Less time at work for the same amount of money. Sounds too good to be true, right?
Perhaps not. The idea of a four-day working week is now gaining serious traction, following a successful trial run by New Zealand firm Perpetual Guardian earlier this year. It has even made its way into mainstream politics, with the Labour Party investigating the possibility of including the four-day week in their manifesto for the next UK general election.
While this may sound radical, or even downright crazy, there are sound reasons why a reduction in working hours could benefit employees and employers alike.
Why do we work five days a week anyway?
The forty-hour, five-day workweek is so ingrained in our collective consciousness that it seems immutable. Despite the slow shift towards flexibility, for many of us, full-time work means Monday to Friday, up to eight hours a day. Where did this idea come from?
A few hundred years ago, there was no cap on the number of hours someone could be made to work, meaning many toiled for up to 12 hours a day, six or even seven days a week. In 1810, Robert Owen, a welsh textile manufacturer and social reformer, first pushed for an eight-hour day, reasoning that eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation, and eight hours of rest seemed a fair balance.
With time – and a great deal of pressure from workers – the forty-hour, five-day workweek was adopted across industrialised countries during the 1800s. This idea still dominates the world of work today.
More time doesn’t equal more work
It seems bizarre, in 2018, that we still adhere to a model of work formulated in the 1800s – a time of heavy industry, workhouses, child labour, and little regard for employee rights. Back then, work was repetitive and physical; the more time spent doing a task, the greater the output. But today, our professional roles are more complex, and their output less tangible. Modern work often involves ideas, strategies, and creative thinking, none of which can be easily quantified. More time spent at work no longer means more work done.
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Give somebody eight hours to do a task, and it’ll take eight hours. The longer the time available, the less acute the need to get on with it, and so the less focus and energy we apply to the task.
As anyone who works full-time will know, eight hours straight, five days a week, is a long time. I suspect that for the vast majority of us, it feels too long. Some of us perhaps harbour resentments about the amount of time we spend at work, and the corresponding lack of time available for anything else. This leads to a negative culture around work, epitomised by the idea of ‘living for the weekend.’
No matter what kind of work you do, it is virtually impossible to be switched on and focussed for eight hours straight, at least not without exhausting yourself in the process. As a result, actual work becomes just a part of the working day. The rest is spent popping to the canteen, catching up with colleagues, checking social media, or watching the clock. Amazingly, a recent survey by Vouchercloud revealed that the average UK office worker spends only 2 hours, 23 minutes per day being productive. A huge portion of our lives are spent at work, not working.
Long working hours leads to a culture of time-wasting and inefficient work practices. Issues that could be resolved between a few key people in a matter of minutes result in long, drawn out meetings, attended by people who don’t even need to be there. Rather than being an environment of energy and focus, the office becomes a place of constant distraction and noise. Employees go home exhausted and drained, but without the results and sense of progress to justify it.
So what really drives productivity?
Along with employee engagement, productivity is the key issue facing business today. In fact, the two issues are virtually inseparable – people are at their most productive when they are engaged in their work.
In order for us to be engaged in what we do for a living, work needs to be interesting and meaningful, and set at a level that is challenging but achievable. We need to have clear goals and a sense of direction, as well as regular feedback and support to keep us on track. We need to work in an environment where distractions are kept to a minimum, allowing us to focus on the task at hand.
These are the conditions needed to achieve flow – a state of hyper-focus where we lose ourselves in our work. Instead of flitting from one thing to another in a state of constant distraction, we focus fully on one thing, producing bursts of productivity that yield high-quality results. The key isn’t to spend more time at work, but to spend more time doing better work.
The benefits of a four-day week
Somewhat counterintuitively, reducing the amount of time we spend at work could be the key to increasing productivity. The Perpetual Guardian trial has been described as an unmitigated success, with employees noting increased levels of focus and motivation at work, reduced stress, and more time to manage their private lives.
There were business benefits, too – the company claimed an incredible 20% increase in productivity, leading founder and managing director Andrew Barnes to make the four-day week a permanent option at the company in November 2018.
Long term, a happier, more engaged and energised workforce could bring about a reduction in turnover and absence rates, resulting in a more cost-effective business model. From a human perspective, less time spent at work means more time spent with family, relaxing, or pursuing personal interests. There are even environmental benefits – working fewer hours means less energy consumed, and reduces rush-hour traffic congestion and pollution.
What happens next?
Whether a reduction in the working week will be adopted or not remains to be seen. Despite the success of the Perpetual Guardian trial, and despite the growing need for something to be done about employee engagement and productivity, many businesses will struggle with the idea of paying their staff the same amount of money for less time worked.
Businesses may equate the move to a four-day week with a free giveaway to all staff – do less work, get paid the same. But this attitude rests on the fallacy that time spent at work correlates with the amount of work done. As we have already discussed, this is no longer the case. Employees can get more work done in less time, given the right conditions.
Those businesses that choose to follow Perpetual Guardian’s lead will become a more attractive proposition for employees overnight. They will have the pick of the bunch when it comes to recruitment, and will see their reputations flourish. Those that insist on a five-day workweek could be left behind in the war for talent. With time, market pressures could see the four-day workweek become the norm.
This will no doubt be music to employees’ ears. But for a reduced work week to be a success, we must understand the role we have to play. A four-day working week is only viable if productivity increases. We would all be required to perform our roles with more focus, energy and urgency. This would require a completely new approach to work – no more meetings that drift on and on, no more wasting time looking busy, more time spent in the flow.
This new approach could unleash a wave of positivity and engagement. We would leave work energised and satisfied with our achievements, and spend more quality time with our loved ones. Sounds too good to be true? Perhaps not.
Read our guide on Flow at Work to see how you can help your employees become more productive.