Ask anyone watching the world at the moment, and you’re likely to hear the belief that we will never go back to ‘the way things were’, economically, socially, and mentally. These changes also extend to the workplace.
As advocates for a world that is fair, sustainable and well, we ask whether coronavirus is an opportunity, to collectively challenge our assumptions and habits about the unsustainable ways we have worked, for ourselves and for the planet?
The unprecedented health and economic fallout caused by the coronavirus pandemic has forced us to change our way of living. It has changed our way of living en masse in a way that the threat of climate disasters has yet to achieve.
We have undoubtedly slowed down. Working from home has become the new norm. Flexible working arrangements are no longer an option, but a necessity. There has been massive investment from private industry and government into software and hardware to facilitate this new frontier in digital workplaces. And of course, stress and anxiety levels Australia-wide are skyrocketing from the emotional, professional and economic uncertainties and strain of the crisis. Reports of ‘poor mental health’ in Australia have doubled and feelings of ‘despair’ have tripled.
In May New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern proposed a 4-day work week to rebuild New Zealand after coronavirus. Ardern quotes the advantages to the tourism industry, boosting productivity and achieving work-life balance. Yet, chattering of flexible working arrangements are nothing new. In the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes, godfather of modern economics, published an article titled “Economic Opportunities for our Grandchildren”, predicting that by 2030, 15 hour work-weeks would be a reality. A few decades later, in 1956, then President of the United States of America Richard Nixon, anticipated a 4-day work week in the ‘not too distant future’ for a ‘fuller family life for every American’.
Famed economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that 15 hour work weeks would emerge by 2030.
The case for productivity and mental wellbeing
A 4-day work week has demonstrated its effectiveness in achieving positive outcomes for employee engagement, wellbeing and, ultimately, productivity. We know that workplaces do not exist in a vacuum. We have all been guilty of bringing work home, and similarly, bringing home to work. It would be remiss for employers not to recognise the impact of this dynamic on productivity and wellbeing.
The productivity required for a 4-day week to function well, allows for greater work-life balance. Productivity is suggested to peak at 25–30 hours per week for the average worker. Hours that remain in the week are taken up by unfruitful meetings, social media and excessive breaks, among other habits. Productivity and efficient work habits during a 4-day week negatives the need for a fifth day. This day is repurposed for the use of employee work-life balance. As a result, employees are able to engage with other factors in their life; family, exercise, recreation and hobbies. This leads to happier, more engaged and creative employees at work. Broader possibilities of innovation and problem solving start to arise.
The investments in working from home and digital collaboration that coronavirus has instigated presents an opportunity. Employers would be remiss to not capitalise on these investments and movements towards flexible working arrangements.
New Zealand (and Microsoft) knows what we’re talking about
In 2018, a New Zealand estate management firm conducted in-house research on the effectiveness of a 4-hour work week. Over two months, 240 employees hours were reduced from 40 to 32 hours per week, on the same salary. The results indicated that job performance was not affected as a result of reduced hours. In fact, overall work satisfaction increased by 5%, with stress decreasing by 7% and one-quarter of all participants feeling they had found a work-life balance.
Meanwhile, in Japan, Microsoft instituted a trial of five consecutive Fridays off in a row without decreasing take home pay. The result? A 40% increase in productivity during the period.
The case for the public infrastructure and the environment
Our pre-coronavirus status quo saw the vast majority spitting out the 9–5-ish work weeks. We had ‘peak’ times in city centres, traffic, congestion and overcrowded public transport. Our public infrastructure could not keep up. If you have caught a bus or train, or driven in the last few months you would have noticed the freeing up of space on the roads and the lack of bums on seats. Of course, some of this can be explained by the massive hits to jobs, particularly in customer-facing roles such as hospitality and retail. But a move to more flexible working through a four day week could see some of our public infrastructure be better able to cope. Moreover, more efficient use of our public transport, would start to reap environmental benefits through reduced congestion and pollution.
Real talk: risks and limitations
There are risks and limitations of implementing a 4-day work week. However, this can be somewhat mitigated by a holistic and considered approach to marrying productivity and employee wellbeing.
A four day work week can be costly and ineffective if poorly implemented. If employees are unable to meet reasonable work requirements, and must work further hours, payment of overtime will stack up. A study in Sweden demonstrated this risk, in which employees worked extra hours on top of their 4 days in order to get work done. The trial was suspended due to this cost factor. Employees were paid for their overtime, but didn’t experience the benefits of a ‘shorter’ week.
This demonstrates another limitation of a 4-day work week. Certain industries work on a time-billing basis, and certain jobs just take time. Meaningful strategy is required for these industries, such as accounting and law, to manage these hurdles.
So what next?
A four day work week is not a coverall solution, nor is it a one-size fits all approach to mental wellbeing in the workplace. In order to understand the best approach for your workplace, employees and industry, you must first understand the current state of wellbeing in your workplace. If this is on your mind, drop us a line.