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Should we seriously consider a shorter working week? - 13 March 2019

Should we seriously consider a shorter working week?

Over the past 30 years, the world has changed at a phenomenal pace. Technology has transformed the way we work, with processes that used to take ages now achievable in minutes - from almost anywhere.

Even though this climate has created greater flexibility, many businesses are sticking to the traditional model of working an eight hour day, five days a week, in a set location. But forward-thinking businesses (led by Scandinavian countries) are embracing change and experimenting with shorter working weeks.

Perpetual Guardian Approach

Take New Zealand trusts business Perpetual Guardian, who introduced a four-day working week. They dropped a whole working day for the same pay.

This is hardly new thinking. As far back as 1930, in his essay 'Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren' John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the end of the 21st Century rising living standards and technological advancements would enable a 15-hour working week.

He suggested we would be free from "pressing economic care" in favour of determining how to "live wisely and agreeably and well."

In the UK, however, despite Keynes prescient thoughts, people work, on average, 42.3 hours a week, currently the highest in the EU, with hourly productivity 13% below the G7 average. This has been dubbed the new "British disease" with people working harder to be less productive. This situation is also leading to illness, mental health issues, low investment and frequent absences.

This approach is certainly at odds with many of today's most innovative business thinkers. Sir Richard Branson, goes even further than Perpetual Guardian advocating a three-day working week. He suggests that in today's world there is no reason people can't work fewer hours and still be equally - or even more - effective.

Of course, this is the word of an already successful billionaire. What practical benefits would taking this approach have for other businesses?

Four Day Week Experiment

Looking at Perpetual Guardian's approach; the company claim a four-day week has produced the following results:

1. Previously long meetings now last 30 minutes maximum;

3. Workers spent less time engaged in "catch-ups" and sociable conversation;

3. Less procrastination and a higher focus on the job at hand;

4. More time to upskill and gain new knowledge of the role with workers reporting they felt more capable of doing the job;

5. Reduced stress and better work-life balance.

However, this is also being offered as a kind of incentive. A four-day working week is offered as a "privilege, not a right" and during an annual review, should staff be proven to be underperforming they can find themselves back on a five-day week. On top of the benefits, Perpetual Guardian is using this improved work structure to further motivate staff.

There are many other examples of this, or similar schemes, working across the globe. The Japanese have a word for "death by overworking" and introduced Shiny Mondays giving workers the chance to come in late one Monday a month.

In 2016, the city government of Reykjavik found that both costs and productivity stayed the same after a year-long study cutting half a workday for full-time employees at some municipal offices.

In his studies, professor of human resource management at Auckland University in New Zealand, Jarrod Haar found that life and job satisfaction increased in every way across work and home life, with employees working more effectively and enjoying their work more.

Are there any downsides to reducing the working week?

Everything above paints a rosy picture of reducing the working week, but it's not quite that simple. For many businesses, there's a point where the costs begin to outweigh the benefits.

Away from the headline-grabbing stories above, very little is discussed about the on-going issues of reducing to a shorter working week.

US-based education company Treehouse went back to a full working week after trialling four-days. Facing redundancies and cutbacks, the company decided that making people redundant while the surviving staff worked four-days looked bad.

Talking to the BBC, Treehouse's Marketing Director Megan Dorcey suggested that a five-day working week created better collaboration for the whole team, which worked in different time zones. She also explained that customers wanted a full five-day service.

Professor Haar has also suggested that asking workers to come in less than four days a week, while job satisfaction would increase there would be a reduction in productivity that would cancel that out.
Even Perpetual Guardian is still, as yet, to announce whether their trial of four working days will be made permanent.

Should my business consider a four-day working week?

There is no simple answer to that question. There's plenty of evidence (theoretical and practical) to suggest it would be benefit your staff. It would likely make them happier, less stressed, and in many ways, more productive.

But this may not entirely align with your business needs, targets and bottom-line. The fact remains that a shorter working week is a no-brainer for staff, but in uncertain and difficult economic times businesses will have to make this balance with their overall success.

That said, with today's technology, there is definitely scope to seriously consider more flexible working, new processes and a family-friendly work structure. This could successfully include a shorter working week.
Radical business thinking has been proven to have radically positive results. Perhaps, now is the time to reflect on how we work and consider making a change for the better.
 

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