Shortening the working week will not go far enough towards meeting the realities of an increasingly dispersed workforce, according to a new report from Demos. (Hobsbawm via Demos, 5 March 2021)
Penned for the think tank by social health expert Julia Hobsbawm – who appeared in the Institute of Leadership & Management’s Drucker Special Report 2018 – The Nowhere Office identifies two, loose categories of workers that Hobsbawm dubs Learners and Leavers.
While the Learners are under 35, getting to grips with their professions and fond of the social and developmental aspects of a physical workplace, Leavers are over 35 and see work within the context of their broader life responsibilities, so are less attached to the office.
Describing productivity as “a slippery fish to measure against time spent”, Hobsbawm cites the four-day week movement as part of a cultural shift towards “carving up time in a linear way, reducing quite simply the days and hours worked”. However, she writes: “I don’t think this is going to work.”
While it may look simpler on paper compared to customised schedules, she argues, “if we want to close the productivity gap, address the question of Purpose and keep our wellbeing, then a simple ‘work less in fixed hours’ approach may add, not decrease, complexity.”
Leavers and Learners, Hobsbawm points out, will use their time in different ways: “A Leaver may wish for a four-day week, and embrace time when they are fully disconnected, but a Learner might like to dribble their hours around constant connectivity.”
As such, she suggests, we should look at blocks of time not just as something to reduce, “but perhaps as resources to be redistributed or used more wisely and made more productive.”
In her view, a fixed and inflexible argument for shorter shifts or shorter hours is untenable. “Not only do those dishing out work need as much flexibility as possible,” she writes, “but those doing it need more of an agile approach to time than simply lopping off one-fifth of the working week.”
She explains: “We need to think differently about time itself. I think we should move from thinking of time as linear to lateral. To see time as in blocks or zones, side-by-side, in which we do different things in different ways.” In other words, she writes, “we should see time not as a credit card with a limit, where we just spend until we’re maxed out, but perhaps as a set of different money boxes, each with their own capacity and purpose.”
Should leaders and workers think about managing time in a more granular fashion?
The Institute’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Who decides what is flexible and what works is essentially the individual. And individuals choosing on a broad, collective basis to flex their working hours will not always deliver what organisations require from the people who work for them. So, as Hobsbawm has identified, implementing flexibility in a way that will also guarantee delivery is a very complex problem.”
Cooper points out: “As reports from trial runs of recent years have indicated, the four-day working week – and the whole idea of doing more in less time – has met with some success. [The Guardian, 19 February 2021] But the question is, is this sustainable? How long can we carry on doing only work-related tasks within those compressed bursts?
“One problem with homeworking that we have heard about at the Institute is the absence of those moments where people come together to innovate and collaborate. That may suit some organisations – and we have heard reports to suggest that it does. But that’s not going to solve the challenge for everyone.”
Cooper agrees with Hobsbawm that we must think about time differently. “Is it a resource that we share?” she asks. “That’s the traditional approach to work-life balance, where you have a set number of hours, you allocate them and then manage the boundaries. Or is the model resource creation? In that framework, the fact that you work in different domains creates greater energy and more crossover benefits – so you may have hobbies that enable you to refresh and recharge; friends that provide you with stimulating perspectives on your work; scope for ensuring that you live a healthy lifestyle and connect with your family.
She notes: “In concert with satisfying work, all those other aspects of life ensure that each domain is fuelling or charging up the others. But again, from an organisational point of view, how do we make that model work while delivering on our various goals and objectives?”
She adds: “Context is everything. To be truly flexible, the solution has to be created for the unit of work in the way that will bring the greatest benefit – whether that’s in terms of delivering a product or service, or ensuring family-friendly conditions for individuals.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on time management