An eye-opening 2016 survey of nearly 2,000 office workers in the United Kingdom disclosed that the average employee works only two hours and 53 minutes during the course of an eight-hour workday. The rest of the time was spent on social media, reading the news, and talking with co-workers about non-work-related topics. This should not be entirely surprising, as research has long showed that people can only concentrate in spurts of about 20 minutes. This information is the basis of many time management tools such as the Pomodoro Technique, which encourages users to work in 25-minute intervals, taking short breaks in between.
Limits on FocusWorkplace psychologist K. Anders Ericsson has spent his career studying the habits of the most successful people. His research reveals that successful people depend on “deliberate practice,” in which they spend a few hours focusing on improving their skills, after which they stop. Ericsson’s theory is that the brain has a fixed amount of time that it can dedicate to strict concentration on these tasks before requiring a distraction.
While Ericsson was studying individuals with extraordinary abilities in arts, science and sports, the same principle of deliberate practice to gain expertise also applies to ordinary work tasks, like writing reports and composing spreadsheets. In both cases, the brain has a finite amount of cognitive resources it can devote to substantive, creative thought. “If you’re pushing people well beyond that time they can really concentrate maximally,” he explains, “you’re very likely to get them to acquire some bad habits.”
Indeed, the UK study on productivity revealed that employees had acquired bad habits—spending on average 44 minutes per day checking social media and an additional 65 minutes reading the news. Forcing employees to try and concentrate for longer periods of time leads to burnout—likely resulting in the average 26 minutes a day the study found employees spent looking for a new job.
Happy, More Productive EmployeesKnowing this information, organizations have been testing ways to improve productivity in the office, while maintaining the work-life balance that is essential to keeping employees happy. Perpetual Guardian, a company based in New Zealand, recently experimented with a 32-hour workweek, and hired researchers to gauge its impact on employee satisfaction and productivity. It was so successful that the company is now considering making the change permanent.
The researchers found that “supervisors said staff were more creative, their attendance was better, they were on time, and they didn’t leave early or take long breaks… their actual job performance didn’t change when doing it over four days instead of five.” The shorter workweek forced workers to utilize their working hours in a more efficient manner. Meetings were shortened, and employees developed ways of non-verbally communicating with their coworkers when they needed to be left alone at their workstation.
Stress levels among the team at Perpetual Guardian decreased by seven percentage points across the board as a result of the trial, while stimulation, commitment and a sense of empowerment at work all improved significantly, with overall life satisfaction increasing by five percentage points. The results even drew the attention of New Zealand’s workplace relations minister, who said he was keen to work with more businesses to explore new models for the modern-day workplace.
Embracing TechnologyBillionaire businessman Richard Branson often writes in his blog about the future of the work environment. “The idea of working five days a week with two-day weekends and a few weeks of annual holiday is just something people accept,” writes Branson. “For some reason, it is considered set in stone by most companies. There is no reason this can’t change. In fact, it would benefit everyone if it did.”
By embracing the technology available to them, he postulates, employees can become more efficient in the way they perform their job, getting more done in less time, affording them ability to have a longer weekend, or actually use the vacation time that so many of us leave unused at the end of the year.
Branson’s Virgin Management has led the way in shaping the new flexible work environment—doing away with a traditional vacation policy and allowing employees to work from home or stagger hours. Other companies are quickly following suit. Basecamp CEO Jason Fried has implemented a strict 32-hour workweek during the summer months. Outside of that time, Fried sticks to a strict 40-hour week in order to prevent burnout. Fried adds, “you can get plenty of stuff done in 32 and 40 hours if you cut out all the stuff that’s taking up your time.”
Saving Money and the EnvironmentAnother obvious benefit of the four-day workweek is the positive environmental impact. Not only do companies save on energy be eliminating a day of the week in which they have to heat or cool their office spaces, having 20% less drivers on the road greatly reduces the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted by idling cars stuck in rush-hour traffic. In 2007, Utah implemented a 10-hour/four-day workweek for state employees. In the first 10 months of this new work schedule, the state saved an estimated $1.8 million in energy expenditures.
Additionally, a report released by the Utah state government estimated a drop of about 6,000 metric tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions simply from cutting Friday from the workweek. When including the reduction in gas emissions from less commuting, an estimated 12,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide was cut, “the equivalent of taking about 2,300 cars off the road for one year.”
Work Smarter, Not LongerCalling on personal experience, I worked for an organization that moved to a 10-hour/four-day workweek over the summers and found the schedule quite beneficial. While it took some time to adjust to the compression of a full workweek into four days, the reward of having a three-day weekend every week during the summer allowed me to enjoy more time with my family, as well as plenty of time to recharge for the next working week.
“Work smarter, not harder” has long been the adage of people trying to find the solution to making their workday easier. By harnessing the power of the ever-improving technology that is available to work in a more purposeful manner, more work can get accomplished in a shorter amount of time, with the added benefit of additional rest time between workweeks. Today, there is a new twist on the old adage: By “working smarter, not longer,” organizations have been able to achieve that delicate balance of increased productivity, and higher employee satisfaction.