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Working 9 to 5,
What a Way To
Make a Living?1

 

The I-Opener

Christoph Gloger
 
Louisiana Tech University

Steven Toaddy
Louisiana Tech University

 

When we began our journey to this month’s I-Opener, we immediately thought of a newspaper article that we had come across just days earlier. The article described an experiment in the works that began in 2014 when the middle-left government coalition in Gothenburg, Sweden decided to reduce the working hours in at least one public department from 40 to 30 hours per week without reduced compensation. It was after a conversation that the first author had with Dr. Jürgen Deller from the University of Lüneburg, Germany, speaker for the Institute for Strategic HR Management Research and Development, an interdisciplinary panel designed to find innovative solutions to strategic HR questions, that we realized that this article should rather cover a much bigger picture than just an insular experiment in a Scandinavian country.2 Instead we decided to focus on the fundamental question of how we organize work, labor, and whether we should reevaluate a philosophy that served us well for way more than a century. Opening this Pandora’s box shows to have all sorts of implications for I-O practitioners as well as organizations. But one [thing] after another…

We Had It All

The idea of a 30-hour workweek is not a novel one. In fact, W.K. Kellogg, founder of the famous cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s, decided in 1930 to reduce working hours in a plant in Michigan to 6 hours per day (though admittedly for a slight pay cut). As a result, 300 new workers were hired; productivity and effectiveness went up; overhead, labor, accidents, and per-unit costs went down. Six-hour shifts at the plant survived until 1985 when the predominantly male workforce decided to return to 8-hour shifts in an exchange for larger paychecks.3

Without a doubt authorities in Sweden are hoping for similar positive effects in their experiment that, if successful, could start conversations about popular beliefs and intuitions with regard to working hours and face time. A plethora of research is telling us that long working hours come with significant negative trade offs such as exhaustion,4 safety issues,5 and health6 and mental7 problems. What the administration in Gothenburg has in mind, however, exceeds mere efforts to keep their employees from working overtime. Instead the middle-left coalition who currently controls the town hall follows the path of a handful of private organizations that have already shifted to a 30-hour work week (e.g., Toyota Service Centre Gothenburg8, Brath9). In February 2015, with a delay of a few months, employees of a Gothenburg retirement home reduced their daily working hours from 8 to 6 with no changes to their monthly paycheck. To cover for the loss of face time at the center, new employees were hired to ensure a continuous service for patients and clients. Initiators hope that these initial costs will monetize through improvements in service quality, employee engagement, and lower absenteeism. To increase worker efficiency, employees are encouraged to refrain from dealing with any form of personal matter for the time spend at work. “Hold on” I can hear you say, “We don’t [insert applicable social media website name that somehow serves as a verb] at our workplace!” This might be true for the highly engaged. On the contrary, there is enough personal and empirical evidence that suggests that 1½ up to 3 hours10 of productive time might be lost due to personal matters.11 A shorter workday however leaves more time for errands, paying bills, or online-shopping sprees, which makes the request for staying abstinent from the smartphone more realistic.

Whether the measure will pay off is difficult to forecast. Results will not be available before the end of 2016 when hard and soft factors of the 30-hour workplace will be compared with the control group, which comprises the remaining retirement homes in Gothenburg.

Coat of Many Colors

Especially if successful, results of the experiment could challenge popular beliefs and intuitions with regard to working hours and face time, and, according to Dr. Deller, this discussion is long overdue. He points out that the logic behind the current model of fixed hours where work has to be performed at a certain location stems from the blue-collar world of machine running times and hard, physical labor that could only be performed with workers physically present. At least in the Western world, however, we have seen transformations from industry to service economies that brought us a different type of work that is performed today as people are more specifically trained. Additionally, we have experienced a change in the social context as females are more educated, trained, and skilled than ever, equipped with the tools and the desire to participate and to have their stake in the economy. Former traditional role distributions are increasingly renegotiated and will continue to change in the future. In hindsight, given the drastic societal change over the last two generations, isn’t it surprising how long it took us to think of better ways to integrate people’s work and personal lives?

So like what may future work arrangements look? I am glad you asked because the first author already forwarded the question to Dr. Deller. Because he does not earn his bread with fortune telling he won’t be able to predict whether the reduction from 40 to 30 hours at the same salary is the most successful avenue.  More likely however is the absence of a one-size-fits-all type of solution.12 The reduction of working hours will only be practical if organizations can cover (or exceed) the additional costs with increased efficiency. Thus, organizations with little or no potential to realize gains won’t be very convinced by the temptations of 30 workweeks. But there are other types of work. The one’s that rely on creativity, the jobs that rely on very specific services to be performed, types of jobs with which the reader might be very familiar (for example).13 For many of these services, the location of work performed is close to irrelevant, and collaborations that require actual face time happen only occasionally. Creativity has the bad habit to blatantly disregard 9-to-5 schedules and, instead, to come and go as it pleases. These types of jobs can greatly benefit from new ideas that introduce flexibility for the benefit of the employee and the employer.

Flexibility is more than the opportunity to adjust work and leisure hours. According to Dr. Deller, flexibility has to include the working location as well. We have to ask ourselves the question of whether many contemporary jobs performed in our service economy require physical presence. Furthermore, who determined that employees are more productive in a cubicle than at a workplace of their choosing? Sure, not every employee prefers a remote over an office location—the first author is one of those—but let the choice be yours. Because not only can remote work decrease the need for physical office real estate, it may contribute to lower transfer and commute times for employees. Until computers finally replace the incapable humans behind the wheels of the vehicles on our streets14 and make traffic great again (no pun intended),15 lowering commuting times through the use of remote workplaces may be a viable solution to increase work–life balance and to reduce fatigue that negatively impacts productivity. In the end employees might end up more motivated, more engaged, and less stressed, which is exactly what we all want, isn’t it?

Starting Over Again

The point of this discussion is to knock us out of our typical assumptions about the way that work hours and working arrangements operate—all the better to make changes to improve the work lives of employees and the effectiveness of organizations before we get to a point where such changes are, in some sense, required. Regardless, however, it is often in situations of crisis that organizations become the most creative. In our conversation, Dr. Deller gave two examples that illustrate how organizations can use innovative concepts of working hours to overcome the challenge posed by the global market and for the benefit of their employers.

During the latest economic downturn in 2008, we have seen a lot of solutions evolving around the concept of work time, especially in Europe. Although some organizations used mass layoffs to strip themselves of the surplus of labor that they had previously brought in, others shifted their entire workforce from full- to part-time employees to reduce costs necessary to survive. This way, talent will be kept on board instead of losing human capital that will subsequently be needed again once the storm is passed. Although this method was especially popular in manufacturing, other types of industries and even retailers utilized this method that can be an interesting alternative.

The second example illustrates how organizations can utilize flexible working arrangements to encounter shortage of labor supply and talent, which in many developed western civilizations is already, or will be in the future, a significant problem according to the calculations done by Rainer Strack, which he presented in a TED talk in 2014.16 In Germany for example, hospitals and care-taking facilities are struggling to perform the necessary work and current workforces are stretched thin due to a labor shortage. According to Dr. Deller, many facilities try to adapt to the situation by creating new, innovative ways to combine work and personal requirements using an entirely flexible model of organizing and supplying labor. When employers increased availabilities of part-time jobs they gained access to individuals that frequently selected themselves out of the labor market because full-time arrangements would not fit their life situation. Some organizations went so far as to abandon any cookie-cutter 30-, 35-, or 40-hour work week and flipped their shift model upside down. Instead, employees were able to commit to the time they feel they can invest into the workplace, whether it is 18, 23, or 37 hours per week.17 Of course top-down shift management that uses supervisors to determine shift allocations was too inflexible and labor intensive. Instead, organizations developed “shift groups” that determine shifts among themselves autonomously to ensure that patient care is provided. Supervisors would only act as referees.

It’s All Wrong, but It’s All Right

We’re in a bit of a strange place with this particular call to action. There are hints of arguments (in regard to, for example, the obsolescence of having people come in for a standard work day at all) and examples of solutions to various and specific challenges, but that’s not the broader point. The broader point is that we’re trying to open your eyes to the assumptions that we, that businesses, that societies have classically made regarding exactly what, from a functional, boots-on-the-ground perspective, it means to be employed. Who decides the hours during which employees work? How do hours relate to pay? If it comes down to it, do employees want to work less or do they want to be paid more—and does this vary by industry, by individual, by time of year, by region, by culture…?

As simply as possible: let’s start afresh in looking at the very basic assumptions regarding what it means to go to work. What policies and procedures are a result of our cultural assumptions, of habit and of tradition, of the solutions that very reasonably addressed the problems of tens and of hundreds of years ago? What can and should we work to radically change to improve our own working lives and the working lives of the rest of our species? Get on it.

Notes

1 Good luck with ol’ Dolly for the rest of the day! You are welcome!

2 Interestingly, we couldn’t get any Swedes to reply to our emails. Maybe this is a result of the experiment

3 Hunnicutt, B. K. (1992). Kellogg's six-hour day: A capitalist vision of liberation through managed work reduction. Business History Review, 66(03), 475–522.

4 E.g., Dahlgren, A., Kecklund, G., & Åkerstedt, T. (2006). Overtime work and its effects on sleep, sleepiness, cortisol and blood pressure in an experimental field study. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health32(4), 318327.

5 E.g., Kunaviktikul, W., Wichaikhum, O., Nantsupawat, A., Nantsupawat, R., Chontawan, R., Klunklin, A., & ... Sirakamon, S. (2015). Nurses' extended work hours: Patient, nurse and organizational outcomes. International Nursing Review62(3), 386393.

6 E.g., Lallukka, T., Lahelma, E., Rahkonen, O., Roos, E., Laaksonen, E., Martikainen, P., & ... Kagamimori, S. (2008). Associations of job strain and working overtime with adverse health behaviors and obesity: Evidence from the Whitehall II Study, Helsinki Health Study, and the Japanese Civil Servants Study. Social Science & Medicine66(8), 16811698. 

7 E.g., Kato, R., Haruyama, Y., Endo, M., Tsutsumi, A., & Muto, T. (2014). Heavy overtime work and depressive disorder among male workers. Occupational Medicine64(8), 622628. 

8 Crouch, D. (2015, September). Efficiency up, turnover down: Sweden experiments with six-hour working day. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/17/efficiency-up-turnover-down-sweden-experiments-with-six-hour-working-day

9 Why we started with 6 hour work days. (2015). Retrieved from: http://brath.com/why-we-started-with-6-hour-work-days/

10 Paulsen, R. (2015) Non-work at work: Resistance or what? Organization 22(3), 351367.

11 Paulsen, R. (2014, November). The art of not working at work. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/11/the-art-of-not-working-at-work/382121/

12 Surprise!

13 I am talking to you, consultants!

14 Believe me, it is going to happen—see Olivia Reinecke’s article in the last TIP here: http://goo.gl/Xe1Nji!

15 Well, that’s a lie!

16 This will only be true if we will be spared by the AI apocalypse outlined by Olivia.

17 BUT ONLY THESE NUMBERS.