In a world ruled by economics, the cult of productivity is omnipresent in most companies. Productivity gurus share their rules, hacks and morning routines to newbies eager to better manage their time. Days are sliced into time slots and carefully monitored. But what if the solution was simply to work fewer hours?
“A shorter working week could improve our mental and physical health,’’ research shows. And this is far from being a novelty. At the beginning of the XXth century, Ford’s original workers were found less productive working more than 40 hours a week – a situation likely to be even more the case for people who work with knowledge rather manually. When you think about it, whoever had their best ideas when they were exhausted?
Stats: 37-Hour Workweeks For OECD Workers
According to OECD’s last statistics, their members’ average number of hours worked per year has dropped from 1804 in 2000 to 1734 hours in 2018. And apart from one exception (Lithuania), every country has followed the same path, but in different proportions. For instance:
- Switzerland has seen a drop of 254 hours of work between 2000 and 2018
- US: -46 hours
- France: -38 hours
What is striking in this graph is the difference in hours worked among countries, and how this relates to economic growth. According to OECD data, across the world’s richest countries, higher productivity correlates with lower working hours.
Let’s dive into the situation in the United States, where the number of annual hours worked rises far above that of other rich OECD countries: 1786 hours in 2018, that is 37 hours per week on average, considering 3 weeks of vacation or time off (sick days, personal days, etc.). Is it truly the case?
Although a 40-hour workweek is widely regarded as the standard for full-time employment in the United-States, 42% of American workers stated that they work 45 hours a week or more in the last Gallup Work & Workplace poll. But is it really a problem?
The Logic Behind A Shorter Workweek
Economists have suspected for some time that longer work hours could eat into productivity. John Hicks, a British economist, reckoned that “it has probably never entered the heads of most employers… that hours could be shortened and output maintained.” But the fact is that with longer hours, output per hour inevitably falls. Do you still doubt it? Examples are legion:
- Serps Invaders, a digital marketing agency, has noticed an increase in productivity after introducing ‘duvet days’ (ad hoc holidays which can be redeemed at extremely short notice) and allowing staff to work remotely. The company was already functioning in a four-day week basis, its staff working 37½ hours a week, but compressed into four days.
- Gothenburg, a Swedish care home, has experienced increased efficiency and lower turnover when experimenting with 6-hour working days.
- As part of their calling “Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019”, Microsoft Japan trialed a 4-day work week for its entire workforce. 2300 employees were given 5 Fridays off, with no reduction in salary and no days taken out of their annual leave. This 4-day workweek resulted in an incredible 40% percent increase in productivity. In addition, the American firm also witnessed a decrease in electricity consumption and paper printed. The measure proved to be good for both people and the environment!
So, how can we explain such an increase in productivity when working fewer hours? For Microsoft Japan, employees had to be more economical and efficient with their time, thus many meetings were shortened, cut, or conducted remotely so as to eliminate the commute. Moreover, this extra time off can be used to relax, spend quality time with one’s family and friends, have hobbies, and even educate oneself.
“Work a short time, rest well and learn a lot. It’s necessary to have an environment that allows you to feel your purpose in life and make a greater impact at work,” said Microsoft Japan president and CEO Takuya Hirano. “I want employees to think about and experience how they can achieve the same results with 20 percent less working time.”
Working Less And Better
As blogger Scott H Young said, “Working smart beats working hard.” Here are a few of Scott’s tips to get more accomplished without increasing your to-do list:
1. The 80/20 Rule
Also called the Pareto principle, this rule states that commonly, 80% of the values come from 20% of the work. Consequently, getting the remaining 20% will require much more effort (80%, if you are following). Using the 80/20 rule means you must minimize the time spent in the unproductive 80%.
2. Parkinson’s Law
Parkinson’s Law states that “work will fill the time available for its completion.” This is the case when you focus on time worked instead of getting projects completed. You can thwart Parkinson’s Law by slicing projects into smaller pieces and setting up a timer to complete a specific task.
3. Energy Management
Energy management, as opposed to time management, forces you to think of results as a function of energy, not time invested. Indeed, working intensely for a short period of time can achieve more than working for days, if you are tired and distracted.
4. Rule With Numbers
Assumptions can be a huge waste of your time. When your intuitions about the world don’t match the way it works, you can never be efficient. The only way to combat false assumptions is to test them and follow them up with numbers. For instance, you can A/B test 2 methods or version of the same product/website/ newsletter…
With his book The 4-hour workweek, Tim Ferris has taken the idea of cutting working hours a step further. In this best-seller, the American entrepreneur defends a lifestyle of “living more and working less.” But this ideal of a 4-hour workweek actually goes back to the last century.
In his 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness”, British philosopher Bertrand Russel reckoned that if society were better managed the average person would only need to work four hours a day. Such a small working day would “entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life.” The rest of the day could be devoted to the pursuit of science, painting, and writing.
Some people say that robots are going to replace most jobs in companies. Are the coming decades going to see the end of work as we know it? Only the future will tell. Until them, it’s up to you (or your company) to preserve a good work-life balance – as we did at TeamMood.
Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash