to normal?

But we don’t need normal. We need a true summer summer slowdown — and employers ought to facilitate it.

This morning I posed the question on Twitter: What are some things you'd like to see companies do to give workers a break this summer? Hundreds replied. Arguably the biggest requests were more P.T.O., higher salaries, and Summer Fridays.

Most important to respondents: implementation. “Give P.T.O. & reduce workload so people can actually take time off without working double time before & after,” one person wrote. “Sincere encouragement to use PTO (unlimited, generally administered very fairly) to take actual stretches of time and not just a long weekend,” another echoed. Others suggested mandating that vacation time rolls over from one year to the next to allow for longer vacations (a number of companies did this in 2020). There were requests for all-company days off and money for child care, as a halted school year is about to end for many in a few weeks. There were proposals for perks like a stipend for dinners (so employees don’t have to cook after a full day of work) as well as allowances for apartment or house cleaning services.

There were bolder ideas, too, such as full company shutdowns during the slowest parts of late July or August. One worker suggested a modification that her company piloted during the Spring Break season where lean teams rotated weeks on and off to give half the company a rest. One of my favorite ideas was for “pop up long weekends over long weekends.”

What should you do with a summer slowdown? Anything you want. You could tend to the many areas of your life that you neglected during Covid. You could vacation. You could staycation. You could attempt to pick up a hobby you’ll later discard or volunteer in your community. You could go outside and stare at the sky. You could epically waste time and do nothing productive at all. The only important thing is that the time is yours and lived on your terms.

Some tech and finance companies are trying variations on this theme in order to keep employees happy, as the New York Times recently reported, by giving employees an extra paid week or five figure “lifestyle allowances. The software company Mozilla told me it is giving employees a global "wellness week" where the whole company disconnects (the company placed it just before the July 4th weekend, so it will be a 10 full days off, counting weekends).

But a summer slowdown can’t just be blue chip company perks. It has to address company culture as a whole. Currently, most organizations only implement boundaries, which are malleable (again, it’s up to you to take time, if you need it). Boundaries are personal — but guardrails are structural. They’re designed to protect workers from the ingrained corporate obsessions of incessantly chasing growth and perfect productivity. A summer slowdown is about about giving employees a genuine permission structure to enrich the parts of their lives that aren’t about work.

Here, I should note the deep inequities and unfairness of any potential summer slowdown, which will, like so many work perks, be limited to those whose jobs can be performed remotely, on somewhat flexible schedules. There’s all sorts of work, all of it equally crucial to a functioning society, that remains “rigid” — and, if anything, more intense during the summer months. None of the above ideas are the real, lasting fix to the inequalities in the American workforce — which can only be solved through the sort of ambitious policy that will actually reknit the safety net for all.

But part of changing the narrative around bigger labor policy questions is evolving our expectations to expect more. There are some hopeful signs that unemployed and service and retail workers are fed up and refusing to take jobs that don’t pay a living wage. Weak hiring numbers in April’s jobs report and recent employment survey data are also showing potential signs of “a great reassessment of work” across the United States.

The potential for a generalized reassessment points to the greater hope of a summer slowdown: gradually shifting productivity norms. Americans are horrendous at taking vacation — in part because U.S. companies are stingy with it but also because the norms around P.T.O. discourage liberal use. But just as the pandemic proved that offices can go almost totally remote and still function, a deliberate summer slowdown could offer proof that workers don’t need to be constantly role-playing their jobs by engaging in performative productivity for the sake of one’s superiors.

Just last week, WeWork’s CEO (a totally disinterested player with no agenda at all lol) volleyed yet another bad take to the WFH discourse, arguing that that engaged employees want to come back to the office while the least engaged employees would rather stay home. But as Recode’s Rani Molla pointed out last week, there’s no clear cut evidence that engagement equals productivity:

While highly correlated, engagement doesn’t necessarily equal productivity. Work engagement is a psychological state in which an individual “experiences vigor, absorption, and dedication at work,” according to Ng, whereas productivity refers to the quantitative output of a given job, like how many calls a customer service representative handles and how helpful those calls are.

If engagement is your desired goal, there’s compelling data to suggest employees are more engaged when they’re not exhausted or burned out or languishing. Consider Microsoft Japan’s four day work week trials, which saw productivity grow by 40 percent. Oh, and 92 percent of employees said they were happier. 

But the biggest reason for a summer slowdown is the most obvious: Workers desperately need one. In the Recode piece, Molla cites a large Microsoft survey from 2020 that found that roughly 54 percent of workers around the world felt overworked; 39 percent went further, saying they were exhausted.

If the reporting for our upcoming book taught us anything, it’s that the exhaustion so many workers are feeling is not sustainable in the long term — for both workers and employers. It’s bad for worker retention and engagement, it’s bad for the well-being of workers and it, interestingly enough, isn’t ideal for long-term productivity.

For most of the world, the pandemic is not over. But here in the U.S., we are lucky enough to have been granted a tentative, fragile vaccine-based reprieve. A chance at summer. We’ve done so little to acknowledge our good fortunes. There is no post-pandemic holiday — no national moment of mourning or remembrance and no planned celebration.

Just as we can’t sweep our trauma under the rug and ignore what we’ve been through, we cannot ignore the changing of the seasons and the miracles of vaccines. We cannot simply soldier on because there is work to be done.

Instead, we need the space to process and to recharge. And, because we cannot count on companies to act in our best interests, we must demand that they do. If you’re a manager, you can send this post to your boss on behalf of your direct reports. If you’re an employee, start a private thread to brainstorm slowdown ideas with your team on text or a non-company channel. If you’re an executive or somebody in charge, take a look at this thread and consider not only the ideas — but the frustration and desperation of the respondents. It’s time to slow down.

Ok! That’s it for today. If you read this newsletter and value it, consider going to the paid version, and come hang out with us on Sidechannel. On Wednesday at 7P EST/4P PT, Newcomer and I will interview Brad Stone about his new book Amazon Unbound. If you don’t want to miss that — subscribe now!

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