Editorial Board

Read This and Take the Rest of the Day Off

Carlos Slim's suggestion that people work three 11-hour days, like Seoul's decision to allow city employees an afternoon nap, is worth sleeping on.
Future employees of the month?

Carlos Slim is a pretty successful guy: either the world's richest or second-richest, depending on which measure you use and how much he spent on lunch that day. So it's worth taking note when he has something to say about work and productivity.

At a conference recently in Paraguay, Slim, who controls America Movil, the largest mobile-phone operator in the Americas, pitched a radical overhaul of the 9-to-5 grind: People would work three days a week, though they would put in longer days (11 hours) and they would retire later in life (at around 70). The extra days off would give people more time to relax and invent things, Slim said.

On the other side of the world, the Seoul city government was singing a similar tune -- a lullaby, actually: Workers will soon have permission to take afternoon naps, though the nap experiment is restricted to the summer months. Perhaps city officials realize what sleep science has been saying for a while: Napping helps improve cognitive performance, especially if the nap is in the 10- to 25-minute range.

This work-less, nap-more ethos is not new. But its primary advocates have tended to be from the squishier end of the work spectrum, places such as Sweden or Google. Now it's gaining support from a hard-charging billionaire and public officials in the largest city of a nation famous for grueling workdays, soju-fueled work nights and chronic sleep deprivation.

Their ideas will still have a tough time catching on, to state the obvious. The pressure on the workweek, enabled by personal technology and abetted by employment anxiety, is all the other way: to expand, not contract.

The genius of Slim and Seoul's ideas is that they accept the malleability of the 21st-century workweek but ask why the change is in only one direction. Just because the workplace is always on, the workweek doesn't have to be. The five-day week, after all, was established in a time when we had dry goods, steam engines and lamplighters. Hasn't the workplace become more efficient since then? Shouldn't the workweek?

Some groggy bureaucrats in Seoul and an industrious billionaire in Mexico City are saying it should. (As is, we realize, the editorial board of an organization famous for its first-in, last-out work ethic and open-office seating plan, which is convivial but makes it really hard to nap.) The question is how to get from here to there. There may well be no one-size-sleeps-all solution, or it may take a year's worth of 18-hour days to figure it out. But at least people are finally waking up to the problem.