A new report by Autonomy – a thinktank focusing on the future of work – argues that a shorter working week should be a central pillar of our economic future.
They say calls for a shorter working week have gathered pace in recent years, with the TUC, the Green party, large and small unions and now the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, joining the chorus.
Because we are working longer days but for stagnant wages and receding state pensions – and some of the most productive economies in the world work far fewer hours collectively than the average UK worker.
They say productivity relies not just on the sheer number of hours put in but on the wellbeing of the workforce – as well as investment in labour-saving technology.
At present, they claim heavy workloads, work-related stress and anxiety are costing millions each year, with one in four sick days being lost as a direct result of workload pressures – shorter working weeks and greater worker control over working time would mean fewer sick absences, fewer in-work accidents and higher motivation on the job – all of which would be good for business too.
Hence the Wellcome Trust has just announced plans to trial a four-day week without a loss in pay this year, possibly making it the largest company to do so anywhere.
In this same vein, at the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Gitura Mwaura says the world was urged to embrace the four-day working week, busting the notion that long working hours lead to more productivity – a shorter working week not only improves productivity by some 20% but has an overall effect on the well-being and work satisfaction of employees
Examples put forward include:
- South Korea which ranks near the bottom of OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries for labour productivity despite having a culture of working very long hours
- Greece which has one of the longest working weeks but comes out bottom in the OECD’s measure of GDP per hour worked
- And Japan which also has a culture of long working hours but emerges bottom of any G7 productivity list – hence, they are now deliberately cutting down on working hours, including overtime, to alter this position
However, other studies show there to be no correlation between long working hours and productivity — Germany is said to be more productive but works fewer hours on average than the UK
And in Sweden the WEF observes that “although employees report an improved quality of life, with less stress and more time to spend with their families, it can also be an expensive experiment for some businesses which have to hire extra workers to make up for the shortfall in hours”
Aidan Harper, the Autonomy report’s editor, concludes:
- The past century has shown us that automation technologies have more often than not been introduced by employers as a way of simply maximising productivity without sharing the surplus time and/ or the profits with employees
- The proceeds of automation should be shared evenly — in the form of a working time reduction
- Machines should liberate us from work, not subject us to ever-increasing inequality
- But few suggest workers should enjoy any of the benefits
This mindset clearly cannot continue
Companies would do well to consider a report by Minda Zetlin, co-author of The Geek, in an article for Inc. magazine on a company moving to a much shorter working week
Could you run your company just as well if employees worked a five-hour workday instead of an eightt-hour one?
If Australian financial services company Collins SBA is anything to go by, you probably could. And you’d benefit from better work-life balance, higher employee morale, and improved recruiting and retention. Your staff would take fewer sick days, and productivity would likely rise.
It may all sound too good to be true, but Collins SBA has been offering its 35 employees the opportunity to quit work between 1 and 2 p.m. for two years now, and it’s been a resounding success, managing director Jonathan Elliot told TNW. The shortened workday came about because the company, like all companies, was struggling to recruit the talent it needed in a very tight labor market. At the same time, Collins’s wife became ill with cancer. She needed surgery and chemotherapy and went through a long recovery process. The couple also had a 6-month-old daughter, which meant that Elliot needed to spend much more time at home taking care of them both than he ever had before.
He learned to be incredibly efficient. He stopped spending time chit-chatting with colleagues at work. He cut out unnecessary meetings. “I just focused on work and got home in time to look after my family,” he said.
When his wife got better, Elliot was free to go back to working longer hours. That’s when it struck him that he didn’t really need to. By working shorter hours more efficiently and cutting out meetings and lunches, he’d been able to get the same amount of work done that he’d previously been doing during a full workday. And so, partly inspired by Tower Paddle Boards, which cut its workday to five hours without sacrificing any productivity, Elliot pitched his colleagues and shareholders on trying out the new schedule throughout the company. They agreed.
Elliot didn’t simply declare that everyone could now work five-hour days. The new workday came with a few new rules. First, employees must arrive between 8 and 9 a.m. if they want to leave between 1 and 2. Second, their work responsibilities remain the same, and they must get their work done, even if it takes more than five hours. Third, unless specifically approved, they can’t have any personal appointments during their workday. And finally–of course–they shouldn’t go out for coffee or lunch. Instead, Collins SBA provides coffee and healthy snacks in the office. The company also now holds no one-hour meetings unless there’s absolutely no choice. And all employees have gotten training to help them manage their email more efficiently.
Can Collins SBA employees really get done in five hours everything that they were previously doing in eight? Well, no. Most employees have some workdays that last five hours and others that last six or seven, Elliot told TNW. But they don’t often work 40-hour weeks, or even 38 hours as specified in their contracts. In the end, what Collins SBA offers employees is really a flexible work schedule and the opportunity to leave work after five hours if they’ve finished their tasks for the day. In essence, it’s a powerful motivator to be more efficient, and to home in on the 20 percent of effort that yields 80 percent of results, as the Pareto Principle says. There has also been a 12 percent reduction in sick leave.
Not everyone loves the new schedule. Some employees left because of it. Elliot says the idea has proven surprisingly polarizing. And while most clients have supported the idea, a few have blamed the shorter workday when they were unhappy over other issues. However, this didn’t happen until the change had been widely reported in the press–before that, clients hadn’t noticed it. That in itself proves the new workday is a success, Elliot said. “If we can implement this covertly, we are doing it right.”
As you might expect, those same press accounts caught the attention of prospective employees. Elliot says the company’s candidate pool is bigger than it was, and some candidates are contacting the company to inquire about working there even when they weren’t responding to a specific ad for a job.
It’s also helping the company screen out some candidates who would likely make unproductive employees. “If a job candidate brings up our five-hour workday very early on, that’s a red flag,” Elliot says.