Is the 20-hour work week the way of the future?

By Frank Chung

The push to hit the brakes on out-of-control workloads is gaining steam. Photo / 123RF
The push to hit the brakes on out-of-control workloads is gaining steam. Photo / 123RF

Imagine only having to come into the office three days a week, with Monday and Friday spent at home, the park or even at the beach.

As Australian workers struggle with rising underemployment, one Sydney company isn't mourning the death of the traditional 40-hour work week.

For Renae Smith, founder of a boutique public relations firm based in the trendy inner-west suburb of Newtown, the key to happiness and productivity is fewer hours, not more.

The 33-year-old said years of working 100-hour weeks finally came to a head in August last year, when she was rushed to RPA Hospital suffering what she thought was a heart attack in the office.

"I couldn't breathe, I thought I was going to die," she said.

Diagnosed with a stress disorder, Smith realised something had to change.

Even on holidays, she would check her phone to find up to 100 emails waiting for her.

"I became too available," she said. "If I hadn't replied in three minutes they would be calling, messaging me on WhatsApp. I just ended up crying."

That's when she came across the concept of the 20-hour work week.

According to the UK-based New Economics Foundation, which first proposed the idea in 2010, a "normal" working week of 21 hours could help address a "range of urgent, interlinked problems", including "overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low wellbeing, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life".

Globally, the push to hit the brakes on out-of-control workloads is gaining steam, with a number of countries experimenting with, and reaping productivity benefits from, reducing hours.

In 2014, the Swedish city of Gothenburg began trialling a six-hour work day for government employees, with some private businesses joining suit.

"Our employees produce more than similar companies do," Maria Brath, chief executive of tech firm Brath, wrote on the company's blog. "We obviously measure this. It hasn't happened by itself, we've been working on this from the start. Today we get more done in six hours than comparable companies do in eight."

And according to CNN, a number of forward-thinking companies in the US have implemented four-day work weeks, noting an improvement in staff morale, retention and quality of output.

The thing that got me the most was if you look at the time you're actually at your desk, how much is actually working, compared with looking at Facebook or getting a cup of tea.
Renae Smith, founder of a boutique public relations firm

One former World Bank policy expert told CNN two theories were key to his 20-hour work week: "Parkinson's Law", that work expands to fill the time available, and the "80/20 Principle", that says 80 per cent of productivity is achieved in 20 per cent of our time.

"The thing that got me the most was if you look at the time you're actually at your desk, how much is actually working, compared with looking at Facebook or getting a cup of tea," said Smith.

She realised that most of her company's work was done from Tuesday to Thursday, with Monday and Friday usually spent "scrambling".

"I thought if we could just cancel Monday and Friday, and use that time to sit in a cafe, interact with people, actually get out in the world, we might do better work," she said.

That doesn't mean Monday and Friday are complete write-offs. Staff are expected to be available on email, and if something urgent comes up she will get behind her laptop and do it, but "the focus is just different".

"People think it's just slacking off, but it's absolutely not that," she said.

"It's not not working, it's just a different way of looking at working. It's a focus shift. We're doing [the same amount] of work we did before, just doing it smarter."

It also makes good business sense. Staff now get paid for their 20 hours in the office and a "retainer" for a few hours Monday and Friday.

If they go "significantly over" they are paid for the additional time, but "usually only if an unexpected deadline comes up" she said.

"They are not paid a full 40 hours, but all staff got a pay rise. Wages are slightly less than full time, but all staff agreed to a rate beforehand. Rates range from $40 to $65 per hour, dependent on seniority."

So how has it affected the business?

She's lost two clients but gained four for a total of 18 - although she can't attribute the new business directly to the policy - and lost one staff member. And while she doesn't have a precise productivity metric to gauge its success, she said relationships with the media had become "much more relaxed".

"It feels much more casual," she said. "The personal connections are coming back."

She was surprised, however, by how polarising the decision was for her clients. "Because of my anxiety I expected everyone to be really mad at me," she said.

"I changed my phone settings to refresh my email every hour instead of every 15 minutes.

My sense is that some individuals almost need the discipline of being in a certain place at a certain time for a certain number of hours to deal with the workload. Others are far more self-regulating and disciplined.
Michael Henderson, a "corporate anthropologist"

I expected even that would be a huge thing, that I would lose clients, that it was going to be awful. But no 'one cared. One even said, 'It's nice you're taking a bit of a break now.'"

On the other hand, the very small number who had an issue were extremely unhappy.

"In the early days one client called me at 6:30pm, and I didn't answer because I was at home feeding my kids," she said. "The next day he was incredibly rude, he said 'What the f*** am I paying you for?' I was shocked both at how little people cared, but for the ones that did, how much they cared."

Smith, who only employs five people, maintains that it's a model that could work in any organisation regardless of size. But it's definitely not for all workers.

She said the one employee who left was a little too relaxed on the out-of-office days.

"We'd get an email from a client at 10am, and she would be at the beach all day and not reply, then I'd see her reply to 10 different emails at 2:30 in the morning," she said.

"She needed something with more structure, so it didn't actually work out."

Michael Henderson, a "corporate anthropologist" who runs New Zealand-based advisory firm Cultures at Work, agreed that the 20-hour week could be beneficial, but only for certain personalities.

"Some cope well with it, and others not so much," he said.

"My sense is that some individuals almost need the discipline of being in a certain place at a certain time for a certain number of hours to deal with the workload. Others are far more self-regulating and disciplined."

He added that the other big caveat was the customer or client.

"It's all very well from an organisational point of view - we can be more productive, pay people less to do less but achieve more - as long as you don't take your eye off the ball of the customer," he said.

But before you get too excited about a permanent four-day weekend, it should be pointed out that the New Economics Foundation's solution to the lower earnings as a result of a much shorter working week would require a considerable societal changes.

They include an increased minimum wage, a "radical restructuring" of government benefits, "more and better" public services, and "encouraging more uncommodified activity and consumption".

Oh, not to mention "redistribution of income and wealth" through "more progressive taxation", and carbon trading "designed to redistribute income to poor households".

Or as the old Soviet Union joke goes: "We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us."

- news.com.au

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