John Maynard Keynes predicted that we would be working for just 15 hours a week by 2030. Yet, if anything, people are working longer hours now than they did in the 1930s. This is a paradox. Presumably, Keynes’s logic was that, as the wealth of the world increased, so the marginal utility of income would fall relative to the marginal utility of leisure. Yet the wealthier we get, the harder we work, the longer we stay in the office and the later we retire – if ever. The notion of the five-day workweek needs a radical rethink, just as the notion of a career – that is, working for 45 hours a week for 45 weeks a year for 45 years, often for the same employer – was radically challenged by Charles Handy in the 1980s when he wrote about “portfolio working”.
The gig economy, the pop-up shop, the farmer’s market, the boot sale, the innovation hub, the zero-hours contract and so on are all manifestations of the fact that work can break out of the straitjacket and try on different apparel.
Zero-hours contracts have come in for a terrible pasting by the media, yet ironically 80% of those on such contracts are delighted with them, such is the freedom and flexibility they can afford. The real problem is the formulaic nature of the everyday employment contract. We talk a lot about corporate agility, yet we persevere with one of the most inflexible institutions in modern society
So why not move to a four-day workweek? Why not “Thank God it’s Thursday”? There is an entirely plausible argument against the idea of cutting working hours: there’s always going to be a trade-off between hours worked and income earned. If everyone worked fewer hours, surely the economy would shrink and salaries and wages would suffer?
Yet this same argument must have been used 100 years ago when a New England mill – to the delight of the labour movement but perhaps to the consternation of the entrepreneurial class – became the first American factory to treat Saturdays as off-limits to employers. Those defending the long-hours culture make two linked assumptions: firstly that there is a positive correlation between the length of the working week and the productivity of the workforce; and secondly that very few people would prefer to take a pay cut in exchange for a longer weekend. But there is some evidence that this may not be the case, for four main reasons:
1 - Fewer hours to perform a task means less time to waste.
As Ryan Carson, founder of Treehouse, an online education company, observes, “You get all Friday off, instead of pretending like you’re working when you’re not”. The more hours that are made available for a job to be done, the more the job-holder will find ways to distract him or herself, if only to break the monotony. This is an echo of Parkinson’s Law: work expands to fill the time available. Twice the hours doesn’t mean twice the output. In the case of knowledge workers and creative tasks particularly, forcing longer hours is counter-productive. The workaholic is a menace in the office. Legend has it that German military leader Field Marshal von Moltke sought intelligent and lazy officers for his commanders because they looked for the easiest way of achieving a task; stupid and energetic officers made many things happen, but almost all of them were wrong-headed. Many of us will immediately recognise this type of manager; the one who is endlessly setting targets, measuring effort, cutting costs, re-engineering processes, judging others – and working long hours.
2 - Longer weekends refresh and stimulate the creative mind.
Creative problem-solving, innovation and critical thinking are more likely to thrive under conditions of trust and patience than supervision and urgency. Quality work happens best when uninterrupted. Jason Fried, the founder of Basecamp, a software company whose employees take Fridays off in the summer, discovered that “Better work gets done in four days than in five”.
3 - More free time makes for a happier work environment.
Those countries that work shorter hours tend to be happier and more convivial than others, with no apparent loss of prosperity. A 2013 OECD report found that, among full-time salaried workers, the Netherlands enjoys the shortest workweek in the developed world, at an average of 29 hours per week, followed by Denmark (33), Norway (33), Switzerland (35) and Sweden (36). Is it coincidence that the same countries were also the five happiest, according to the ‘World Happiness Report 2013’? The report provided evidence that happiness is positively correlated with productivity, health and longevity.
4 - A four-day workweek attracts and retains talent.
Adding an extra day of freedom to each week is a magnet for talent. Any mention of a shorter workweek, even when this entails a cut in take-home pay, usually excites even the most industrious and sober of managers, professionals and working people.