August 8, 2014


Why Not a Three-Day Week? (MARIA KONNIKOVA, 8/07/14, The New Yorker)

During a talk at a conference in Paraguay two weeks ago, Slim proposed that the standard work schedule worldwide should be trimmed to three days a week. The current arrangement, he pointed out, was developed when life expectancy was lower and the world was, as a whole, poorer. Now, with people living longer and the structure of society shifting accordingly, a four-day weekend would improve quality of life, promote the development of other occupations, and healthier and more productive employees. Slim's proposal included two important caveats: employees would work longer hours each day, and would continue to work into their seventies. (At Slim's own company, Telmex, he is allowing workers past retirement age to keep working four-day weeks, at full salary.)

Slim's three-day work week was greeted with skepticism, but he is far from the first executive to criticize the structure of our working lives. In 1926, when six-day work weeks were the norm, Henry Ford proposed a five-day week: workers would receive the same pay and have their weekends free. Ford didn't take the change as a matter of faith; he tested worker productivity beforehand. "Now we know from our experience in changing from six to five days and back again that we can get at least as great production in five days as we can in six," he wrote. "And we shall probably get a greater, for the pressure will bring better methods." Ford saw the five-day week as just one step in ongoing efforts to reduce working hours. "The five day week is not the ultimate, and neither is the eight hour day," he wrote. "It is enough to manage what we are equipped to manage and to let the future take care of itself. It will anyway. That is its habit."

In 2010, Anna Coote, the head of social policy at the New Economics, made a recommendation even more extreme than Slim's: a twenty-one-hour work week. According to Coote, a twenty-one-hour week would help to address "overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life." We may be reluctant to believe these claims--isn't long, hard work necessary for success? But here's the thing: when workers feel that they are being cheated or slighted by their employers, their productivity falls and their propensity to cut corners increases. In a study of non-union employees in the United States, the organizational psychologist Daniel Skarlicki found that workers' perception that they are being treated unfairly not only causes negative emotions but also breeds a desire for retribution. If employees feel that they aren't paid enough, they may feel entitled, for instance, to mistreat office property or to waste office materials. If they feel that they are being asked to work longer hours than they'd been led to believe they would have to, they may decide to spend more time in the office on Facebook, take longer lunch breaks, work more slowly, or call in sick. A common gripe is, "I don't get paid enough to work as hard as I do."

One of the main factors affecting how motivated we are at work is whether we feel in control of our jobs, and whether we think our actions and views can actually make a difference. In a 2010 survey of employees and supervisors at a large I.T. company, feelings of empowerment affected both intrinsic motivation (wanting to do the work for its own sake, rather than for money or for other external rewards) and creativity. A 2012 review of workplace-empowerment studies since the early twentieth century concluded that helping employees to feel more in control has "proven to be competitively advantageous." Fostering a sense of control and self-efficacy, it turns out, is a far more effective way to encourage productivity and creativity than demanding a certain output. We're creative and productive when we feel we have space to find our own way; we're frustrated and stubborn when we don't.

While feeling in control and working fewer hours may seem like distinct issues, they are fundamentally connected. When we own more of our time, we feel like we're in charge of our lives and our schedules, which makes us happier and, ultimately, better at what we do. Our health and happiness also increases in the course of our lifetimes and, with it, our value to the workplace and to society as a whole. Additionally, we may finally recover from chronic sleep deprivation, which is one of the greatest health hazards currently facing the average employee. Sleep quality, in turn, translates to better cognition, clearer thinking, and increased productivity. Instead of the usual vicious circle, we get a virtuous one.

Posted by at August 8, 2014 8:06 PM

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