Is a shorter working week the answer?

Nearly a century ago John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist, predicted a 15-hour working week by the turn of the 21st century.

Depressingly, the TUC found more than 1.4 million people in the UK were working seven days a week and the average work-related hours folks engage in to close to 60 hours per week. This is, however, maybe starting to change.

Overwhelmingly, the scientific evidence has said that working shorter hours makes us more productive. Factor in the fact that the rise of AI and related workplace automation has increased business efficiency to a level that was barely believable even a decade ago and we’ve kinda reached a point where we can all just work fewer and/or more flexible hours?

Thereby creating a strong argument that the benefits of these advances in computer technology and AI should be shared amongst everyone and not just bosses and shareholders. Of course, the obvious way to do this would be in implementing a shorter working week, for the same pay – say cutting the standard working week to 30 hours or less.

Lots of approaches are mooted, but mostly they revolve around either reframing the existing working week or modifying our core working pattern.

The four day week

“It looks like moving the working week to four days rather than five gets you a broader productivity and wellbeing benefit – You have a healthier workforce, a reduction in sickness absence and improved sense of work-life balance.” – Ed Whiting, Wellcome Foundation.

Implementing a four day week can be tough for larger organisations, requiring a firm hand to drive adoption. But businesses in the UK are mostly small and outside public sector (who’ll be the last to adopt quality-centric working) most folks work for small businesses. The relative conservatism of smaller businesses and greater sensitivity to cost-base changes may, however, slow or stall adoption – despite the well-documented benefits.

However, the four day week just a minor variation of existing, century-old working practices carved out in mills and factories in the industrial age? Longer term, the ideal answer is to work until demand subsides and rethink the whole approach to the workplace. This is a purer version of supply/demand work economics.

Unfortunately, for most jobs a huge amount time is wasted on “adherence to the workplace structure” – for example long commutes, over-stuffed toxic meetings, bloody internal email, and open-plan office distractions. Often useful work comes a poor 3rd or 4th.

Throw in Parkinsons Law (’s_law) and the boss-staffer guilt/trust paradox and you have all the ingredients to trap staffers for 55 hours a week – when maybe only half of those hours are actually productive. The average British worker is contracted for 38 hours, takes only a 34-minute lunch break, works 10 hours overtime and commutes 5hrs every week, 48 weeks of the year.

Why the panic? Work is not all that bad

Proponents for a shorter working week sometimes portray work to be some evilness that needs to be restricted, or a version of modern-day wage slavery. That is not always the case, work can and should be fulfilling and for most people should be a healthy part of that famed work/life balance.

Much of what is bad about work is of our own making, and has become systemic in most workplaces. Mostly it has nothing directly to do with the number of hours we sit in our cubicles, or on the North Circular, work has become institutionally toxic in it’s structure, and the wasted hours are definitely not helping our work/life balance.

If work was idyllic, joyful and aligned with our values, loves, life, family and belief system then we’d probably not regard it as work. Buts lets leave the discussion to philosophers who are still arguing about what defines work.

Thinking flexibly

Prior to our company moving to a shorter working week we ran an extensive, semi-blind experiment to measure effectiveness in the workplace. What we found shocked us – folks were only at their prime for 20-25 hours a week, the rest of the time was either dead or produced markedly lower quality output.

As a result, 6 years ago we moved to working a maximum of 30 flexible hours (20 is more normal) per week. Whilst is was initially tough to implement, we came out of it with a super work/life balance, increased productivity, improved morale, better pay, and improved client experience. Everyone, well mostly, was a winner – even the bottom line has nudged up – work less, earn more, be happier.

There were a couple of losses along the way, shorter and more flexible working places a greater responsibility on individuals to be organised and disciplined – not everyone is, usefully most fell as early casualties.

Today, our operations policy is much clearer and focussed to line-up with the right sort of people. This is a challenge for companies adopting a shorter and flexible working week – they will need to wheedle out existing staffers that don’t fit in and change operations and hiring practices to align closer to the personality of the new world.

This way of working will not suit all people and all businesses – we’re firmly placed in the creative/intellectual corner so our value is measured far more on quality than quantity. Furthermore, we exist in a the market which is not really sensitive, so operational cost-efficiency is low on our focus list. Not all businesses operate in the same space.

So what about the working man? In the same way “job for life” and “time served” have died out, the modern workplace will demand greater self-organisation, planning and discipline than in the past. With that comes greater freedom, increased employer-employee trust and a level of self-determination that requires a new way of thinking for the new generation.

The onus will increasingly fall on staffers to self-learn and self-manage – carving out a planned sort of career that meets their emotional and mental health needs as much as money and physical stuff.

What if we need more structure? What if the workplace demands are such that entirely flexible working is not viable due to operational and management constraints? Maybe the four day working week doesn’t go far enough? How about a radical rethink – the 3 and a half day working week. Weird eh, I know.

Working two days on, two days off

How about an extra week off every month? So, rather than working 22 days, you only work 15? Well, an experiment is being tried that each staffer works for two days and then has two days off – its like having a full weekend after just a couple of days at the office. And all at the same pay (albeit with maybe only 20 days annual leave).

The shorter holidays are not missed. Taking 6 days off under the revised system buys folks 2 weeks holiday vs requiring 9 days in a more conventional 5 day working week.

The total reduction of working days is dramatic – rather than a more normal 220 working days a year, folks only work 158 days – thats over 200 non-working days every year, time to spend with the family, volunteer, learn a new language, care for a loved one. It would also be the first time in human history that we’d have more leisure than work time.

Whats the catch? The rolling two on/two off means we swap fixed weekday to working across the whole week including weekends. This helps employers as most businesses function seven days a week. Oh, and a shorter lunch break means the day is 7.5hrs long, but the working week is super short at just over 26hrs.

Time to change

A lot is made of the 35 hour working week. Mostly that is steeped in working practices created long before any of us was born, or even our parents. We’re on the cusp on entering the third decade of the 21st century so change is very overdue. Besides, ripping 10 hours from your working week isn’t as hard as you might think, especially when you get rid of toxic meetings, free yourself from internal email, and embrace an agile approach to work – you’ll probably find you are less stressed too.

Companies mostly the benefit, too. Less stressed and more rested staffers produce more consistent, higher quality output with fewer sick days, better staff retention and improved morale. Overall operational output is often higher, too. There is rarely a better example of the “Less is More” mantra.

What to do with all this extra free time? Well, a word of caution from a company that has worked a 25 hour week for the thick end of a decade – watch your spending, with so much extra free time its easy to get carried away. Experience has taught us that self-betterment exercises such as learning, reading and personal development are great outlets for all that free time – that and family, of course.

And let’s embrace the end of Monday Blues, Midweek Miseries and the Friday Feeling. No matter what day it is, in two days from now you’ll have a day off or if you work flexibly then simply don’t work on an off day. Simples, as a meerkat puppet says.