Will the future mean working less?
A harmonious workplace revolves around employers' and employees' goals aligning. Whilst employees strive for workplace satisfaction and appropriate compensation, employers aim for time productivity and low overhead costs. At the end of the day, the two clash.
The best way forward is to find a happy medium that provides job satisfaction and flexibility whilst simultaneously increasing productivity. This leaves only compensation to resolve, which should ideally be catered for through market forces and a social safety net.
The idea of saving time and money by working smarter rather than harder is something that we all crave. So, how can we evolve such a rigid attitude to work practices, given that there are no natural barriers to doing so?
New perspective amidst a crisis
Whilst COVID-19 has shown society that working from home is not simply a euphemism for breakfast in bed, in reality, the trend towards flexible work has been gathering pace in recent years with the advent of the gig economy, which is by far the fastest-growing sector. Lawmakers have begun to understand the attraction of job flexibility, and, in the UK, parliamentarians are contemplating writing into law the right to work from home.
Many go further, urging legislation for a four-day working week, believing it to be a 'powerful tool to recover from the crisis'. The cross-party opposition coalition have written a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer asking him to set up a commission to explore this possibility, mirroring what has already been done north of the border in Scotland.
The left-of-centre coalition argue that a four-day working week would reduce stress and overwork, boost mental health and wellbeing, and, as a result, increase productivity. They urge the government to explore 'putting a four-day, 30-hour working week (or any equivalent variation) front and centre ‒ including protections for those on low incomes ‒ as the country unites behind building back better out of this crisis'.
Continuing: 'A four-day week would bring multiple benefits to society, the environment, our democracy and our economy (through increased productivity). One of the biggest impacts would be better mental health and wellbeing across the board with more time available for socialising, family and community.'
They argue that 'shorter working time has been used throughout history as a way of responding to economic crises', citing the normalisation of the eight-hour day and 40-hour week as a means of reducing unemployment during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The UK Labour Party has been pushing a four-day week for years, committing in the most recent election to deliver a 32-hour working week within a decade if elected. They suffered a crushing defeat. In New Zealand, PM Jacinda Arden also recently supported the virtues of a four-day week as a way to help the economy recover, arguing that 'the pandemic has taught us so much about the flexibility of people working from home and the productivity that can be driven out of that'. In a Facebook Live video, she went on to argue that a four-day week may boost work-life balance and productivity and help to rebuild the country after the pandemic.
Experimentation yields results
In 2019, Microsoft ran a one-month trial to test out a four-day workweek in its Japan offices, which found many positive outcomes. Employees were not only happier but also significantly more productive, with productivity increasing by 40 per cent. The shorter workweek ‒ where employees were still paid the same salary ‒ led to more efficient meetings and employees taking less time off.
In the U.S, Shake Shack started testing the idea over two years ago. The popular burger chain shortened managers' workweeks to four days at some stores and found that recruitment spiked, especially among women.
Nordic countries have long operated on shorter working weeks, where they benefit from both productivity and citizen satisfaction. For example, a study conducted in Sweden found that nurses who worked shorter workweeks logged less sick hours, reported better health and enjoyed better mental well-being. They also showed greater engagement with their day-to-day tasks, as they were seen arranging 85 per cent more activities for the patients in their care during the trial than before.
A four-day working week may not be the utopia it seems
Legislators of a different persuasion and nervous employers are cautious about change, not least given the dreadful state of the economy post-lockdown. They consider that what might normally be an interesting experiment is reckless in the current circumstances.
Whilst it's possible to imagine how the demands of employers and employees might be reconciled, extrapolating that into natural job creation is tougher; if productivity reflects demand, why would more production be required (to create those jobs)? This is particularly a concern if wages remained the same in the four-day week scenario. Further, many western economies had tight labour markets and low unemployment entering into the pandemic, so if jobs were created, who would take them and at what price?
How can you ask for a four-day workweek?
So, whilst a four-day working week may not be the solution to the economic crisis we are currently facing, if you feel like you would personally benefit from a shorter workweek, you can still approach your management and request for this flexibility.
Make sure to do your homework and come up with a list of benefits that your employer gets by giving you a four-day workweek. Bring forward a proposal that outlines how you will complete your tasks, communicate with your team and clients, and improve your productivity within this proposed schedule.
Be mindful that your employers will likely be sceptical of this proposal, so you may have to prove your productivity. It could be beneficial to provide examples of companies that have adopted this change and benefited from it to strengthen your case. Be prepared with supporting facts to argue your case if your boss challenges your proposal.
If you can't convince your boss, don't give up! As laws around flexible work are currently being reviewed, this policy could be adopted in your workplace without your having to ask for it!
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of TopCV.