So, how was it? That dreaded first week back at work. Had you forgotten how the office air conditioning is always one or two degrees too cold over the holiday? Successfully blocked the droning voice of that one guy in the team who never shuts up out of your memory? Forgotten how terrible the coffee from the cafe next door is? And did it all come rushing back, unceremoniously, the moment you walked into the office?
The holidays ended earlier than usual for me this year, because I have a wedding and a honeymoon to pay for, and though as a freelancer I'm not imprisoned in an office, I'm admittedly having a few holiday withdrawals. To all you lucky sods reading this over eggs benedict at a cafe across the road from the beach, bah humbug. I hope you get sand in your ice cream.
Earlier this week, while I was supposedly working but really wistfully reminiscing about my halcyon days of lazing about reading and doing little else, I stumbled upon a news story that piqued my interest. Finland's new 34-year-old Prime Minister Sanna Marin had supposedly proposed a four-day work week, and a six-hour work day.
Upon further digging, it transpired that she'd actually made the suggestion during a panel debate back in August (before she became the Prime Minister), but the idea still set me alight. Imagine the possibilities. Long weekends every week. No more horrible Monday mornings. Wednesdays off in the middle of two "mini weeks". Better time management. Less traffic. More time to spend with those you love (rather than Bob from accounts who you most regrettably do not love).
It's not a new idea. Researchers have been investigating the concept for some time, while businesses have finally begun to recognise that the modern workforce is increasingly preoccupied with flexibility and work-life balance. The current five-day, 40-hour work week was developed in a time when male breadwinners made up the vast majority of office workers, while their wives were confined to the home. In our contemporary two-working-parents reality, it leaves many feeling uninspired.
It may surprise you to know that there's actually a precedent from the 20th century. American cereal company Kellogg's had a six-hour workday for many years in the middle of the 1900s. It only abandoned the policy because it wanted to bring its hours in line with other businesses. More recently, when Microsoft Japan trialled a four-day work week in August, it found that productivity increased by around 40 per cent.
Proponents of the policy suggest flexibility and employee ownership are important to the success of the shift. Suggestions include asking employees to work together to organise their time off while minimising any disruption to clients, and ensuring that the policy itself can be flexible. People could be offered the chance to opt in, and everyone should be aware that in times of workload intensification, longer working hours may be required.
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Here in New Zealand, estate planning company Perpetual Guardian offered a 32-hour (four-day) work week to their fulltime employees back in November 2018. When it trialled the policy it found that productivity rose 20 per cent. That the company specifically offered employees the opportunity to work for 32 hours is notable. There has long been a trend of mothers seeking to return to work being offered a four-day work week that instead becomes an untenable slog as they're overloaded by long hours and work they're expected to do at home on the fifth day. A true four-day work week and the mythical "four-day work week" offered by firms more interested in window-dressing than employee productivity, wellbeing and retention are two entirely different beasts.
While the four-day work week wouldn't suit every workplace, I'd love to see it trialled by more Kiwi companies. With our traditional cultural trait of ingenuity, I suspect that giving New Zealanders more time to dedicate to their families, communities, passions and projects would return impressive results for the nation.
I imagine it would also pay dividends for forward-thinking companies, who would likely be rewarded by increased productivity, creativity, staff morale levels and employee loyalty. There would likely even be benefits for freelancers, who are notoriously abysmal at maintaining any kind of work-life balance. If it became societally acceptable to work (more productively) for a shorter amount of time, we too might be able to adjust our working lives.
So what's the downside? It's worth noting that Perpetual Guardian says there isn't one. But though most studies and anecdotal accounts of the policy show positive results, a smaller group of companies have found it doesn't work for them. Those companies might instead want to consider shortening their working hours across five days, or offering employees other elements of flexibility, such as the ability to work from home.
In my view, all workplaces should be doing something to offer employees more time when they're not chained to their desks, or at least implementing programmes to bolster staff wellbeing and offer opportunities for personal development. In a world where seemingly everybody is stressed and the default answer to the question "how are you?" is "busy", it's surely time for a rethink.