What would happen if the working week was reduced to 30 hours?

5th November 2013

MANAGING STAFF

Average working hours per week per countryThe 40 hour work week has been standard for so long that nobody seems to question exactly why.  When is the last time you sat down at 9am and cranked your way at 100% productivity all the way through until 5pm?  Anecdotally I only seem to be able to maintain solid focus for four or so hours before I start to wane.  Time of day is also a factor.  Some of the people I work with seem to hit the ground running at 9am and fade mid afternoon.  Others peak in the afternoon and can continue well in to the evening. What is clear, is that without the performance enhancing drugs growing in popularity in the US, staying focused for long periods of time is difficult…perhaps impossible.
According to most studies and surveys conducted on this, the average office worker is about 50% productive. However the amount of work done per worker is steadily increasing in knowledge based economies. The issue with saying that work hours can be reduced and the same or better standard of life enjoyed is that it assumes that workers get the benefit of a company’s increased per capita productivity. This is definitely not the case, a quick search will show that increased productivity per worker has had almost no impact on the wages of workers compared to senior management. Most managers won’t admit it, but if their employees were suddenly twice as productive they would lay off half of them. It’s simple maths.
Only CEOs, directors and shareholders see any benefit from productivity gains while the average worker is steadily being paid less for higher productivity. The idea of a 30 hour work week will be fought tooth and nail by firms because it goes against the concept of “pay for the hours”. This suits them because no matter the productivity gains you make, if you are working within a specified set of hours your wage will not increase. If they actually had to pay on productivity, rather than time (which the 30 hour work week concept hinges on) then those top executive increases would become a lot less substantial.

Wait a minute…didn’t France give a reduce working week a shot?

Yep. France reduced the official length of a working week to 35 hours, or 7 hours per day. Unfortunately the consequences of this change were unintended and hurt their economy:

  • It was envisaged that this change would create jobs.  It didn’t. Big corps simply optimised the teams to perform the same amount of work in fewer hours.  Essentially people worked fewer, more stressful hours
  • It made it harder for France to compete with other economies, with the countries surrounding France in the EU still working longer hours, which meant France struggled to compete on prices
  • Workers in France were working fewer hours and being paid less as a result. This reduced disposable income for a great number of the population, again, negatively impacting the economy

As a result it seems that if we’re going to get on board the 30 hour work week train we need to employ this approach globally, and not on a country by country basis. Sadly, it’s incredibly unlikely all countries will agree to this and so it’s not going to happen soon.

So what now?

Well if your aim of reducing the overall number of hours you work a week in order achieve some kind of work/life balance is scuppered, all is not lost.  Perhaps you could negotiate with your employer to restructure your 40 hour week so that it is more optimised around your home life?
Assuming a 40 hour work week, you could work 10 hours per day in order to only work Monday to Thursday and have a three day weekend.  Alternatively you could work a 9 hour day and take a half day on Friday. Employers should be accommodating where possible so long as it doesn’t impact their business. And as a happy result you get to do your weekly shop in an empty store while everybody else is stuck at work.
 

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