Friday afternoon is probably the worst time to get anything done. Shoulders droop, spirits rise, thoughts drift towards a sunny beer garden. Suddenly, nothing seems so urgent that it couldn’t probably wait. Wise employers have long learned not to fight the Friday feeling.
Even in the workaholic 1980s, Fridays used to be dress-down days, the one-time buttoned-up bankers were free to wear their chinos. And despite the fact that millions no longer work Monday to Friday, they’re still the day of choice in many offices for working from home – the one time you can reliably get a seat on a commuter train, or a space in a railway car park.
Kellogg’s is now in its 15th year of ‘summer hours’, an ingenious scheme that allows office-based staff to knock off at lunchtime on Fridays in July and August. It’s more than worth the company’s while, apparently, thanks to savings from reduced absenteeism and the fact staff tend to work twice as hard on Friday mornings to get everything done before the weekend. But what if a four-day week could one day become the norm, all year round?
Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand company managing wills and estate planning, made headlines around the world recently by offering hundreds of staff just that. Those taking part in the experiment were paid for a five-day week, but allowed to clock up only four days’ work, if they got an agreed amount done in the time.
Unsurprisingly the number of employees who felt they had a good work-life balance shot up from just more than half to over three-quarters: stress levels fell; feelings of stimulation and commitment at work rose; and staff felt generally happier with their lives. But crucially, the firm reckons productivity also grew by 20%, thanks to staff working more efficiently while they were actually there. At any rate, it seems to have worked out well enough for the company’s founder, Andrew Barnes, to announce that he wants to see the experiment extended throughout the company.
And who doesn’t dream, in the dead zone that is a hot Friday afternoon, of something like this? One in 10 Britons not only want to work fewer hours but would take a pay cut to do it, according to the Office for National Statistics – a trade-off that is particularly alluring for working parents. Somehow four days feels just part-time enough to ease the nagging guilt about not seeing the kids, but not so part-time that you’re out of the work loop.
But this goes much further than parents, or indeed Fridays. Older people who don’t want, or can’t afford, to stop working completely are often looking for a way of gradually tapering off their hours. Four-day weeks are taking off too among doctors, teachers and other professionals juggling impossible demands all day long, who use them as a way of coping with stress and avoiding burnout.
Even if you have to mark papers or chase up hospital referral letters on your day off, that still beats working five days and through the weekend. When the King’s Fund surveyed trainee doctors recently, it found only a third were planning to work full-time even straight after qualifying; they’d seen how intense older doctors’ working days had become, and worried about making mistakes under that kind of pressure. No wonder the New Zealand experiment has touched a nerve.
The old dream of more time, meanwhile, now comes tinged with a new economic urgency. What we now think of as a ‘normal’ weekend is at least in part a legacy of the Great Depression, which created an urgent need to share out what paid labour there was and helped shrink what had previously been a six-day standard working week into five. If doomsday predictions about machines gobbling up human jobs faster than they can be replaced are borne out, governments may soon be faced with equally pressing reasons to spread work around rather than let resentment fester between those who have too much of it, and those who don’t have nearly enough.
But if the optimists are right, and technological advances do eventually unlock the sort of increased prosperity they sometimes have in the past, then arguably the case for using that wealth to open up new choices is even greater. (And it is all about choices, of course; nothing’s stopping anyone from spending weekends in the office if that’s what they really want.)
Technology doesn’t always have to be the enemy; if it is used wisely it may sometimes allow humans to do more interesting things with their lives both at home and at work. Stripping routine, boring chores out of otherwise interesting jobs could at least free up those lucky enough to have them to spend more time doing the things machines don’t excel at but humans find satisfying – such as exercising complex judgments or interacting face to face. We could use the insights provided by big data, meanwhile, to work smarter rather than harder.
Who knows, maybe one of our major political parties will eventually emerge from their Brexit death spiral just long enough to consider a future government’s role in enabling and incentivising all of this. But for now, all power to those few employers prepared to think outside the box. And TFI Friday.