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Bring on the three-day week (and quickly)

We have written before about the upcoming threat of AI on traditional workers (https://executivesurf.com/2016/01/2016-the-year-of-ai/).

Back in the 70s we were told by futurologists that robots would eventually take over our work, kindly releasing us to a life of unending leisure.

Unfortunately, what no-one mentioned, these AI-enhanced robots will be developed and, therefore, owned, by the few and the rest of us will have more leisure time, but will be  unemployed and have no obvious useful functions to fulfill.    

This sort of discussion belongs to the (very) near future, when companies who promised to do no evil will have finally rendered us useless as anything other than consumers.  

But right now, whilst most of us actually do have some work, it is worth examining if there are ways we can work more effectively and prepare ourselves for the imminent future, by working less. Which may give us time to prepare ourselves for our new roles as cafe proprietors, therapists or sex workers.

It is quite natural that we all look for more balance in our working lives, especially at the end of summer, when we may have enjoyed a reasonable holiday break.

It was economist, John Maynard Keynes, who predicted that technological progress would lead us to shorter weeks and abundant leisure time; by 2030, he said, 15-hour workweeks would be the norm.

This was then echoed by Herman Kahn in the 1960s, who confidently assured people they’d soon be enjoying 13 weeks of vacation and a civilised four-day work week.

So what went wrong? This is almost the age of driverless cars, Apple Pay and scarily smart fridges that re-order groceries and toilets bog-roll, yet when it comes to flexible working, many offices are stuck in the ‘old ways’. Indeed, rather than setting us free, digital advances have simply set the expectation that we’ll be in work-mode for most of our waking hours.

A recent Mozy (an online storage company) survey revealed that one in three British workers now checks their emails before 6.30am, while 80% of British employers consider it acceptable to phone employees out of hours.

But now some are calling for a cultural shift; working until 8pm every night shouldn’t necessary signal commitment, it could also signal poor time management or bad job design, all of which can impact negatively on our health.

Not only has sitting down for lengthy periods been linked to an increased risk of heart disease,  earlier this year, Australian researchers found that 25 was the optimum number of working hours in a week for middle-aged workers; equating to a three-day week.

When the week went over 25 hours, cognitive performance for the test subjects decreased as ‘fatigue and stress’ took over. Professor Colin McKenzie from Keio University, one of the study authors, says: “Work can be a double-edged sword, in that it can stimulate brain activity, but at the same time long working hours can cause fatigue and stress, which potentially damage cognitive functions.”

Until recently, the battle for 21st century flexible working has been overwhelmingly employee-driven, but now there is a swell of support from scientists and business leaders suggesting that reducing our working week, wouldn’t just improve the quality of life of employees, but could have powerful business benefits too.

The Mexican telecom tycoon, Carlos Slim, worth over $80 billion, recently called for a “radical overhaul” in our working lives, coming out in support of a three-day working week, made viable by 11-hour working days (instead of eight) and a later retirement age of 75.

“You should have more time for you during all of your life – not when you’re 65 and retired,” he stated. “You have better experience and knowledge when you are 60, 65 and 70.” Slim believes the concept would not only lead to a happier, healthier workforce, but prove positive for the economy and financial markets.

In a Government-commissioned study, only 17% of people in their fifties said that stopping work entirely at age 60 or 65 was the “best way” to retire. Nearly half said they would like to still work until they were 70, preferring to work part-time or flexible hours as their career came to a close.

Sweden is already moving towards a six-hour working day across a number of sectors because of clear business benefits.

A recent experiment among care workers there showed that nurses who worked six hour days took half as much sick time as those in the control group, and were three times less likely to take time off. The nurses were also 20% happier and had more energy at work and in their spare time, allowing them to do 64% more activities with elderly residents, therefore increasing productivity.

Other Swedish companies are feeling the benefit by maximising productivity by minimising distractions in the office, such as not allowing staff members on social media while at work and keeping meetings to a minimum.

The growing evidence being that working in excess of eight hours a day is pointless; productivity plateaus as our focus slips. Not to mention Parkinson’s Law – work expands to fill the time available for its completion – meaning that if you give yourself 12 hours to do a six-hour task, the task will increase in complexity so as to fill that entire day.

A recent study found that only half of British workers spend six hours or more productively working on an average day, with one third admitting to wasting up to three hours a day by being unable to concentrate or distracted by chatter.

Yet, even if a three day working week seems like pie in the sky, the idea of redesigning our workweek to allow flexible measures like job-shares, compressed hours and location independence is gaining traction.

Louise Robinson, 37, is Head of Innovation at Diageo. “I wanted one extra day a week at home with my daughter,” she says. “But I’m ambitious, and didn’t want to limit myself to certain roles.”

Workers now have a right to present a business case for working flexible hours, which Louise did, and she now works Monday to Thursday on a compressed hours basis. “I do nine to five in the office, get home spend time with my daughter, then do a few extra hours in the evening. On Friday I’ll be available on emails or the phone, I can use technology to remain up to speed.”

Even if we don’t see something quite as revolutionary as a three-day work week, enlightened employers are finally viewing flexibility as a business opportunity rather than a concession.

Professor Geraint Johnes, professor of economics at Lancaster University Management School (theworkfoundation.com), has observed increased interest among business owners in how flexible working can be advantageous to the firm as well as the individual.

“For employees, options like hot-desking, working from home, jobs-shares and compressed working hours help them to build jobs around their lives in a more favourable way,” he says. “But businesses are also starting to see the major benefits of flexible working patterns, such as reducing expenditure on office space.”

Flexible working can also slash recruitment and training costs by helping employers retain valuable employees, reduce their overheads and recruit experienced power players who can use their time more effectively if they aren’t commuting to and from the office a couple of hours each day.

Still, while according to the latest research from the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development), 54% of UK employees now work flexibly in some capacity, Timewise’s Flexible Jobs Index, shows that only 8.7% of all quality UK jobs (£20K full time equivalent or more) mention any form of flexible working options in the job ad. What this means is that, when it comes to skilled workers, at the recruitment stage, employers are alienating countless promising candidates.

When it comes to flexible hiring there is still a lot of work to be done.
So let’s force the issue before it’s too late.

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