The Call for a Shorter Work Week Is Trending—and Both Employees and Employers Are Behind It

September 26, 2018

Frances O’Grady, the head of the Trades Union Congress in the United Kingdom, told the annual gathering of her labor federation earlier this month that automation shouldn’t be viewed as a job thief. It ultimately might be a blessing for workers: “I believe that in this century, we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone,” she said.

A shorter work week? We’ve all dreamed of it, but never thought it would really happen.  

Well, our dreams may come true: Business owners large and small are lining up behind the idea.  

For example, Google co-founder Larry Page has called for the end of the 40-hour work week for years now. More recently, Sir Richard Branson, billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, argued against the notion that we should view the five-day work week as set in stone. Branson blogged earlier this year: “There is no reason this can’t change. In fact, it would benefit everyone if it did.”

On the small business side, Stephan Aarstol, founder and CEO of Tower, a startup beach-lifestyle company best known for its paddle boards, wrote: “The idea that workers are expected to endure 70% of their week so they can enjoy the other 30% is collective insanity.” The San Diego–based Tower is also recognized for having adopted a five-hour workday three years ago.

And earlier this year, Perpetual Guardian, a 240-employee company in New Zealand that manages trusts, wills, and estates, successfully experimented with a 32-hour work week. Owner Andrew Barnes saw no fall-off in productivity, and research he commissioned showed employees were more creative, committed, empowered and less stressed when working four days rather than five each week. Barnes has recommended to his board that the change become a long-term one.

So, when can we expect a shorter work week to be the new norm?

Shortening the 40-hour work week is not a completely new idea. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes, in a famous paper entitled “Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren,” speculated that a time would come when we would have three-hour shifts or 15-hour work weeks. In 2007, entrepreneur Timothy Ferriss published The 4-Hour Workweek, which became a long-standing best-seller by offering advice on how to work smarter and more efficiently rather than harder and longer.

But the topic seems particularly on trend right now. The Talent Blog explored it last month. Two weeks later, The New York Times surveyed some of the businesses and governments that have been experimenting with either shorter workdays or work weeks. The piece in the Times ends with a cautionary note from Paul Swinney, the head of policy and research at the London-based think tank Center for Cities: “In 50 or 100 years’ time, it may be that four days is the norm, but we shouldn’t expect it by 2020.”

Pshaw!

There are two things that may make Swinney’s timeline overly cautious—1) demographics and 2) automation.

In a piece earlier this year in The Globe and Mail, Canadian economist and author Linda Nazareth wrote: “In much of the developed world, we are at an inflection point for workers.” Nazareth says that as Canada and the United States face worker shortages, “Shorter hours, along with more money and other benefits, are suddenly on the table.” Historically, she notes, North American workers have chosen cash over time, but she also points out the abiding desire of millennials for work-life balance.

Automation and other efficiencies, such as mandating shorter meetings, mean that companies may be able to trim the work week without cutting into productivity or profits. “A five-hour workday,” Tower’s Aarstol writes, “offers baked-in time management by forcing you to prioritize high-value activities.”

Yes, all signs point to this being the perfect time to take a longer view of the shorter work week.

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