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No More 9 to 5: A Closer Look at the Flexi-Work Revolution

Is the standard work week becoming obsolete? Ben Tutty considers how the four-day week could improve our lives without sacrificing productivity.

20 February 2023

Way back in 1930 one of the most renowned economists of all time, John Maynard Keynes, forecast we’d eventually only need to work 15-hour weeks. He predicted technological change and productivity improvements would mean we could produce enough to meet all our needs in the two-day work week, leaving us with more leisure time – a five-day weekend, to be exact.

Fast forward to 2022.

The length of the average American work week (38.8 hours) has increased by an hour since 1970, while the average Kiwi work (37.8 hours) week has stayed roughly the same. As I sit here typing on a Friday, I’m wondering – what happened to five-day weekends? And how did Keynes get it so wrong?

Why aren’t we working less?

Keynes was right about one part of his prediction: technology did cause a productivity boom across most sectors. Office workers, for example, are nearly five times more productive than they were in the 1970s. The primary industries and many other sectors have experienced similar gains, and yet here we are working 40-hour weeks.

The problem is that most of the rewards from these productivity gains have gone to the top. In the US, for example, real CEO pay increased by 937 per cent from 1978 to 2013, while worker pay only increased by 10.2 per cent. In other words, we’re producing way more economic value but the rewards aren’t being shared evenly.

What’s more, the 40-hour work week is baked into our culture, despite the fact that it hasn’t really evolved as a concept since the early 1900s. What’s the alternative?

Introducing the four-day work week

Perpetual Guardian famously switched to four-day weeks back in 2018 while continuing to pay their staff a full-time wage – several years later the trial is still going strong. Kirsten Kilian-Taylor, Manager, Perpetual Guardian Foundation, says that it’s all about trusting employees.

“The most winning highlight of this change is that we’re giving power to our people. Our CEO has essentially said, ‘you can own your destiny – as long as you achieve, it’s all good.’”

She says there’s more to the initiative than working one day less per week.

“Our research showed that most people were only really productive for two days a week. So this change was about activating ourselves more meaningfully for a shorter period of time and being rewarded for it.”

Kilian-Taylor adds that their approach to the work week is continually evolving, but it’s been a great change for employee wellbeing. In fact, research shows that staff have had more time to participate in family life, train and study, while seeking out new travel, leisure and volunteering activities they normally wouldn’t have had the time for.

Life > work

As a freelance writer with an enduring passion for afternoon naps, I’ve always believed that life should come before work, and over the years I’ve learnt that it’s possible to have a meaningful, productive career without showing up in an office for 40-plus hours a week.

These ideas are quickly becoming more mainstream. In fact, 19 per cent of New Zealand business decision-makers surveyed by HR Director NZ said they believed advertising flexible working arrangements is the best way to attract good talent.

Some have taken it upon themselves to create their own flexi-work arrangements, like Petrinah Darrah, a travel journalist who recently left her job to start a freelance writing career.

She reckons 9-5 is unrealistic for most. “I just genuinely don’t think I can use my brain for 40 hours a week. I have a few good bursts in a day, usually early in the morning, and other than that I’m mostly only good for admin. Yet the traditional work structure sets up the expectation we can consistently use our brains for eight hours a day, five days a week.”

Just because she doesn’t want to work 40 hours a week that doesn’t mean she’s not motivated – building a freelance business from the ground up shows she is. But working flexibly gives her the time to pursue other things while working on stuff she cares about.

“One of my big goals with going freelance was to take back control of my time,” says Darrah, “and have more free time to spend travelling, exploring, hiking, surfing, or doing anything else I’m passionate about.

“I am a lot happier being able to just put work down when I feel stressed, without the pressure of digital presenteeism. I’m really excited to have the power to shape my own work-life balance.”

Solving the productivity problem

Most Kiwis want to work less, but the question remains – is it really possible to produce the same in four days as we would in five? Ganesh Raj, NZ Productivity Commissioner, says it could be, as long as four-day work weeks are delivered as part of a wider set of initiatives.

“We shouldn’t look at the number of days spent in the office in isolation. Something like a four-day work week has to be delivered as part of a package to improve productivity. Other elements might include a clear management expectation of deliveries during those four days. Training and development, career advancement, and a switch to a focus on outcomes – not just being present.”

He says investment is the key – spending on better infrastructure, technology, equipment and training will ultimately lead to productivity and employee engagement gains (perhaps even enough to make up for skipping a day of work).

Raj adds that we’ve been completing more total hours of work over the past few decades by adding more people into the workforce. That’s led to economic growth but not productivity or wellbeing growth.

“Working more hours hasn’t made us better off. That’s why it’s a good time to experiment with other options. Looking after our people better, while investing in new tech and ways of working may help lift New Zealand’s low productivity.”

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