Who’s in favour of a three-day week?
Opinion: In a 24/7 world, the notion of a nine to five business seems increasingly out-dated
‘Last week, the Mexican telecoms tycoon, Carlos Slim, called for the introduction of a global three-day working week. The days would be 11 or 12 hours long, against the average of seven to eight and people would carry on working into their 70s.’ Photograph: Getty Images
It’s the season for pale, northern Europeans to languish on Mediterranean terraces, in idylls wrecked only by the odd shivery flashback to Irish winter days blending into squelchy scrums for the bus, the gallop to the icy childminder and icier house and terrible people bellowing on Eastenders. And all with the niggling thought that somewhere in the world, the working days of people just like them are morphing smoothly into a second phase in the balmy, healthy, fragrant outdoors.
And so, the next week is spent gazing wistfully into estate agents’ windows, at pictures featuring clusters of oddly-shaped concrete “villas” on the side of a dusty road.
That personal niggle was almost cured some years ago following an assignment in southern Europe, after a series of encounters with some pleasant British ex-pats revealed them to be melancholic fish out of water (though not wine), yearning for a shot of mundane family life.
So is there a half-way house for those boarding the planes back to reality ? Suppose, for example, the five-day work cycle wasn’t quite so relentless?
Telecoms tycoonLast week, the Mexican telecoms tycoon, Carlos Slim, called for the introduction of a global three-day working week. The days would be 11 or 12 hours long, against the average of seven to eight and people would carry on working into their 70s.
“With three work days a week, we would have more time to relax; for quality of life”, he told a conference, according to Paraguay.com.
“Having four days [off] would be very important to generate new entertainment activities and other ways of being occupied”. So: twice as much leisure time in exchange for working longer days and much later retirement? Remember, many scoffed at Henry Ford when he proposed the five-day week.
The power behind Slim’s proposal lies not in its novelty (it’s hardly original) but that it came from the second richest man in the world, to an audience comprising business and political leaders from across Latin America.
Obvious benefits would be lower transport costs and time demands on people who are priced out of the city or choose a rural life – and it would take the heat out of rush-hour traffic. Parents with a partner or someone to pick up the slack, would incur only three days’ childminding costs as opposed to five.
At a practical level, it’s already happening. Twelve-hour shifts are routine for some nurses and non-consultant hospital doctors. Others in goal-oriented jobs (the kind who bring weekend bags into work) as opposed to predictable shift-work, might regard three 11-12 hour days as a bonus, if four, guaranteed, email-free days off lay on the other side.
Would it be feasible for people dealing with the public, such as local authorities or the Civil Service? Why not, with the necessary supports and breaks? Imagine getting an answer from the motor tax or passport office at 8am? In any case, in a 24/7 world, the notion of a 9 to 5 business seems increasingly out-dated. That one-size-fits-all system at least partly explains why many workers find themselves replying to emails, making calls and so on long after “office hours”.
It might be difficult for small companies to organise but realistically, for a lot of employees, how much of the working day is frittered away on Facebook, checking out escort agencies or sports results, gossiping at the coffee machine or nipping out for a fag break?
Forced to focusManagers whose forte is to look busy-busy might be forced to focus and cut down on metawork (defined by the Urban Dictionary as something that often manifests itself “in the form of meetings, mission statements, project planning, or anything else that lets a person become part of the team without actually doing something productive”).
Slim’s proposal chimes with a wider trend towards more flexible working patterns, which should be good news for workers. Some, for example, are cutting deals to cram five days’ work into four and on a highly unscientific straw poll, a four-day week would seem to be the ideal compromise for many. It’s all about flexibility.
But that’s if – and it’s a big if – employers play fair. Flexibility is a double-edged sword. At the coalface of this much-referenced “flexibility” are the truly powerless – those workers subjected to the barbarism of zero-hours contracts and subsistence wages. And why do so many workers find themselves in “flexible”, “part-time” jobs and contracts that bleed into unacknowledged, unrewarded, full-time demands? Or, in an “always on” business culture, how do you measure a day’s work for say, a remote worker, where presentee-ism is still bred into the system?
There is plenty to suggest the flexibility pendulum may have swung too far towards employers and maybe it’s time for that discussion.
Carlos Slim’s achievement is to throw a tycoon-sized grenade into the works.