Opponents of a shorter work week are the real radicals

Joe O'Connor, CEO and Co-founder of Work Time Reduction, shares his thoughts on the benefits of a shorter work week.

9th Apr 2024

“Backbreaking toil and mind-wearying tension will be left to machines and electronic devices.”

This quote is not from Bernie Sanders in 2024.

It was from the then US President, Richard Nixon, in 1956 when he predicted that we were on the cusp of a four-day working week ‘in the not too distant future’, leading to ‘a fuller family life for every American’.

It wasn’t a particularly radical idea then, and it’s still not a radical idea today.

Yet 68 years on, despite the invention of the internet, email and digital communications, smartphones, high-speed broadband, and staggering advances in banking and global commerce, the standard workweek has remained stubbornly resolute.

As for 'mind-wearying tension', we have a global epidemic in employee burnout, with 2 in every 5 employees experiencing exhaustion, cynicism, and diminished performance caused by chronic, unmanaged workplace stress.

The 5-day, 9-to-5 is not a sacred sacrament. It is a human construction that was designed for a very different era of work and society.

Sometimes wanting things to stay the same represents a more radical view than making the case for change.

The view that we should be working as much in today’s age of AI as we did in 1980 is radical.

The fact that our dominant work structure is the same today as it was in the 1920’s when women made up only 20% of the workforce is radical.

5 key questions to challenge curious leaders

  • Is your 40-hour work week already a mirage, padded out with performative busyness and busy work?
  • Would your organisation be better off with 32 hours of highly focused, highly productive, purpose-driven work than the status quo?
  • Is it really that a shorter work week isn't possible, or is it that the idea of it feels uncomfortable?
  • Would a reduction in hours actually undermine the reality of work in your organisation today, or is the problem that it challenges your ingrained perception of what work should be?
  • Does how you measure and manage performance currently reward hours and effort as an ineffective proxy for true productivity, or does it incentivize process efficiency and innovation?

Redefining productivity

We need to think differently about productivity. 21st century productivity is less about showing up for longer and doing more stuff, and more about focus, creativity, and quality. In other words, it's not about working like cows chewing tasks repeatedly, but about working like lions where we build our week around highly-focused performance episodes with intentional rest, breaks and downtime. In most industries, AI will only accentuate this reality.

We need to talk differently about productivity. It should not be a dirty word or a stick to beat people with. The incentive of reduced work time can place productivity at the centre of everything you do as a business, where the collective quest for continuous improvement, operational efficiency, and innovation is a clear win-win for both the organisation and its people. 

We also need to measure it differently. We have retained an outdated approach to measuring productivity carried over from a mostly industrial economy. When our metrics are based on hours, effort, or activity, we don't delineate between value adding work and busy work. A shorter work week calls for a shift to outcomes-based measurement. 

Setting yourself up for sustainable success

Reducing work time doesn’t improve productivity magically and automatically.

In order to make it work and make it stick, it is as much about changing the way people work as it is about changing the length of time they spend at work.

It requires a strategic, deliberate and intentional approach, which involves careful planning and design, and which actively engages employees at all levels in the process of finding efficiencies and solutions.

It acts effectively as an operational excellence project in disguise, which requires a commitment to work redesign and process improvement in the short-term, and continuous improvement in the long-term.

It won’t solve all of your problems. In fact, creating an intentional constraint around time, will often surface a lot of underlying problems, inefficiencies and frustrations, so that they can be solved. It therefore requires courageous leadership that is prepared to truly understand the things that aren’t working in your business.

The phenomenon known as “Parkinson’s Law” - that a task expands to fill the time available for its completion - is prevalent in the vast majority of modern organisations. According to recent research from Slack, the average desk worker spends 41% of their work time on tasks that are ‘low value, repetitive, or lack meaningful contribution to their core job functions’. A shorter work week is a forcing function to prioritise ruthlessly.

Leaders who glorify being busy over a laser focus on outcomes create cultures that place the performance of work over the purpose of work, and activity over achievement.

Not only is this a recipe for burnout, but it stifles creativity as people are overwhelmed by the quantity of tasks rather than focused on the quality of outcomes.

For many organisations today, the shorter work week is already here. It’s just buried under the rubble of overlong and unnecessary meetings, distractions and interruptions, poor use of technology, and outdated processes. Once you put a framework and an incentive in place to address these issues through a structured work time reduction program, offering a shorter work week without compromising productivity is well within your reach. There are many companies already reaping the benefits of a 4-day work and shorter working weeks.

Beyond checklists - invest in employee wellbeing by tackling root causes

The 2024 State of Workplace Burnout report recently found that 9% of employees working a shorter work week are experiencing burnout, compared to 42% of those working 40 hours or longer.

When you compare these outcomes to the recent findings from the Wellbeing Research Centre at Oxford University that the vast majority (89 out of 90) of corporate wellbeing programs today are completely ineffective in improving wellbeing, one thing is abundantly clear.

Burnout requires systemic solutions focused on addressing root causes, not tick box tokens that tinker around the edges of the symptoms.

If you're serious about tackling burnout, work time reduction is a proven, effective antidote, which meets structural issues around workload, resource and performance management with structural solutions. 

The penny also needs to drop for many leaders that burnout is not just an individual employee issue but a company productivity issue, and employee wellbeing and productivity are inextricably intertwined.

Burnout stops employees from showing up as their best selves at work. It impacts people's ability to focus, perform, and produce quality, consistent work output.

If reducing work time can help to reduce burnout in your workforce by 33%, is there a single more effective thing any corporate leader could do to boost productivity than unlocking the true potential of a third of their workforce?

The future of work is shorter and smarter

Looking at flexibility policies and employee benefits offerings as a series of trade-offs, involving a ‘push and pull’ between employer and employee based on the day’s market conditions, is seriously missing the point.

The organisational science is clear - productivity and wellbeing are complementary forces, not competing forces. Happier, healthier employees create flourishing, productive organisations. Putting employee productivity and wellbeing at the heart of everything is a win for everyone.

The market leaders of tomorrow will not value working longer and hustling harder. They will leverage AI and new technologies to work smarter and more efficiently, and share the benefits of productivity gains with their people giving them time back for the things that really matter to them. 

Work time reduction is a much more powerful incentive to adopt new technologies and drive efficiencies, innovation and continuous improvement than merely creating capacity for more work.

Organisations that recognise this and take this approach will position themselves at the cutting edge of both talent and technology.

A shorter work week won’t fix a broken culture

A shorter work week can help to complement or create a strong, positive culture that blends individual autonomy for when, where, and how work gets done, with true collective accountability for the outcomes.

This emphasises the importance of integrating such processes and strategies into the organisation’s Employee Value Proposition from the outset. By doing so, a culture of trust, innovation, and genuine flexibility is embedded, as many Flexified companies are already practising.

5 key changes to redesign your workweek to optimise performance and wellbeing

  • Prioritising strategic recovery by redesigning your workday around highly focused performance episodes and intentional rest
  • Conducting audits to remove unnecessary meetings, and improving the meeting agendas and goals of those that are deemed necessary
  • Creating space for microbreaks by introducing 25-minute and 50-minute meeting times
  • Reducing productivity-sapping task switching and multi-tasking by carving out time for more focused, distraction-free work
  • Aligning high-priority or challenging work with the times of the day that you are at your most productive

In conclusion, transitioning to a shorter work week offers many benefits for both employees and employers. By promoting work-life balance, increasing productivity, and enhancing overall well-being, a shorter work week can revolutionise the way we approach work. It's a progressive step towards creating a more sustainable and fulfilling work environment for everyone involved.

For more on the why and the how of work time reduction

Download The Science of Work Time Reduction (2024) The Science of Work Time Reduction - New White Paper - Work Time Reduction

Download The Four-Day Work Week: Learnings from Companies at the Forefront of Work Time Reduction (2023) New Joint Research - Work Time Reduction