EverythingPeople This Week!

Published on Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Can a Reduced Work Week Increase Productivity and Engagement?

Author: Shannon Reed

Recently, there’s been lots of discussions about the average work week of an American worker.  As an industrialized nation, work-life policies in the U.S. tend to lag behind other industrialized nations.  Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the basic construct of our work week.4-day work week and 5-day work week road signs

The 5-day work week hasn’t budged since the days of the one income household where men largely invested in work outside the home while women tended to the rigors of child rearing and home care.  You only need to look at the recent workforce stats to see that working women comprise half of the full-time workforce. Yet, the basic landscape of the time that Americans spend at work hasn’t changed.  While other areas of work have been responsive to cultural shifts like the introduction of 401k programs, varied health and wellness programs, and even casual dress policies; we have yet to see the majority of companies address hours worked.

According to  2017 data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)  the U.S. is in the top 10 industrialized nations that have the most paid labor on average per year per worker. This trend shows no sign of slowing as the battle to remain a relevant economy in an increasingly global arena continues. This is a far cry from the predictions laid out by economist John Keynes in 1930 when he envisioned that the rise of machines and technology would translate into a 15-hour workweek!  What it does show is that Americans are working long hours, on average 42 hours in the office, not including work done at home returning emails and phone calls. It’s a stark contrast to the work reality of union members employed at Mercedes Benz and other top engineering firms in Germany.  Recent rulings  netted workers at many of Germany's top engineering firms -- such as Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler -- can opt to work 28 hours a week for up to two years, before returning to the standard 35-hour week.

In New Zealand, a six-week trial involving almost 250 employees across 16 different offices was monitored by researchers at the University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology. Although workers only clocked in for four days (while still being paid for five), trimming their hours from around 40 to 32 per week, they were actually 20% more productive. Employees also showed a 24% improvement in their work-life balance, and a 7% decrease in their stress levels.  Another study conducted on the heels of the Auckland experiment also found that there were increased gains of over 20% in the areas of measured engagement (employee to leader, commitment to the company, stimulation, and empowerment).  In a report written in 2010 by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, the very presence of new technology and the need for highly trained workers requires a commitment to further education and training often not within reach due to the lack of available time to invest in these pursuits.  

What we know in theory about the reduced work week needs a more granular analysis.  Much like any other benefit given to employees, there is an expectation of an ROI and there are caveats, some simple, some complex, that require a steady hand in their delivery and communication.  The creation of a 4- day work week (or any reduced hour program) requires a lock-step execution between business units and demands a different level of oversite from leaders.  For example, a manager who has only 32 hours with his employees per week or who has his team present only 5 hours a day, may prepare meetings for ultimate efficiency and quickly turn a 90-minute meeting into 30 minutes.  Companies may also choose to track wasted time in an effort to prove that the hours worked, while reduced are more effective and produce greater results.

The role of HR is to look at a reduced work week with the same rigor as one would apply to any other employee benefit.  It also makes sense to match employee interest in a reduced week program (research tells us that 67% of employees would take advantage of a reduce hour program pilot) to the unique factors found in every business.  Some key questions to ask include: 

  • Is there a seasonality of our business that creates an optimal time to test the reduced week theory? 
  • Are there departments or functions of the business that lend themselves better to the concept? 
  • If enacted, what time wasters have been eliminated from the corporate diet while on the reduced work week experiment? 
  • If the reduced work week becomes standard, can our organization point to the reduced work week concept as the root of positive changes in productivity, engagement and retention?

It takes a mature organization to risk a bit of the unknown and launch an effective reduced work program.  Organizations that do so, even on a temporary basis are seen positively by their employees both current and potential.  In the end, it will be an answer for many, but not all.  What is certain, HR needs to be prepared to address a growing awareness of the concept and be able to research and communicate the pros and cons to the business partners they support.


Sources: cornell.edu, marketwatch.com, hrdrive.com


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