Shorter working hours: A productivity boost?

May 8, 2018    Ann Clarke     ,

Global productivity is slowing despite employees’ countless efforts to find new and innovative ways to unlock extra output from their people.

Carefully curated employee wellbeing programmes, the introduction of flexible working, improved soft and hard benefits packages and a greater focus on inspiring work environments are just some of the initiatives that have stemmed from companies’ attempts to boost output and keep employees well, healthy and motivated.

Over the years one particular solution has been repeatedly mooted yet has never broken into the mainstream – the introduction of a shorter working week. London agency Normally and Glasgow agency Pursuit Marketing are two recent examples singled out in a BBC film which highlights the idea reduced working hours. However, this idea is certainly not new.

Those working in the 1970s will remember Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s decision to introduce a three-day working week. Sparked by a chronic energy shortage and a miner’s strike, the three-day week yielded results that no one had foreseen – a 5% spike in productivity. While the three-day week obviously meant reduced earnings, the nation also reduced its reliance on work for the better and achieved far greater balance and wellbeing. The country’s golf courses were busier, radio audiences increased and people’s personal relationships shifted as couples spent more time together – even the division of domestic labour shifted. Unfortunately, the shorter working week lasted for just two months, despite countless organisations heralding it as the future – Whitehall included, before the nation went back to the five-day week.

Now, it’s interesting that in the context of an always-on, global economy, the shorter working week is back as an innovative and progressive idea. This time however, the enablers and drivers have changed. Greater transience in how and when we work, thanks in no small part to the proliferation of mobile technology, has changed employees’ relationship with and behaviours toward work irrevocably. Employers have embraced agile working, sought to improve the working experience, used technology to improve efficiency and recognised that employees are the engine room of most businesses. Shorter working hours are now considered a vital benefit and a means to foster improved employee health and wellbeing, rather than a way to reduce staff salaries out of necessity.

At the heart of this is the acceptance that improved workforce wellbeing can unlock the extra discretionary effort and commitment needed to boost organisational performance. In other words, well employees with a greater work life balance will take fewer days off sick and be more engaged, focused and committed to their work.

The experiences of normally, the design agency mentioned at the start of this blog, certainly bears that out thanks to its happy, healthy, efficient and productive workforce. The firm hasn’t just shortened its working week as a gimmick. It’s made it part of its values and workplace culture. The cynics among you would be forgiven for thinking that these employees just make those hours up on other days. Not true. These workers are actively discouraged to work longer hours and 8 to 5pm remains their norm. Nor is there is any compromise to their earnings – they are still paid the same as for a five-day week. The only stipulation is that employees use the fifth day for themselves as wellbeing comes first.

Western countries are not short of enthusiasm when it comes to trialing shorter working hours. Google, Deloitte and Amazon are some of the biggest brands to have run their own pilots while other smaller firms have moved to a sort of hybrid, condensing their working hours into fewer days and creating a longer weekend for employees.

The Svartedalens experiment in Sweden saw a small group of elderly care nurses change from an eight to six-hour work day and the results were impressive. Nurses took significantly less time off sick and were happier and more efficient in their work. They were also vastly more productive and engaged in the care of the home’s elderly residents, being more resilient, patient and creative in dealing with some of the home’s most needy patients. Considered a resounding success, this project isn’t the only one to come out of Sweden, a country which has always been pioneering in its approach to work life balance. A Toyota care centre has been using the shorter week for more than 15 years, countless start-ups are doing the same and a hospital has embraced the idea too.

The ‘always on’ and ‘never far from work’ culture we have inadvertently subscribed to has benefited business for some time – not just from the almost 40 hour standing working week but the unpaid and often un-seen overtime too. However, the collective realisation that compromised mental and physical health and wellbeing can have a highly detrimental and costly effect on business has started a groundswell of combative initiatives that put far greater attention on the value of people – changes to the working week and employee wellbeing are just two such initiatives.

Whether the three or four-day week will ever become the mainstay of our working lives is too difficult to predict, after all history has taken quite a faddy view of it so far, but what is clear is that in the face of greater automation, global competition and a shortage of professional talent, employers have little to lose by looking at ways to do things differently. At best, a new approach to working hours could unlock greater productivity and have a transformational effect as output and enthusiasm spike. At its worst, if you can call it that, you will have a healthier, motivated and well workforce. Surely that has to be a win-win?


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