The first rule of any corporate brainstorming session is that there are no bad ideas. When it comes to the mass global think-in about the shape of our future working lives, though, employers seem to see a few of the emerging suggestions as decidedly iffy. Take one of the ideas currently gaining traction – the four-day working week. Employers’ group Ibec told an Oireachtas committee last year that it has merits, but promptly went on to share all the reasons why it doesn’t, including increased costs to employers, management complexities and possible disruption to clients and customers.
I’ve got what may prove a more workable idea in the short term. Let’s cancel afternoons for the rest of the summer.
Bear with me, bosses, while I explain. Friends of mine in Spain, both full-time tech workers, report that they work according to a jornada intensiva model in July and August, which means they start at 8am and finish at 3pm. They can do what they like with their afternoon – take the kids to the pool, queue at the motor tax office, learn to make cheese or yodel. They go without a formal lunch break, grabbing a bite at their desk if they need it, so the same amount of work gets done and they get the same pay, leading to fewer of what Ibec calls operational complexities. It might be tough to maintain this kind of pace over a longer period, but as it’s only for the fleeting summer months, they relish it.
When it comes to the conversations we’re having about our working lives, the only really bad idea would be to go back to the way things were. The pandemic demonstrated that the apparently immutable laws of knowledge work – the cubicle-bound tyranny of the 9-to-5; endless in-person meetings; the need for employees to be ostentatiously visible from Monday to Friday – were products of poor management and corporate lethargy. It took a life-threatening virus to shake us out of our peculiar fixation with doing things exactly the way Henry Ford did them. Henry Ford was an anti-Semite with an aversion to cows.
Employees who have been able to work remotely did their jobs as well, often better, out of direct sight of their bosses. But while remote working brought many benefits, it also unleashed a pandemic of meetings and emails. We suffer through 13 per cent more meetings than we did prior to the first lockdown, according to a global study of three million people by Harvard Business School, as well as 5 per cent more emails and a working day that has stretched by 48.5 minutes. A more compressed day by definition demands more efficiency. There’s no time to trawl Instagram, make personal calls or have flabby meetings when you’re on a mission to get out the door by 3pm.
Boosting productivity isn’t the only argument in favour of a shrink-wrapped working day – not for those of us for whom summer represents an endless series of minor childcare emergencies. A hard stop at 3pm in environments where it is possible – probably most jobs that require you to sit in front of a computer all day – would help to address the core mathematical problem of parenthood. If your children get between 78 and 94 days off school a year, and you get 29 days off work, including public holidays, how long do you have before it all falls apart?
Long summer holidays are a throwback to the days when the patriarchy ruled and mothers were always at home. Letting the children loose from June to August was meant to free them up to help with the milking or bringing in the hay. These days, what it actually means is freeing them up to spend their days slumped on the couch playing Among Us, or learning mime or the songbook of Les Misérables at a summer camp costing roughly the equivalent to their child benefit every week.
Afternoons free of work commitments would allow families more time together, and everyone some desperately needed respite. Two years of a pandemic followed by a cost-of-living crisis has left many of us a bit jaded. After frontline workers, I suspect it is parents of young children who are the most burned out and broke. A US study found two thirds of parents were showing clinical signs of burnout in the first few months of 2021.
Here, between the strain of paying creche or third-level fees, the threat of rising interest rates, the rental squeeze, the runaway cost of living, the lingering anxiety that your children are being raised by their smartphones or the challenge of trying to get a basic education for those with additional needs, young families feel they have nothing left in the tank. Looking again at the structure of our working lives is not a luxury, but a necessity.
We already know that the eight-hour working day is a whopping great work of fiction. An arbitrary metric designed to ease the exploitation of 19th century factory workers, it has little real relevance to the knowledge economy. If you were designing it now, you wouldn’t dream of making it eight hours, when most people are productive for, at best, about three. The other five hours are too often spent hunched over a keyboard doing busy-work, checking email and social media, snacking, feeling disgruntled or taken advantage of, and shoring up all kinds of physical and psychological health problems. It all feels performative, futile and hopelessly outdated.
Whether we’re talking a four-day week or a 3pm finish, the conversation about redesigning our working lives is going nowhere. The past few years have shown us that almost everything we thought we knew about work is wrong.