We used to think about what we would do with the extra two hours we would get back from not having to commute to work each day. Due to COVID and the ensuing acceleration of automation and workplace expectations it might now be time that we think about that extra hour through the lens of a 7 hour work day. A concept that could be trialed within an industry that is due to exponentially grow due to societal & further digital advances – the nonprofit sector.

Much of the current discussion around the future of work has been through the lens of COVID which is wholly understandable. The global pandemic has effectively torn up the play book of service delivery, rendered many a strategic plan obsolete and torn up plenty of fiscal year budget papers. It has also hauled plenty of organizations back in from the tech shadows by accelerating the adoption of digital services, products and trends in remote work.

All of these changes represent a paradigm shift for major industries in our society, but rather than merely trying to balance the old and new – for example introducing flexible work agreements and having meetings and events occurring both in-person with virtual options this is ultimately an opportunity to prime our society for the inevitable transformations in our workplaces that will result from the rapid onset and evolution of the fourth industrial revolution. 

What I’m saying is the pre-pandemic way of doing things is now in our rearview mirror and holding on to them as an ode to the ‘good old days ideating around the water cooler’ shouldn’t be something we romanticize about. At the end of the day it’s about the work, it’s about the mission. If the work is getting done, why does it exclusively need to be confined to the four walls of an office? And with the rapid adoption of automotive processes do we still need to have our results, outputs, production and ourselves defined by 40 hours of it?

I was fascinated to read the recent results of the recent report by UK think tank Autonomy, who  for four years, tracked 2,500 employees in Iceland who had reduced their working hours from 35 to 36 hours per week.

Researchers found that “worker wellbeing dramatically increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout, to health and work-life balance.”

At the same time, productivity remained the same or improved for the majority of workplaces, the study said. Participants worked at various places such as hospitals, offices, playschools and social service offices.

In Iceland on average, most employees work 40 hours per week and it is illegal to work more than 13 hours a day. When the trial started, the employees worked 40-hour weeks and later shortened it to 35 to 36 hours. Participants said the reduced hours allowed them to focus on exercising and socializing, which enhanced their work performance. 

“By the time of this report’s publication in June 2021, 86% of Iceland’s working population are now on contracts that have either moved them to shorter working hours, or give them the right to do so in the future,” the study noted. “These trials are therefore an incredible success story of working time reduction, of interest to campaigners and workers worldwide.”

The recent  pandemic has already shifted the landscape in relation to where we work and how we work. Could it also be the catalyst for a new conversation on how long we work?

If anything the past 18 months have shown us, it’s what matters most, and to many that has been friends, family and quality of life. With millions of people losing their jobs or being furloughed, and the fact many had to rapidly adjust to working from home as offices closed along with schools and other childcare options, we have to acknowledge that we are a resilient species, yet one whose circumstances are inherently fragile. You can lose everything in an instant.

There is a strong case to be made for a four-day work week. It’s a case argued previously by Anthony Veal, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Technology Sydney’s Business School in his book Whatever Happened to the Leisure Society? (Routledge, 2019).

Veal states that while there is no reason why the long-term march towards reduced working hours should stop at the arbitrary “standard” figure of five days and 40 hours established in the post-World War II period. He doesn’t believe widespread adoption of the four-day week will come easily or necessarily all in one go. Instead it’s going to have to come incrementally.

It took half of the 20th century and a great deal of campaigning against concerted employer opposition for workers in Western industrial societies to reduce their standard working week from 60 hours over six days to 40 hours over five days, so where might this new momentum come from?

My recommendation would be the social sector for a number of reasons. It’s the third largest employer in the country and one that is going to be disproportionately affected by automation and the further digitalization of our economy.

Research from McKinsey assessed the jobs lost and jobs gained under different scenarios through 2030 with the results revealing a rich mosaic of potential shifts in occupations in the years ahead, with important implications for workforce skills and wages. Their key finding is that while there may be enough work to maintain full employment to 2030 under most scenarios, the transitions will be very challenging—matching or even exceeding the scale of shifts out of agriculture and manufacturing we have seen in the past.

Their key finding should be your key takeaway here…due to automation and artificial intelligence there will be a seismic increase in workers entering the service industry. 

The report shares that about half the activities people are paid to do globally could theoretically be automated using currently demonstrated technologies. Very few occupations—less than 5 percent—consist of activities that can be fully automated.

However, in about 60 percent of occupations, at least one-third of the constituent activities could be automated, implying substantial workplace transformations and changes for all workers. 

The predicted growth for the service industry which includes healthcare professionals, childcare workers, community and social workers is due to grow from 30% in the U.S. through to 242% in India by 2030.

The social sector has many unique pressures. Time doesn’t mean money, in this sector it means lives. Being on the frontlines is often underestimated, underappreciated and often underpaid, and that’s why shaving off an hour a day for those that give their lives in service of their communities should be a no brainer for a more comprehensive national trial of a reduced work week in the U.S.

Workplace innovation doesn’t have to be the sole greenfield for courageous start-up founders and CEO’s. The key here isn’t to be on the front cover of Forbes, it is to ensure your staff are happy, productive and feel safe and secure both at home and at the office ( whatever that looks like moving forward). 

The nonprofit sector has a huge role to play in the next chapter of this country’s history as industries continue to change and evolve. It is a dynamic and willing partner in advancing society with many displaced and reskilled workers flocking to the sector as the demand for service jobs increases as a result of automation.

At the end of the day, how can we find new ways of solving a very old problem: just how can we work to live and prevent our lives from being all about work? It’s a question posed to us by COVID and one where 35 hour weeks, 9/75’s, and remote working options might be the key to unlocking a new era of pride and productivity for the nation. 

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