Future Work

The AI-Driven 10-Hour Workweek (with author Alexandra Samuel (WSJ, HBR, Book: Remote Inc.))

Let's dive in to explore the problem with Fridays, the challenges of a 4-day workweek, and which jobs AI will take over with Alexandra Samuel.

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Are you tired of working 5 days? 

Today I am honored to welcome Alexandra Samuel, a speaker, data journalist, and the co-author of Remote Inc.: How to Thrive at Work...Wherever You Are – one of our favorite remote work books

Alex holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University,  and her writing on work and productivity appears frequently in the Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review. 

In this episode, we talk about the problem with Fridays, the challenges of a 4-day workweek, which jobs AI will take over, how to become a business of one.

Here are five fantastic lessons from Alexandra on how to stay ahead in the future of work:

1. A New Way to Friday: Fridays have become ambiguous – is it still a workday? Alexandra highlights three solutions: going back to the office, creating a 3-day weekend, or, as she advocates for, an in-between where the office closes and no meetings are scheduled so you can better balance work and life.

2. The Challenges of a 4-day Workweek: Alexandra believes it is both not ambitious enough and too ambitious. It’s too ambitious because we are all paced differently, and some don’t even finish our work in five days.

And it’s too ambitious because the number of workdays or hours doesn’t necessarily equate to productivity or value. As Alex says, we’re conflating activity with output and output with value. The hours you spend at your desk do not determine the value you contribute to your organization. So, does it matter how many days you work?

3. Impact of AI on Work: Alex shares the huge impact AI already has and will have, including the displacement of white-collar jobs. She shares we may have to rethink what constitutes a full-time job. The pace of AI is accelerating so fast. If we just think about what we have now that we didn’t one year ago, imagine what version 7 looks like. Adaptability and continuous learning are essential for us to participate in an AI-driven future of work. Decouple your identity from your work and think about your current role as a winter coat – you’d expect it to last maybe a few seasons but not your entire life.

4. Managers and AI: Alex also says she’s unsure if humans can do anything that people will continue to want to pay for besides physical experiences.
Either way, we can’t put our heads in the sand. Leaders should cultivate that sense of adaptability in their teams. Alexandra says she’s gobsmacked that companies and managers don’t allow their teams to use AI. It’s use it or be replaced, she says.
For this, three obstacles have to be removed:

  • Companies need to allow AI to be used at work.
  • You need to have time to experiment.
  • You have to become one with the fact that AI is hard to learn as it develops so quickly. 

5. Becoming a Business of One: Rather than trying to force collaboration in remote settings, think less like an employee and more like a business that delivers excellent outcomes to your client – your boss or colleague.
As managers, enable your team to deliver that one brilliant hour of work that trumps 25 mediocre ones. This means giving them time for renewal and coaching them to get the most out of it. 

6. Alex’s Final Thought: We’re on the verge of a beautiful transformation in the nature of work. We’re in a moment where we can rethink how much of our lives is spent at work. And how much of our work is spent on tedious stuff. Because the AIs don’t care about tedious, they really don’t mind.

We hope you’ll love this episode and can put these insights to good use. 

Future Work is a weekly newsletter and bi-weekly podcast to help people-centric leaders stay ahead in the future of work.

Subscribe on FlexOS, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and YouTube for the latest Future Work episodes.

Join me again in two weeks, as I welcome Rebecca Hinds, a PhD leading research efforts at Asana to create a better world of work. It’s a data-filled episode that surely will get you thinking. 

For the latest updates on this podcast, go to flexos.work/futurework and subscribe.

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You can find the full episode and transcript here:

Transcript:

Daan van Rossum: You wrote an article about the problem with Friday. What are the problems with Fridays, and are we finally getting our four-day workweek?

Alexandra Samuel: In the problem of Fridays, what we really try to tackle is this question of the ambiguity of Friday. Is it still a regular workday where people should come to the office? Just like any other day, it's time to return to the office. It's time for a return to normality, or is Friday now, de facto, part of the weekend? Particularly in organizations that are moving to a four-day week, can we say that Friday is now the weekend? The four-day week is Monday to Friday. Clearly, the data shows that people prefer Friday to be their out-of-office day, even if they are working from home.

Even in a five-day-a-week organization, Fridays are a home day. That's really the third option that I ended up advocating to some degree in the article, which is, maybe we're not ready to go to a four-day week and nobody wants to go back to the office five days a week if they can avoid it.

So, can we make Friday somewhere in between? Can Friday be a day where, if you have a flexible workforce, if you have a hybrid workforce, perhaps you can even close the office on Fridays, because nobody wants that to be their office day?

Friday can be a work-from-home day. Friday can be a good day to concentrate on the stuff you need to do without getting interrupted. If we say that phone calls and meetings don't get booked for Fridays, Then, maybe, it's the day you see your dentist. If you know you're not going to have meetings, if you know you're not going to have Zooms, and so on, maybe it's the day you can take care of some personal things.

Maybe if you've really gotten your work done over the course of the week, this is sacrilegious; maybe you're going to even take some personal time on Friday.

Daan van Rossum: That would be an interesting question. Does that then lead us to the point where we're basically tapering off work and getting ready for maybe having that four-day workweek?

Alexandra Samuel: Here's my challenge with the four-day work week, which is that I think the four-day work week movement is both too ambitious and not ambitious enough. It's too ambitious in the sense that not everyone can get their work done in four days, and people pace their work really differently, and I think I've become very aware of this through building a business and working side by side with my husband. And we always joke, like, in every respect, we're like the tortoise and the hare. And I'm the hare; that is to say, I run fast out of the gate, and then I'm like wiped out on the field.

He likes to get going in the morning and just wants to tick along, and by four o'clock, I'm like lying in a coma on the sofa, staring at the ceiling, unable to move. And he just keeps on going, and he works until midnight. And, if you put us head to head at 11 in the morning, my 11 to 12 probably gets twice as much done. But then I'm wiped out.

I think that the problem with the four-day work movement is that it treats us like we are all paced the same. But you know what? Some of us burn fast and collapse. Someone passes tic, tic, tic, and there is no one right way. It's like having a different metabolism and a different personality.

In that sense, I feel like it's utterly unrealistic to think that a four-day work week works for everybody, because some people can't even fit their work into five days.

Alternately, the way I feel like it's not ambitious enough is that it still keeps us tethered to this idea that the number of days of work in the week tells you anything meaningful about what someone is getting accomplished.

Frankly, I think it sets expectations for output and volume of work in the wrong place for the new world of work. Because we are about to run out of work, my friends. If we all keep working four days a week, there's going to be jobs for seven people and a billion robots, and if we want there to be jobs for nine people and half a billion robots, we might need to scale back to three days a week. And reconceive our ideas of how much work constitutes a full-time job.

Daan van Rossum: Yeah, there's something really interesting in that. It's really about the output, and no matter when you do that work, as long as you create something valuable, and then obviously, the age of AI is upon us, I think quicker than we thought even a year ago.

How do you see the world of work changing? If you're going in the right direction, let's just talk about AI and how that's going to change the way that we work.

Alexandra Samuel: It's already changed the way we work. We've already seen people harness AI to expedite routine tasks, and I think the really profound change that we're just starting to see is that we're used to the idea of technology displacing manually.

We are not used to seeing technology displace white collar labor and highly specialized professional labor. There are people right now in law school, taking out expensive loans for legal jobs that are going to disappear before they have their loans paid off, I fear. And the same may be true for medical school.

The same is certainly going to be true for engineering, computer programming, and nerds like me who thought it was useful to know how to write a sentence.

I use the word class advisedly, but the truth is, it's not just professional people. There's a whole cultural and social structure built around the idea that if you get enough education, you get to sit at the top of the pyramid. That is going away very, very quickly. So, I think that we are going to see so much change so quickly in what AIs are able to do.

When I hear people say things, you have to invest in innovation skills, you have to invest in creativity, and you need to learn to work with intuition and really lean into the things that are uniquely human.

My reaction is that it sounds like a good idea that might buy you six more months. But the pace things are evolving, and I'm not very confident that there's anything humans can do that people are going to continue to want to pay for except possibly things that are physical.

Daan van Rossum: Yeah, that's the whole point of life; this is moving way too fast for us to make any predictions.

A couple years out, let alone decades out, Elon Musk was just in the news again because he told the UK's PM that all jobs would be wiped out. And then, if you look at some reports this year from Goldman Sachs and McKinsey, they're all saying it's only going to affect certain jobs.

Is it really possible for us to predict that at this moment?

Alexandra Samuel: I truly believe it is not possible, partly because the AIs themselves, of course, are contributing to the acceleration of innovation in a way that we can't anticipate or forecast.

The things I have done in the past year—I actually just had a piece come out in the journal today about what I've learned from my first year working with AI. I've broken every one of my own professional barriers this year, and maybe not every one; I'm sure I'll break more.

But all these things that I didn't think I could do, I now do routinely, like programming. I didn't write my own tools; I built, and I was pretty hackery, and I would build a lot of complicated, no-code workflows, and so on.

But I wouldn't like - I work on the Firefox extension to replace something that Amazon pulled out of its stack, and I never thought about doing that a year ago.

So when you realize how much has changed in year one, where all the AI is working from is really the people in the first generation, a couple of generations that went into it, like by generation seven, where the AIs themselves are feeding and teaching people how to make more AIs, who the hell knows what's going to happen?

Daan van Rossum: And that's only going to accelerate too.

Alexandra Samuel: I don't want to discourage people. I think it's still absolutely worth it. Thinking ahead and thinking, What do I do that's uniquely human? The sad truth is, probably, I feel quite replaceable by AI's in a lot of respects. I really do like the things that I do. I'm a techie and a writer, and they're pretty good at writing and techie.

Daan van Rossum: That's now. Extrapolate that a couple of years into the future.

Alexandra Samuel: Honestly, the only thing I do for a living that I feel like because I have kind of three careers—I'm a writer, I'm a speaker, I'm a data scientist/data journalist. The only piece that I really do not see AI being able to replace is speaking.

Daan van Rossum: This is why Nick Bloom said that hybrid work will actually work out better than remote work because that's the one thing the bots cannot do. They are unable to appear in person in an office?

Alexandra Samuel: Absolutely. Conversely, I wrote a piece a few months ago for JSTOR Daily where I argued that hybrid work really set the table for our transition to AI. Five years ago, we were all so invested in in-person conversation, and these years of remote work have really trained us to conduct more and more of our interaction over email, Slack, and Teams.

At a certain point, if you're mostly interacting with your colleague via text message, do you really care that your colleague is a person, or are you happy if your questions are answered by a friendly bot? I think we have really taught ourselves in some ways to make the most of AI, but also to accept a lack of human contact in a way that a hundred years ago, when the robots ruled us all, our great-grandchildren may have lived to the breath.

Daan van Rossum: The more you digitize, obviously, the more that AI can benefit, and that could be to our own detriment.

If you're an emerging leader right now, you're mid-career; you're trying to climb the ladder; you're trying to make progress; that's pretty spooky, and not everyone has three careers. Most people just have one. What would you do?

Alexandra Samuel: Nobody's going to have one. Nobody even has one now, and we're seeing that. People are changing careers more. Truly, the most important skill is the ability to learn, change, and adapt.

You need to be able to say, "Well, right now, I find myself as a data journalist, but I guess the robots just figured out how to do that. So I'm going to do something else now, and I'm going to sit down with an AI and learn how to do this new thing."

Daan van Rossum: Quickly moving ahead of the speed of AI, basically, and being agile enough to be on the next level?

Alexandra Samuel: And to decouple your identity from your job title and to recognize that your job title is maybe like your winter coat; you'd like it to last more than one season, but you're not expecting it to last the rest of your life.

Learning to reinvent yourself and accepting that is the nature of work now. I think it's really crucial.

Then I think for those who are in leadership roles, that is to say, and that doesn't mean being a CEO. It means, maybe, managing a team of four people. It's your job to also mentor and cultivate that relationship and that capacity within your team. I'm just gobsmacked by the number of organizations and the number of managers who are banning their employees from using AI.

What you want is to see them replaced by AI, because that's really the choice. It's like either they learn how to use it and they get more valuable, and each of the four people on your team creates 20 times the value for your company of what they're creating now, quite possibly while working less and having a nicer life, or those four people get replaced by AIs that do twice what they do for a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the cost.

Daan van Rossum: But this is a little bit like a head in the sand; if we just ignore that AI is coming, then things will be fine.

Alexandra Samuel: And to have some empathy here, I think there's three really big forces that are preventing people from making these.

One is that it's hard to be that forward-thinking leader if your organization is paranoid about AI, and for good reason, there's a lot of data privacy considerations that go into it, so unless your organization is creating a safe container for AI, it's hard to cultivate that capacity in your employees. So that's one obstacle.

Another obstacle is that if you're running super hard and trying to get your day-to-day job done, there's no room for people to learn. You're going to tell them to spend their week. I'm a freak. I spent two weeks earlier this year taking my Playbill collection and turning it into an online database that I figured out how to build in a really cool way with the help of an AI, and I built my own, but most of us are not going to take two weeks out of our job to build a Playbill collection, and so...

Daan van Rossum: Unless again, their manager or their company encourages them because they understand it as an essential skill for the future.

Alexandra Samuel: The second thing is that the organization and the team have to make space for people, like serious space, not like a go-do-it on your evening. It's like, actually, a day a week now, it is going to be spent experimenting with AI. Two hours a day are going to be spent experimenting with AI.

But that brings us to the third thing, which is that I think the hardest obstacle, at least for me personally, is that you have to sit with the cold terror of how overwhelming and passive this change really is.

Every time I sit down to try and expand my AI knowledge, I want to look at three new things that I heard about, and in the course of looking at the three new things, I discover 30 new things, and 15 of the 30 new things have capacities that I don't even begin to understand. and flip my lid and I'm like so overwhelmed that I just want to go hide in a hole.

Daan van Rossum: This is what most people face. It's too much. It's too new. It's too fast. It's too overwhelming.

Let's switch from very existential threats to your wonderful book, Remote, Inc., that's right behind you. And maybe a slightly related topic. 

In the book, you write about being a business of one and how that would influence, how you tackle topics like hybrid work, but maybe even AI. So, maybe you can share a little bit about that?

Alexandra Samuel: In the pre-pandemic world, where people were mostly working in-person, we were really used to functioning with the team as the fundamental unit. And to think of ourselves as a collection of Lego with interlocking and that we all worked in a very collaborative way.

Once you're working from home, it becomes much less efficient to work in a way that is collaborative, in the sense that collaboration worked in that previous world. The office had a real comparative advantage for collaboration because you always had somebody you could ask that question to. If you needed to meet, the friction of it, like you're not sitting at the boardroom table saying, "Wait, you're on mute, wait, you're on mute, right?" These online meetings are frustrating, and we lose a lot.

On the other hand, the office sucked for focused work. Part of the reason we had meetings all the time is because what was the point of not having a meeting? If you're sitting at your desk, someone's interrupting you. And, I'm really struck when I talk to organizations about this transition to hybrid work, as I do frequently everybody complains about two things.

They complain about missing the spontaneity of the office and how, when they go to the office, they're constantly interrupted. These are the same things. It's the same exact thing.

I want to ask you a question when I want to ask you one, and I want you to be right beside me so I can ask it. But God forbid, you should have a question that you want to ask me because then you're interrupting me.

Daan van Rossum: Exactly, I'm trying to focus.

Alexandra Samuel: I think that the beauty of hybrid work is that we get to separate those. We get to say, this is the day where I'm available; this is the day where I ask my questions. And this is the day where I actually get to put my head down, focus, and tackle these big thinking tasks that are really hard to do if you get interrupted every 10 minutes.

Once you move to having real time available for focus point, once you have a context where you can actually think us out for 45 minutes of a time, or maybe even four hours at a time, then it changes the relative balance and effectiveness of collaborative versus solo work. 

It becomes much more efficient for us as a team to think less like Lego, where you have to all click together to become something, and more like a kind of intellectual or virtual assembly line where I do my piece, I hand it to you, you do your piece, you hand it back to me, and the pieces of work are discrete, separate tasks that get passed in stages from one person to the next.

Of course, there are moments where we need to actually be connected in real time, but not as much as we're used to. To make that transition, you have to take a lot more responsibility for your pieces. You have to stop waiting for the boss to say, "Hey, Alex and Dan, you need to do this together." Instead, say, "Actually, Dan, I'm going to do this thing, and then I'll send it to you, and you give me your feedback and move it forward."

What we advocate in the book as a way of reframing your outlook and your relationship towards your work in this new framework is to think of yourself less like an employee who's taking orders from the boss and whose time is being dictated on a day-to-day basis by the team and more like a one-person business because your home office is the workplace now.

Daan van Rossum: Welcome to my HQ.

Alexandra Samuel: And it's your job to organize your work and deliver great outcomes to your client, where your client is your boss or your colleague who's waiting for the first draft of the report or waiting for the data or whatever it is they're waiting for.

But it's that level of autonomy and also that level of responsibility and accountability for what you're delivering that shifts when you start thinking of yourself, not as a cog in a machine, but as an independent agent responsible for what you are taking on and responsible for what you're delivering.

Daan van Rossum: Because I think that's what every manager ideally wants: that people take a lot of responsibility and feel that they have autonomy in their work. How would you affect that in a team? So, if you have people reporting to you, how do you make that transition?

Alexandra Samuel: The first thing is, I actually don't think that's what every manager wants. I think a lot of managers do not want that at all. And I think part of the reason we have seen a push for a return to the office is that as employees have stepped into that more autonomous role and as employees have proven in many cases that they're actually quite effective at getting their work done without someone breathing down their neck, it calls into question the value that many managers contribute.

I mean, don't get me wrong. There are plenty of managers who do contribute value, but if you are the kind of manager whose value is, if I'm not watching them, they're not working. If that's your philosophy, then you do not have a lot of value in a hybrid workforce. And unless you bring your people back to the office...

Daan van Rossum: Where you can manage by walking around and looking over the shoulder and giving microfeedback.

Alexandra Samuel: And so I think that the managers who believe in breathing down someone's back, and I got to keep an eye on them to make sure they're delivering. Those managers are profoundly threatened by the shift to hybrid work and are driving the return to the office out of their own personal fear and a lack of faith in their team.

Daan van Rossum: Speaking of roles that can be taken over by AI, AI is probably going to be the best middle manager ever if it's about just controlling the output of work.

Alexandra Samuel: I think that is a very real and horrific prospect, and I cannot discourage organizations. I read an article a number of months ago that said 70% of employees are now subjected to virtual surveillance when they're working remotely. That's terrifying. The number's probably going to go up.

Again, it is a result of us inflating activity with output and completing output with value. The hours you spend at your desk do not determine the value you contribute to your organization for most white collar jobs. There are certainly roles where it does, but there are a lot of roles where a brilliant hour is worth 25 plotting hours.

Your job as a manager is: how do you enable that one brilliant hour? How do you help your employees?

Feel like they can get up from their screen; feel like they can leave an email unanswered so that they do the full picture renewal that turns them into a live, exciting spark instead of the cog.

Daan van Rossum: That's the coaching part. That's part of getting the most and the best out of everyone and believing that you can do something amazing, and I'm just here to enable that.

 I did an interview with Eddie Goldberg a couple weeks ago where we talked about the idea that maybe we need to split the manager of people and the manager of work. 

The manager of work that can be done, maybe automatically, maybe by an AI, but that managing of people and getting the most out of them is still a very human task.

Alexandra Samuel: I'm not sure about the coaching and mentoring aspects. I wouldn't split it literally. Speaking personally, one of the things I know about myself as a manager is that I'm fabulous at the coaching and mentoring part of it. I am barely able to keep track of my own task list, let alone manage all the interrelated dependencies. As soon as you are into the Gantt chart world, I'm like, Please find me a real project manager.

And yet, you need those pieces to work synergistically. You need to have the flow of work informed by a deep appreciation for who has talents and where somebody might need a little bit of a pull in order to grow.

Daan van Rossum: I just watched the Charters Workplace Summit, and Jared Spetaro from Microsoft was talking about how he's using AI because they had access to co-pilots about nine months before the official launch. 

He was saying those are the kinds of things, like tracking tasks, reading emails, and attending meetings, that I basically tap into AI for. Then I have the time to talk to people and to focus on the creative part of work, which hopefully then maybe we'll even unlock Friday here or there.

I think there's so much more to discover, but we try to keep these episodes short and concise. So maybe just to close out, like after we've talked about all the impending doom, what's a wish you have for the future of work?

Alexandra Samuel: I think we're on the verge of a beautiful transformation in the nature of work because the old workplace is gone. People may not have fully noticed or accepted that yet but AI is going to ensure that they do.

There may be terribly painful transition processes. Those are fundamentally social and economic choices. I hope that businesses and employers will play a responsible role in it by participating in a conversation about how we ensure that you can have a good life without working 40 hours a week.

But if we can solve this sort of distributed problem, the justice side, the question of how people can make a living, we are in a moment where we can really rethink how much of our lives are spent on work and how much of our work is spent on media stuff.

The AIs, bless their hearts, don't care about tedious tasks. They really don't mind, as far as I can tell. Maybe eventually it'll turn out they really mind, and that's where we'll get into trouble. But so far, it seems like they don't mind. So, I could imagine a revolution of inference.

The opportunity for us to get to a point where we're tapping the power of AI to accomplish way more in terms of value and output with way less actual hours. So that we see that our notional 40-hour a week job is like 10-hours at your desk and 30-hours of walking with your friend on the beach, going to cocktail parties with other people who may or may not be in your industry, doing pottery classes, jamming with your band, and taking your kid hiking. We honestly don't know where the inspiration is going to come from or where the energy is going to come from.

And so I believe that we have the potential to enter a new world of work where we stop with this ridiculous binary of work versus life and recognize that human work—the work that is not done by AI—requires all humans and whole humans.

The job of being a whole human is not a job that can be done in the two hours between your commute and bedtime. The job of being a whole human is a full-time job that leaves a little bit of room for you to sometimes sit at your desk and give the next task to an AI.

Daan van Rossum: That sounds like a future we can all believe in. Alex, thanks so much for being on.

Alexandra Samuel: Thank you.

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