News Article

NEW NORMAL - There’s a lot of talk about four-day workweeks – but could shorter workdays be a better approach?

Posted 11th August 2022 • Written by BBC •

The focus on worker wellness and company productivity during the pandemic has some employers toying with new approaches to the workweek as we know it. Much is being made of the four-day workweek, but while three-day weekends are nice, condensing five days of work into four can prove stressful for some workers and their employers – or even be considered non-viable entirely. There may be other alternatives, however.

Some organisational psychologists suggest shortening the workday. Wrapping up in a shorter span of time – such as six hours rather than eight – could prove a practical solution for more types of businesses, and go a long way towards improving the lives of workers, too.

In theory, a shortened workday may seem fanciful – after all, employers want to get as much of workers’ time as they can, and “the idea of the eight-hour day is so ingrained in industrialised society”, says Headlee. Yet there are powerful arguments to be made for the shorter workday linked to increased worker wellbeing and potentially heightened productivity. It may be that, contrary to entrenched norms, employees could be working more efficiently and with better focus if they went home sooner.

Eight-hour workdays are standard for many industries – and this structure is hard to shake.

Employers also play a part in the perpetuation of this workday structure, he argues, saying the lack of evolution is a “failure of imagination”. “Instead of actually measuring people’s results, it’s nice and simple to count the number of hours that they’re working, and assume that more is better. That's an assumption that needs to be shattered.”

Norway and Denmark have workweeks shorter than 40 hours, and are respectively the second- and seventh-most productive countries in the world.

Indeed, studies show working longer does not necessarily correlate to greater productivity in general. Research from Stanford University has indicated there’s an upper limit to productivity: worker output begins to fall sharply after about 48 hours. And other experts suggest that optimal working-hour number could be even lower, depending on the type of work – some positing it could be as few as 35 hours per week or six hours per day, putting employees well below an eight-hour workday. Norway and Denmark have workweeks shorter than 40 hours, and are respectively the second- and seventh-most productive countries in the world.

After all, employees need breaks during long stints at their desks – which means even the most productive workers aren’t spending every moment toiling away on business tasks. A survey of nearly 2,000 workers in the UK showed that on average, people only really feel productive for about half the workday. Shortening it, then, could motivate them to increase that window. By working fewer hours, rather than doing a combination of working and wasting time for eight, workers could be even more productive.

Increased productivity could also stem from better worker morale and physical health, borne from more work-life balance with shorter workdays.

It makes sense that a condensed schedule would result in increased productivity.

As a result, many workers’ efficiency may increase, while their mistakes decrease.

Potential pitfalls

First, there’s no guarantee every worker will be equally productive during a shorter day, especially for less committed workers. But if people do shirk their responsibilities, he adds, “that’s a failure of management. If you cannot trust your workforce to be as productive doing a little bit less work, then you either failed at hiring, or at job design or at leadership”.

A shorter workday could also complicate things, says Headlee, for multinational companies in some industries, since a shorter workday could cut down the overlap among time zones.

Perhaps most importantly, though, there’s also a danger that shortening the workday won’t actually change how much people work; as they do with eight-hour days, employees may continue to crack on with outside their standard hours. In other words.

A dream or a reality?

Despite pitfalls, however, a shift to shorter working hours could be closer to reality than it once was. In the wake of the pandemic, some employers are activelyre-thinking – and even challenging – the work status quo. Many companies have decided to allow new working patterns, such as asynchronous communication, or remote working, where they can’t necessarily see productivity in the same way.

And a particularly significant development is the uptake of the four-day workweek; while not hugely widespread ­– and still in test mode within many countries and companies ­– it’s become an increasingly popular talking point for how to re-think the way people work in a changed world.

There’s one group in particular, adds Grant, that would undoubtably benefit in a big way from a shorter day: working parents.

It remains to be seen how many companies think a shortened workday is viable. But for those who make the move, Grant says there could be an immediate pay-off. He believes workers who switch to a shorter schedule will see benefits right away – and their companies will, too.

“Most people who are given an opportunity to work a shorter day are going to take that as a tremendous benefit,” he says. “They’re going to be grateful for it. It’s going to build more loyalty. And then their motivation goes up. They will work harder in the time they have, and they will work smarter in those hours.”

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