After interviewing more than 500 parents in six countries, Kiwi academic Dr Ellen Nelson explains why Kiwi businesses should ditch the 9-5 work day.
We are in the middle of the Great Resignation, a global pandemic, a mental health crisis, great advances in technology and an uprising to address social inequities, not to mention that New Zealand is not doing so flash on the productivity front. With the war on talent well under way, I am convinced there is a better way to do work; a way that is both commercially and socially smart: #workschoolhours.
After my PhD research, which focused on leadership, wellbeing and the experiences of women in the workforce, I conducted an informal piece of research about the experiences of working parents – my data is from more than 500 parents across a variety of roles and sectors in New Zealand, Australia, UK, US, Canada and Singapore.
What I found is not a surprise. In fact, what I found is what every single parent knows to be true: managing work and family is tough. Parents either (a) cannot make work work, and so leave the paid workforce, (b) work full-time and miss time with their children, or (c) undertake some kind of part-time arrangement which, in almost every circumstance, comes with a reduction in pay, but not a reduction in workload or outputs.
As a mother of two young children - a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old - none of these three outcomes are satisfactory to me, and I am convinced we can do better. It became clear to me that the root cause of these challenges is the fact that we live in a society where work and school are not aligned.
Why is this? Why do we work 9-to-5? Even for people who don't strictly work 9-to-5, our employment contracts and entire society is fundamentally based off that construct.
The concept of the 9-to-5 workday was cemented in our society more than a century ago. At that time, the workforce was comprised mostly of men, and the home force mostly of women. The 9-to-5 is based on the assumption that every household has a dedicated worker and a dedicated caregiver of children. But this does not represent the demographics of the workforce today. Workers and caregivers are the same people. It is absolutely bonkers to me that we have not changed our construct of work to reflect the changing demographics of our workforce and it is bonkers to me that we live in a society where the schedules of adults and children are different.
So I thought, "here's a crazy idea: why don't we reduce the work schedule, to align with the school schedule, without reducing salaries: #workschoolhours". This should not just be for parents, this should be for everyone.
Here is where I get very excited: I know that any new way of working needs to be commercially smart, and I am absolutely convinced that #workschoolhours can be. It is about doing more to better align the schedules of adults and children and to provide more personal time for all staff. This is done by focusing more on outputs, what it is we want our staff to deliver, as opposed to their inputs; the hours and location of work. And it focuses on flexibility.
Concepts such as Parkinson's Law - which says that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion - the great traction that Andrew Barnes' four-day week is getting around the globe, and the hundreds of part-time workers from my research who are still delivering the same workload as their full-time colleagues, all demonstrate there are productivity gains to be made. When we focus more on outputs, we can increase productivity, and get the same amount of work done in less time.
There is also a staff wellbeing argument. If all staff, had more personal time outside of work to spend with family, or pursue their hobbies, they would be happier, and therefore better focused and better performers when they are at work. This, in turn, leads to improved organisational performance, and better profits.
From an attraction and retention point of view, just imagine the calibre of talent you could get to come and work for your organisation, if you said, "we will never make you feel guilty about your commitments outside of work - we care that you do your job well, not when or where you do it".
Further, one of the most impactful things an organisation could do to increase the representation of women in leadership positions, and to unlock the massively under-utilised section of the workforce (mums), is to structure the organisation around school hours, and then normalise this for everyone.
#workschoolhours is a commercially and socially smart concept. Organisations can start by simply moving all co-working periods inside the school day – no more 4pm team meetings, and by talking with staff to work out how to do things more efficiently to finish work earlier.
If you want to learn more, check out my #workschoolhours talk and other publications on my website: www.ellenjoannelson.com. The TEDx talk video is due out this year. I now run my own business as a speaker and consultant, helping organisations to improve their retention. It comes down to leadership, wellbeing and the future of work.
• Dr Ellen Joan Nelson is an ex-army academic business mum, with deep expertise and practical experience in leadership, wellbeing and the future of work. She has spoken at TEDx Auckland this year, along with many corporate and government organisations, and her research and ideas to improve the working world have been published multiple times. Nelson helps organisations remove structural barriers facing women and parents, including the NZ Army, while experiencing improvements in organisational metrics such as wellbeing, retention, leadership, productivity, innovation and business performance. Together with her volunteer team, which included Chris Parsons and Martin Dransfield, Nelson evacuated 563 people from Afghanistan to New Zealand and she started the #workschoolhours movement.