For a short time after the pandemic started last year, I, and many of my co-workers, worked from home. Some of my colleagues still do so, but the majority of us were soon recalled to our 40 hours a week, in-office routine, albeit with certain restrictions such as masks and social distancing.
I liked working from home; apart from the fact that it meant not having to do that daily commute into Charleston, it was much more convenient for me. I still did my 40 hours each week but I arranged them to fit my own schedule, starting very early and taking breaks when I felt like it. Plainly though, some jobs cannot be done remotely. Mine was deemed to be one of these, and so I’m back spending eight hours a day in the office.
Most of us tend to spend a lot of time at work. According to researchers, it’s 1,757 hours each year for the average American, and that doesn’t include travel time. A quick, very rough calculation tells me I do slightly more than that at 1,808 hours, without deducting any sick time I might take. That sort of figure puts the United States at number 39 in the 2017 Wikipedia list of countries with the longest working hours.
Top of that list is Cambodia, where the average worker is said to spend 2,455 hours each year in order to make a living. They are closely followed by Myanmar and Mexico, while Britain and Australia are close together at numbers 51 and 55 with around 1,670 hours for Britain and 1,613 for the Aussies. Bottom of the list comes Germany, where the average worker only records 1,354 hours each year, a figure that equates to under six hours per working day.
Currently sitting at No. 62 on the list is Iceland, whose people clock up on average around 250 hours per year less than we do. That figure may soon change though, thanks to the results of a couple of recent working-week trials that were held there.
The trials included 1% of the country’s working-age population and were held in 100 different workplaces. They were sponsored by the Reykjavik City Council and the Icelandic government, and the results were analyzed by the Icelandic Association of Sustainability and Democracy and an independent British think-tank. What they involved was reducing the working week to four days, a policy that resulted in many cases to lowering the number of hours each person worked to 35 per week instead of the normal 40.
Obviously, not every workplace can reduce the working week to four days. Retail stores and many manufacturing jobs would find it difficult, but the administrative, government and social services sectors could. The first Icelandic experiment took place in the country’s capital, Reykjavik. It lasted for five years from 2014 to 2019 and at the beginning it involved child care and service-center workers who cut their work hours down to 35 without suffering any drop in their pay. Initially, this proved successful, and later, some staff at the city mayor’s office and in care homes were also included in the project.
The second experiment started in 2017. It is still ongoing and the participants are all civil servants working in a variety of government agencies across the nation. In both of these experiments those taking part included not only people working regular day jobs, but also some who were on other shift patterns too.
Before the experiments commenced, there were suggestions that they would affect productivity and that workers would actually be doing more than their set hours in order to complete tasks. The analysis of the results did not support this; in fact, they showed no loss in productivity or in the quality of the service from the people involved. In many cases, it was found that work performance improved, due, the workers said, to lower stress levels, more incentive to get the work done and being generally happier and healthier in the workplace, to a large extent because they had more time for leisure and social activities.
So, how was this cut in work hours achieved? It seems the answer lies in spending less time in meetings, improving the way different sections talk to each other and by workers re-organizing their schedules.
Iceland’s experiments have drawn attention from other countries around the world. Just a couple of months ago, in May of this year, the government of Spain voted to implement a plan to try a four-day week. The project is set to last for three years, and the government has pledged 50 million Euros to support businesses that agree to take part.
At the same time, across the other side of the world, New Zealand’s Prime Minister has suggested that lowering the number of working days could help the country’s economy to recover from the effects of the global pandemic. One New Zealand firm, based in Auckland, the city with the biggest urban population in the country, has already tried the system. They have said they were so pleased with the result that they are making the four-day week permanent. Several other companies are now set to follow their example.
In 2019, Microsoft gave its staff every Friday off. They reported that this resulted in a 40% increase in productivity and a saving of 23% in electricity but they have not, as yet, said whether they intend to make the policy permanent in any of their locations. Meanwhile, in Britain, BT, the national telephone company, allowed 5000 call center staff to work four day weeks for a period of six months in 2019. The results, they said, were that the number of calls made went up and so did the sales and customer satisfaction index.
The results of the various experiments tend to show productivity is not affected by people working fewer hours and may, in fact, be increased due to happier, healthier employees. There can be savings made in some cases by only opening facilities for four days, and there are environmental advantages due to fewer people traveling to work and buildings not requiring heating or air-conditioning.
As a result of Iceland’s experiments, it was announced in June of this year that 86% of the country’s workers are now on a four-day week or have contracts allowing them to work that way. As far as I know, there are no plans to implement similar experiments here, in West Virginia, but, if anyone cares to consider it, they can count on my support.