I've been thinking a lot about work over the past few weeks. This month, we have three bank holidays. Usually, we work a minimum of forty hours a week, not to mention picking up text messages outside of work, making hands-free calls on the way home, and responding to a few emails in the evening. I haven't done any of that over the bank holidays. Instead, I've taken the dog for a walk, played guitar, swapped the pickups out of my Telecaster (a mini humbucker in the neck, for those fellow guitar nerds who are interested), listened to some music, played card games with the family, planted vegetables and flowers in the garden with my daughter, and caught up on some reading ("Nudge" and "Sword of Destiny"). So, with a few shorter workweeks and protecting my personal time outside of office hours, I should be miles behind, right?
Nope. Not even close.
Alongside all of this, I've read two thought-provoking articles on our working culture. The first questions what productivity is and how we should measure it (https://www.vox.com/technology/23710261/productivity-definition-measures-remote-work-management), and the second, from the same website, focuses on the successes of the four-day workweek (https://www.vox.com/22568452/work-workweek-five-day-four-jobs-pandemic). Already, I can hear the out-of-touch complaining that people only want a four-day workweek because they're lazy, comparing the modern workplace to the days when one had to be chained to their desk to produce anything.
Those days are gone. We are far more efficient than any previous generation of workers, and this only becomes more true as AI advances. Granted, there are some jobs - care roles, for example - in which workers currently need to be present to do the job they are paid to do. In such cases, it is apt to pay people per hour. But an increasing number of roles are dependent not upon where you work, but upon the interactions you have and the decisions you make. If you are able to meet the needs of all the stakeholders to whom you are accountable in less than forty hours a week, then why shouldn't you, if you are being paid for the results you achieve? Working less than forty hours a week means you are more likely to arrive at work recharged, refreshed, and more able to provide creative solutions to the problems you may face. Contrast this with the tiredness of someone who fills the remainder of their week with busywork so they can meet their forty-hour quota, or someone who lacks the self-discipline to manage their calls and emails outside of work hours. It's been said before, but if you don't manage it, it manages you.
I think the call for shorter working hours will only grow stronger in the coming years as we understand the benefits to ourselves and our businesses of being better rested, alongside reaping the benefits of AI.
Or perhaps I’m being overly optimistic. Few households can live on a single income; inflation and our refusal to deal with the nations’ failure to ensure an adequate supply of good quality, fairly priced housing will see this worsen. Many adults juggle more than one form of employment, alongside a side hustle of some sort, just to get by. Added to that is our experience of automation in industry. Those efficiencies were supposed to free us up to pursue our hobbies and spend time with our families, since we could achieve the same outputs in a fraction of the time (sound familiar)? Instead we saw no reduction in working hours, but an increase in the profitability of large companies. AI could lead to the same problems, increasing the already worrying concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.
Dramatic words? Maybe. But if history is anything to go by, we risk sacrificing our health and relationships to work the same long hours to make the rich richer when we could be reducing our work commitments with no impact on our productivity. I don't think that working shorter hours will be a panacea for all our problems, nor that it's a one-size-fits-all solution. But as individuals and societies, we need to rethink our relationship with work. We should question why we work as much as we do, and what it is we're trying to achieve. We should reflect on whether we're sacrificing too much of our health, relationships, and well-being for our jobs, and whether the rewards we get are worth it. And we should explore alternative ways of organising work, whether it's through shorter working weeks, more flexible schedules, or more creative ways of measuring productivity.
Of course, these are not easy questions to answer, and there are no easy solutions. But as we celebrate the bank holidays, let's take a moment to reflect on what we really value in life, and whether we're spending our time and energy on the things that matter most to us. Perhaps then we'll start to see that working less, and living more, can be a win-win for everyone
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