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How many days in a week? Depends if you ask Samsung or not

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett May 7, 2024
Summary:
Samsung’s six-day working week mandate for senior executives caused a sharp intake of breath among many industry watchers, appearing as it does to fly in the face of accepted wisdom. So, what are the likely implications?

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Samsung raised eyebrows last month when it publicly mandated a six-day working week for all of its executives.  The aim, it said, was to “inject a sense of crisis” and encourage them to “make all-out efforts to overcome this crisis”. Last year, the South Korean electronics giant posted its worst year-end financial results for a decade, with net profits falling by 73% in the fourth quarter.

But the move also comes at a time when a huge 54% of senior executives around the world feel overworked and burned out. A further 36% are considering changing roles as a result, according to a recent report by recruitment consultancy LHH

So, just what is behind Samsung’s eye-catching move and is it likely to achieve its desired result? I asked Samsung for some insight here, but the reply was: 

We have no comment on this. 

So, let's ask what industry experts reckon. The reaction is mixed, and nuanced. Brent Cassell is Vice President, Advisory, for Gartner’s HR practice. On the one hand, he says:

It’s natural at times of stress to double down on what you were doing before. For example, if you’re trying to get your park run time down and you’re not hitting your goals, it’s human nature to run twice as fast for twice as long. So, your first response is to double down on what you’re doing and say you’ll work harder.

On the other hand, Cassell points out that in his 20 years at the research and advisory firm, he has “never heard anything like this”:

During times of crunch, I don’t think it’s uncommon for executives to work longer hours. But to hear a company formally announce it as stated policy is what stands out as most unusual thing about this decision…If you have employees who are already working very hard, to essentially say they’re not doing enough and have to work more is likely to have the opposite of the intended effect.

But the “cynical part” of himself also questions if the announcement was made at least partially for effect:

I wondered if it was one more act in an ongoing performance of productivity theatre. Are we simply labelling and marketing something our executives are already doing to prove to investors that we’re taking our financial results seriously and are taking drastic action? So, is it a bit of stagecraft?

Katleen De Stobbeleir, Professor of Leadership at Belgium’s Vlerick Business School, takes a similar stance:

Samsung is known for putting pressure on the South Korean government to protect the tech industry. Last year, the government proposed a plan for a 69-hour work week but that was stopped when younger workers opposed it. So, you could read Samsung’s new policy as being the result of internal issues that led to its poor financial results last year. Or you could read it as a signal that it believes the government needs to do more in flexible working terms. Certainly, the evolution to a 69-hour work week was largely due to requests from the tech industry. The truth will be a complicated bit of both.

Another message Samsung could be sending the government is the need for more financial investment in the tech sector. De Stobbeleir explains:

Many significant inventions and new technologies have been funded by governments, which is often an underestimated fact. For instance, the US government financed the army to develop the internet. So, this could be a way for Samsung to ask for more financial investment to fund innovation.

The South Korean work ethic

But De Stobbeleir also acknowledges that the South Korean work ethic (and those of other East Asian countries) is quite different from that of Anglo-Saxon countries:

It was known, even before this announcement, that Samsung executives have frequent Saturday meetings. So, while a six-day work week isn’t common and creates a bit of a shock effect here, it’s not completely unheard of in South Korea.

Cassell agrees, pointing to the sheer number of hours that most South Koreans work. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average is 1,915 hours per year – the fifth highest in the bloc - compared to their US counterparts at 1,791 hours and Germans at 1,349 hours.

The contrast with the West is huge. Here a popular topic of conversation is not so much about increasing working hours as compressing them into a four-day week

This approach, says Cassell, has been shown to drive higher employee performance, engagement, wellbeing and discretionary effort. Employees also consider it a top perk, ahead of paid sabbaticals, paid travel and the like. 

Globally though, employer uptake of the four-day week is to date no more than eight percent. The figure drops to four percent in the US – and “candidly even that seems a little high”, says Cassell. He explains:

What we’ve found is that there are three principal objections. One, we’re too busy. Two, it won’t work here, and three, it won’t last and is just a fad…So, for most companies the Ford five-day model is where it’s at.

Benefits of a four-day week

But De Stobbeleir believes this situation will change over time. This is because she considers the four-day week debate as primarily being a response to AI:

Sixty percent of highly educated white-collar jobs will change and be augmented by AI over the next few years. And where we’re seeing the most interest in the four-day week is in companies where white collar work predominates. Many companies are still in the process of adopting this technology and learning about it. They need to transform while still performing their traditional work. But once the transformation is largely done, we’ll see the evolution to a four-day week.

De Stobbeleir points to Belgium, which is the first country in the world in which employees have the right to request a four-day week – although they are required to work the same hours as they would if working for five days. She explains:

It’s more of a flexible working measure than a reduction in working hours at the moment, but it’s a first step. It’s something that nations are considering and companies are looking into, but it’s not there yet as they’re still transforming. Once they have, things will move much more rapidly.

Given that many of the key benefits of a four-day working week relate to employee wellbeing though, it raises questions about how wise Samsung’s move to six-days is, particularly at a time when all too many executives are burning out. As Jim Frawley, Founder and Chief Executive of executive development firm Bellwether, says: 

Samsung appears to be facing a strategic challenge, and creativity doesn’t happen by sitting at your desk because you’re told to. We perform at our best and are at our most creative when we’re not under stress, and being asked to work six days a week doesn’t sound like a stress-free environment to me. Stress results in our cognitive ability going down and we’re more likely to make poor decisions and forget things. It’s also important to have time to reflect on where the company needs to go in order to revise its strategy. But I’m not sure you can do that if you’re constantly in action mode.

As a result, executives being hyper-focused on the challenge at hand may result in a “short-term spike that may move the needle” initially. But over the longer-term, it is more likely to lead to a talent drain, Frawley believes. 

The need for choice

De Stobbeleir is not so sure though:

We’re jumping to conclusions if we say that long hours automatically lead to burnout. It’s a bit of a misconception as we know work-life balance has little to do with the number of hours worked and a lot to do with how free you are to choose those hours. So, if executives are given the choice to work on Saturdays or Sundays, it could provide them with enough of a feeling of autonomy in an otherwise controlled situation. 

Social comparison also has a part to play in this equation too though, she adds. This means that:

If you’re in a situation where everyone’s working 70 hours a week, you’re going to feel bad if you only work 35. But if you’re working 70 hours and everyone else does half that, it’ll impact your mental health. It also depends on how long-term this decision is, and whether it’ll be in place for six months or 10 years.

De Stobbeleir’s biggest concern though is the message it sends to the rest of the organization:

Leaders have a role modelling function. We’re saying this decision only applies to senior executives but, in all honesty, when people see the boss working weekends, it changes the culture and expectations. So, I wonder to what extent the people working for them will feel they can take the weekend off too? It automatically reduces free choice and informally changes the culture, so it’s hard to believe this will only apply to senior execs.

My take

Creating a culture of stress and overwork, while possibly manageable for individuals in the short-term, inevitably has a negative repercussions in the longer term. Not only could it damage creativity and innovation at a time when Samsung would appear to need to change course. 

But while demand for tech skills remains high and unemployment low, the danger is that it could create the right conditions for a brain drain, thereby harming rather than improving its financial performance in the process. 

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