Productivity: is shorter better?

Originally featured on NatWest Content Live

Can businesses can get more done by working less? We look at the latest research and speak with managers and experts about smarter working.

The issue of long working hours and their overall impact on staff performance and business efficiency has been brought into the spotlight recently, both by a well-publicised series of trials of shorter working days in Sweden, and by a new book that looks at the importance of rest and downtime in motivating and inspiring workers.

The book ‘Rest: Why you get more done when you work less’ by Silicon Valley consultant and Stanford University scholar Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, puts forward the hypothesis that, for individuals responsible for all but the most menial tasks, taking time away from work is hugely beneficial – something that is ignored by both workers and their bosses.

In the book, Pang says: “In a factory, it’s easy to see who the most productive person is: at the end of the day you can count the number of pieces they’ve made.

“Similarly, in some other professions, there are clear measures of productivity: the number of customers helped, patients treated, dollars made, cars repaired. But for those of us who work in teams on complicated, open-ended projects, long hours are a proof of our seriousness. They don’t necessarily make us more productive: they make us look more productive.”

Pang says that, all too often, the number of hours worked is used by employers as a proxy for efficiency and effectiveness – despite the fact that this metric is a “terrible predictor” of who are the best employees.

While much of ‘Rest’ focused on what Pang describes as creative workers, he says his approach can be applied to anyone whose job does not simply entail following a set of written instructions. “It’s possible to see rest as something that not only recharges our batteries, but that is also critical for providing time for exploring new ideas and having those unexpected insights.”

Trials have mixed results

In 2015, a number of companies and government employers in Sweden commenced two-year trials of six-hour working days – with no loss of pay – in order to establish what impact a cut in working times would have on factors such as productivity and employee well-being.

One of the highest-profile pilots took place at a nursing home in Gothenburg, ultimately with mixed results. The care staff who worked shorter days were indeed more productive while at work: employees also reported better health, and much lower absenteeism. But the local authority ended up spending a significant amount of extra money on hiring extra care assistants to cover for the staff who were working fewer hours.

Inspired by the Swedish scheme, Agent Marketing in Liverpool decided to spend two months at the end of 2015 and start of 2016 trialling its own six-hour workday to see whether it could be of benefit to the company and its staff.

“It’s possible to see rest as something that not only recharges our batteries, but is also critical for providing time for exploring new ideas and having those unexpected insights”

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of ‘Rest: Why you get more done when you work less’

“The trial meant we’d start work at 9am until midday, break for an hour then come back at 1pm and work until 4pm,” explains Agent’s managing director Paul Corcoran. “Because of the nature of our business we needed to make sure we had representation for our clients until at least 5pm, so during the trial weeks we extended it so people could come in at 10am, so there was always someone here to answer the phone.”

Overall, Corcoran says, the experiment was a success. “People felt more relaxed, and they got more time to spend with their families. But we also learned new ways of working.

“The negatives were that people felt more responsibility to get things done within a shorter period. In some cases, it almost put people under more stress.”

Since the trial ended, Agent has come up with its own hybrid version of the shorter working week. Corcoran says: “Every Friday we all do a six-hour day and in the week each team member can choose a shorter day. But if there’s a big workload on, those shorter days do not happen.”

The impact has been significant, Corcoran adds. “Our absenteeism is now next to non-existent. People want to work here not just because we have nice clients but because of the cultural elements; and I have happier staff which results in better work.”

A less drastic approach to higher productivity

So what are the options for employers who would like to increase productivity and employee motivation, but who aren’t convinced that a reduction in the length of the working day would suit their business?

Corcoran says: “My advice is trial something; have a go – if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but you might learn something. There may be other things you can do, like offer support around childcare or nutrition or mental health.”

He adds that one of the biggest changes Agent introduced as the result of its shorter-working scheme involved streamlining meetings. “We’d normally sit down for an hour, and there were 12 or 13 of us – that’s 12 or 13 hours in just one meeting. Now, we’re much more focused and they only last 20 minutes.”

John Palmer, senior editor at workplace advice service Acas, says the flexible working options that employers are able to offer depends on what their working practices are. “If you’re running a supermarket, you’re not going to say to your shelf-stackers or checkout assistants: ‘Why don’t you work from home on Friday?’

“In my role, on the other hand, as a senior editor, being at home where I have a quiet space and I’m not going to be interrupted has a massive productivity advantage for me.

“But homeworking comes hand in hand with a cultural shift in management: when people are on site, you manage them for their process, but when people are at home you can only measure them for their outcomes.”

Palmer says that, as homeworking becomes more popular, it could generate much greater interest among British employers in how other types of flexible working can boost productivity.

“When you start looking at the culture around management practices and homeworking, that might be the start of where the UK sees the advantage of managing for outcome rather than based on the number of hours actually worked.”

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