Overworked? The key to productivity could be working less

Dec19 Editorial Issue 1

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Some people love to work. I’m talking about folks who are in the office for their usual 9-to-5 workday and then go home and put in hours during the evening and on weekends. That’s their jam.

It should be clear after reading this column for the past few years that I’m not one of those people. Now, there are some promising results of experiments bold companies have tested that seem to back my own “less-is-more” approach to working that points to an increase in productivity resulting from working fewer hours.

I know a lot of professionals hearing that will cry foul. “There’s no way I could work less and be more productive! I already have so much to do; fewer work hours will only make things worse!”

Now, I think most of those people just aren’t working efficiently enough, but I’m not here to argue about whose job has more work involved. All of us probably have too much work to do, and while it’d be great if employers hired more people to divide up the workload, we all know that isn’t happening.

And anyway, Americans honestly seem to take pride in working more, even if our output isn’t keeping pace with our effort.

It’s not just me saying that either. According to the latest Labor Department figures, productivity fell for the first time in four years during the latest quarter, driven by a surge in hours worked by self-employed Americans. The Labor Department’s measure of output, which compares production against the number of hours worked, found that non-farm business employee productivity fell 0.3 percent after jumping 2.5 percent in the second quarter. Along with contributing more hours, the number of self-employed workers also increased, according to the data, and labor costs rose at their fastest pace since 2014.

Microsoft Japan experimented this summer with allowing employees to work just four days a week and take a three-day weekend while still receiving their regular five-day paycheck. The result? A 40 percent boost in productivity, according to the company.

Not only were workers more efficient, but the company saw added benefits and cost-reductions elsewhere, including a 23 percent drop in electricity costs and a 60 percent decline in the number of pages printed. Meetings were also cut from 60 to 30 minutes, and attendance at meetings was capped at five employees. The results were so promising, Microsoft Japan plans to hold a similar trial this winter.

Japanese workers were understandably excited by this news. “So, I guess me feeling like I’m ready to be done for the week by Wednesday is pretty natural,” wrote one commenter at the Asian news site Sora News 24.

German consulting firm Rheingans Digital Enabler is also testing a five-hour workday. To ensure the company runs at the same efficiency in a smaller timeframe, employees are required to put their phone away and keep small talk to a minimum. Reportedly, workers only check company emails twice a day, and meetings are typically 15 minutes or shorter.

Honestly, this sounds like heaven. It could also be the answer to our chronically overworked culture. Compared to employees in other developed countries, Americans work some of the highest hours, and the result is more than half of Americans say work has negatively impacted their mental health.

Something has to give, and perhaps the best place to start is with companies paying their employees the same salary to work less.

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