Is the future of work…less work?

1st September, 2017

How would you like to leave work at 3pm instead at 5pm and still be paid the same amount? Believe it or not, we’re closer to that dream than you may think.

One of the ideas which has been gaining traction in recent years is the notion of a six-hour working day.

Trials (mostly in Sweden) have looked at the pros and cons of letting people go home early.

Smaller scale trials, involving mining towns and individual workplaces in the 70s and 80s found that workers who were able to work six-hours per day generally had good outcomes.

“Most of the studies suggested that you could find ways to improve productivity that as such, over the six hours you were achieving the same types of outcomes you would with a working week,” head of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Workplace Leadership, Peter Gahan, told The Pulse.

“The more positive consequences came with more participation in community life, worker wellbeing and a range other things.”

The theory goes a little something like this:

Workers who work in shorter bursts are more focused, and they have more free time outside of work hours to do things like volunteer, spend time with their families, and generally do whatever they want.

Theoretically this indicates workers can do the same amount of work in a shorter time – meaning that a worker’s output was exactly the same.

Think about all the time you spend at work checking your emails, paying bills, and generally having a chinwag with your colleagues.

If you got rid of even some of that seemingly non-productive time, couldn’t your workday already be shortened?

READ: What did Facebook just tell us about the future of work?

Critics of the six-hour workday trials point out that to scale it up, there are a large number of challenges.

For example, what if all the workers who go home at 3pm then want to do their shopping and find that the shops are closed because retail workers have also gone home earlier?

What of nurses who work in a hospital that needs to be staffed 24/7?

Think about all the service industries and customers that touch an individual business – all of these need to be coordinated around the same hours of work.

Gahan says these are all roadblocks that can be surmounted with the right mindset.

“If you take a holistic approach, they’re all just things that are to be worked through,” he said.

“It’s a matter of how you can re-configure things that dictates if you can find offsets that maintain or improve productivity to offset any cost increase that may come that comes with moving to a six-hour day.

“I think it’s doable.”

A trial (again, in Sweden) is attempting to answer questions about whether a six-hour workday could be scaled up.

The Gothenburg trial

The city of Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest, is undertaking a large-scale trial centered around government employees.

Some workers will work for six hours per day while others will work for the full eight.

For the first time, we’ll have several years’ worth of data on the wellbeing of employees who work for six hours per day and just how various businesses coped with the change.

It’s been labelled as “crazy” by some, who fear what happens when you try to squeeze eight hours’ worth of work into six.

Have you ever taken a day off work, and then had to play catch-up the next day? That day, generally speaking, sucks. Now, imagine doing that five days per week.

READ: Why it’s vital to switch off at 5pm

Gahan, an advocate for at least investigating a six-hour working day, says that is a concern.

“If you look at the reports on the Swedish experiments, while generally it was net positive they also reported that…there were negative impacts,” he said.

“Some of it was around ‘role stress’ where there was an intensification of work roles, and that was something that needed to be managed to make sure it didn’t overwhelm.”

However, Gahan also said technology was already enabling us to work more efficiently – meaning the shift to a six-hour workday may yet be achievable.

Tech to the rescue?

“Automation is seen as something that destroys jobs by making roles redundant, but the evidence suggests that what we’re seeing is that a lot of technological processes are changing jobs, transforming them, rather than destroying them outright,” said Gahan.

“So the question is, how do you reconfigure jobs in light of those changes in technology and the sorts of technologies you choose to apply to those environments?”

Users of MYOB would be well aware of the efficiencies that can be gained by using products such as PayDirect Online.

Instead of having to endlessly chase up clients to see whether they’ve received an invoice (or even opened the email), you can literally see whether they have or not from the comfort of your chair.

If you’re spending less time chasing up invoices, then you’ve just saved some time – and that’s just one process.

Technology is making all sorts of processes quicker, easier, and more efficient. It’s why Gahan says the six-hour workday dream is now closer than ever.

It’s now up to individual companies and managers to think about how to achieve that dream.