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For some people, the idea of a shorter work week is an enticing or even exhilarating prospect. For others – such as workaholics, managers and entrepreneurs – it’s chilling, a complication or threat to their success.

The current work week is not determined by the laws of nature, even if it has become for most of us a habit, even a destructive habit. Hours of toil were much longer before social activists, labour unions, governments and some enlightened employers pushed and pulled us to the 40-hour standard. Although that took place many decades ago and despite the great productivity changes we have since experienced, the hours of work have not declined and indeed for many people have gone up. We’re a long way from the 15-hour work week legendary economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 we would have by now. Still, as complaints grow over the pressures of work today, with burnout seen to be on the increase, we may be at a moment of change.

A recent study in Sweden captured attention because it reported on the findings of a two-year experiment where the work days of participants were shortened to six hours. It found that not only was the new schedule well-received by the nurses at a seniors’ facility taking part, but also by their patients who felt better cared for in daily interactions. The nurses took fewer sick days than when working longer, eight-hour days. They got an extra hour of sleep: Seven hours versus less than six hours a day for nurses working traditional hours.

“They were less tired, less sick, had more energy coming home and more time to do activities,” researcher Bengt Lorentzon reported.

Sounds glorious. But it was a financial flop: The nursing home had to hire more staff to make up for the hours those nurses were missing. A city councillor for the Left Party, which pushed for the experiment at the community facility, acknowledged costs rising by 20 to 30 per cent, but felt that was alleviated by a savings of 15 per cent in unemployment and health care costs.

The push for shorter hours – often as a four-day week – usually runs up against two financial obstacles. The first is that few employees will embrace a cut in hours if it means a corresponding cut in pay. Moving to 36 hours from 40, if wages per hour stay the same, means a 10-per-cent cut. A 32-hour week translates to a 20-per-cent loss. As in Sweden, to gain acceptance, the pay packet must stay the same. But then, again as in Sweden, for continuous operations such as assembly lines, hospitals and perhaps even supermarkets and restaurants, that can mean having to hire additional staff to cover the requisite time the business operates.

Another obstacle is many individuals are intent on working unlimited hours. Start-up entrepreneurs usually commit to 100-hour work weeks. Lawyers preparing for a trial, authors struggling with a novel, freelance tech developers, and many other occupations ignore the clock. Low-wage workers seek second and third jobs. Managers feel a need to be constantly available for their staff and put in long hours. A four-day week does not apply to all.

Ultimately, widespread shorter hours will only come by government legislation, as in France, which cut the standard work week from 39 hours to 35 hours in February, 2000. But in the interim, action is happening as some businesses with mostly office workers and an idealistic owner have opted for four-day weeks.

Uncharted, a venture capitalist for social impact organizations, opted for a four-day, 32-hour work week, after a three-month summer experiment in which everyone took Fridays off.

“The experiment tested the hypothesis that we can deliver 100 per cent of the work at 80 per cent of the time, while increasing team mental health, reducing team stress, and maintaining team culture and cohesion,” CEO Banks Benitez and consultant Paul Collier reported in Medium.

Declared hours are not necessarily what ends up being actually worked, but they measured that too: The median number of hours worked dropped by 23 per cent from 45 hours before the four-day work week to 34.5 hours.

Buffer, which produces social media management software, started a four-day work week last year and Kickstarter crowdfunding platform will at the beginning of next year.

“This decision stems from my belief that everyone who works for Kickstarter should have the ability to help propel the company forward while also pursuing their own creative projects, spending time with loved ones, and engaging with communities and causes that are important to them,” Kickstarter CEO Aziz Hasan wrote in Fast Company.

Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand estate planning firm, held a 32-hour week trial in 2018 to see if it could improve productivity. Not maintain – improve, since as we tire productivity can drop. It forced them to reconsider what they do, and how to accomplish it better.

The Financial Diet, which works with young women needing help with budgeting, looked at how to schedule meetings in the shortest possible time, focus them more sharply, and delete recurring meetings no longer needed when it began a recent trial.

Perpetual Guardian, in a website set up to help others wanting to follow this path, urges you to embrace time as the scarce resource in your business, exercising care in how it’s used. The trial should be led by the workers not the bosses, and be carried out with awareness not everyone will want to change, so an opt-in model should be developed. To make sure any productivity gains from the trial don’t prove illusory, it warns “workers must understand from the outset that failure to maintain productivity at the mutually agreed levels will result in the loss of the four-day week.”

It’s an idea whose time may be coming, in some companies, building on the more flexible approach to work the pandemic initiated.

Cannonballs

  • Make use of the time you spent watching the Olympics or reading about them the past two weeks to write down five lessons on individual and team success.
  • If you’re facing an applicant shortage, re-recruit candidates who came close in hirings over the past few years, advises recruiting expert John Sullivan. They may have turned down your offer, been the silver medalist for a job when only the gold medalist could be hired, or have been exceedingly attractive but dropped out during the candidacy appraisal process.
  • Counter remoteness in a world of working from home by setting aside time in the weekly team meeting for employees to recognize each other and thank them. Psychologist Dan Ariely notes recent research found giving accolades can actually make people happier than receiving them. Crafting a compliment also requires an employee to think about the recipient, fostering social connection

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