business lifestyle

The companies experimenting with shorter working hours

Ten years ago I switched from a full time job to three days a week, so that I could write books and blogs about changing the world. As I expected, I got the same amount of work done as before. This wasn’t because I was slacking previously, but because I was more focused on the days when I came in. I said no to meetings and side-projects that I didn’t need to be involved in – and since I wasn’t around as much, I didn’t get invited to as many meetings anyway.

At the risk of being less sociable, I probably did spend less time standing about chatting in the kitchen. I suspect the amount of time I wasted on the internet fell too. A full time job, even a good one, can get boring sometimes. We watch the clock, debate briefly whether to start something new now or just see out the next hour on Twitter, and invariably choose the latter. ‘Presenteeism’ is rife in British offices, with people staying late because everyone else is and they look slack if they leave on time.

And yet, many people feel that they work too many hours, and don’t have enough time for the things that they enjoy. They feel disengaged at work, taken for granted, and that their work is meaningless.

There are no silver bullet policies or magic solutions that work for everyone. But you do have to consider just how many benefits there are to shorter working hours: less stress, more time, more engaged and interested employees. More time for exercise, volunteering, friendship and community. More time for eating well, cycling or walking rather than driving – multiple studies note a connection between working hours and carbon footprints.

A growing number of companies are spotting this, and Microsoft Japan is one of those trying it out. As reported this week, their experimental month of four day weeks saw stress decline, lower energy use and fewer pages printed. Productivity went up by 40%.

Another Japanese firm wanted to reduce the culture of long hours, and chose instead to focus on reducing overtime. This too improved productivity, but staff missed the opportunity to earn extra income. The company decided to take the savings from not paying overtime, and distribute it in bonuses instead. Overtime hours were reduced by 30% over two years, while profits rose from more productive staff.

This is a live debate in Japan, as the country considers how it adapts to an aging population. Shorter hours leave more time for caring for elderly relatives, which is a problem a growing number of employees report.

New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian also did a four day week trial, and made it permanent last year after concluding that everyone was happier and there was no downside. The biggest trial in the UK was directly inspired by their experience, and Perpetual Guardian shared their learning with call centre operator Simply Business ahead of their current experiment.

Long hours in the office really don’t add up to more work being done or more money being made. Shorter working hours are a promising solution, one Katherine and I explore in more detail in our book The Economics of Arrival. I look forward to hearing more about some of these experiments as more British companies try it.

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