Could a 30-hour week actually work?

Last week the Jimmy Reid Foundation called for the adoption of a 30-hour week. This issue tends to raise its head from time to time, but on this occasion there is some more solid evidence to go on. The Swedes recently trialled a 30-hour week model based on a six hour day (and some considered a four day week). They did so in the belief that reducing working hours would increase productivity, save money on facilities (although not salaries), and reduce stress and sickness absence (both genuine and phoney). People got paid based on the work done rather than hours spent at work.

After a nice three-day weekend, this seems a tempting prospect! Even those of us who truly love our careers are glad to go home by the end of a 40-50 hour week, and with commuting thrown in our leisure time (excluding catching up on sleep) can be pretty short-lived. Philosophers and economists of the past dreamed of the day when people would not have to define their lives by work but devote much more time to their families, to philosophy, music and politics (or more probably football, pub quizzes or shopping in 2014!) This never really happened on any grand scale, but it’s interesting how we, compared to other parts of the world, have come to view hard work.

In Britain (and America) long, hard work has become the moral high ground. Parties of the left and the right have come to support it, and even Trades Unions have come to accept it as the necessary foundation for an argument. We also see time spent at work as a key indicator of devotion to duty. To stay an extra hour or so at work in Britain is almost a badge of honour – we hope the boss will notice and perhaps take it into account when considering promotions. We all know people who use long hours as their own moral high ground – “Oh, I hardly ever take any lunch break, I eat at the desk whilst working, and then I carry on until 7pm at the very least.”

The Swedes take a different view. To them, staying late at work is almost a shameful thing. If you can’t get the work done in normal working hours then you’re behind! You certainly don’t want to catch the boss’s eye at 6.30 – assuming your boss is still there! The evidence from the Swedish experiment has not been totally conclusive. France introduced the shorter working week some years ago and it was hailed as a Good Thing. But productivity has been adversely affected (ever tried it get anything done quickly in France? It’s not easy), with a commensurate negative impact on the economy. Sweden is enormously expensive compared with the UK, in part to pay for all the social benefits.

Many of us will be thinking that we couldn’t possibly get everything done in a 30-hour week, and that it’s not the culture in Britain to pay the same salary for fewer hours. I could work a 30 hour week. Of course I could. But I wouldn’t have a business. Over the last 20 years the UK has moved to an expectation of immediate gratification of its wishes 24/7 and anyone who provides a commercial service is affected by that. Do you really think that clients would wait days and days for me to get back to them to solve their problems? Of course not. I could then hire more people, but this mean I’d have to put the fees up substantially to cover all the costs and make some form of profit. All this will make it harder to acquire more business as I’d probably be fairly uncompetitive by this time. If we want to work shorter hours and still maintain the high level of employee rights we have in the UK we will have to live with the knock on effect on prices. But we don’t want to do that either. There are a lot of Alices in HR wonderland. In our office we still roll our eyes every time an equality organisation calls for more part-time CEO level jobs because that sort of role simply can’t be done without putting the hours in.

But the idea of ensuring workplace hours are reasonable and well-managed is a very sensible and necessary objective. Presenteeism is a macho curse. Do you have a workplace where people don’t need all the time they’re spending at work? Would it save sickness absence if your employees had longer evenings or longer weekends? If you reshape your working week could you save money on electricity and heating? Could you move to a nine da fortnight? If you think it could work, you could always trial a 35 hour week instead of 40 and work from there and most employers are willing to consider informal requests for flexible working and the statutory right to request flexible working will shortly be extended to all employees.

Managers need to keep the balance of healthy work environments, time spent at work and productivity under review. Whenever your employees produce results you’re not happy with or are off sick, explore the reasons. Often it’s a misconduct or an ill health matter, but every now and again it’s worth looking at your own working culture as well.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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