Working Less

By Mark Nuyens
5 min. read🌍 Culture

From the rise of the industrial age to the digital era, the 40-hour workweek has been considered the standard for full-time employment. Isn't it time to reconsider this? Evidence is increasingly suggesting that working less could lead to greater productivity and happier employees. This seemingly counterintuitive approach raises the question: why has the idea not gained more traction, and should it become a consideration for lawmaking?

Working from home, a phenomenon that has become more prevalent due to the pandemic, offers insight into the flexible potential of our work lives. However, the elimination of commuting has also shown how much "invisible" work time is consumed by travel, effectively extending the workday well beyond the standard eight hours. This realization prompts us to question the value of our time, both economically and in terms of quality of life.

Research indicates that our capacity for high productivity extends for only three to five hours a day, after which our attention wanes and our effectiveness decreases. With this in mind, it seems inefficient to expect employees to maintain an eight-hour workday when only a portion is spent productively. By reducing the workday to six hours, we might see a significant improvement in overall productivity.

Another recent study examining how employees spend their time has shown an interesting trend, particularly noticeable in some Asian countries, especially India. It reveals that a significant proportion of employees engage in what could be termed 'performative' work rather than genuinely productive tasks. While numerous factors contribute to this behavior, it's fascinating to observe how people resort to such tactics when they find it challenging to increase their productivity further. They opt to appear busy, conserving their energy while fulfilling their primary role of being present and contributing to the team. To me, this highlights the absurdity of pushing people to work beyond their sustainable limits. Ultimately, it becomes a waste of everyone's time and effort.

In my experience, there seems to be this common misconception that working fewer hours automatically equates to earning less profit. However, this short-term thinking overlooks the long-term benefits of employee wellbeing. Staff that is less prone to burnout, with more time to spend on personal life, may be more happy, motivated and productive, eventually leading to increased business opportunities and long-term revenues.

Fear of change could be holding back the shift towards shorter workdays. To overcome this, collective experimentation could be the answer. Groups of companies or entire sectors could trial a six-hour workday over a six-month period and evaluate the results. The remote working experiment during the pandemic showed that businesses are capable of significant adaptability, a quality that could also be applied to explore new working hours' arrangements.

However, return-to-office policies from many leading tech companies after the pandemic has demonstrated the power of peer pressure. Companies tend to follow the practices of their competitors out of fear of appearing too relaxed or failing to meet their goals. This is where lawmaking could play a crucial role in standardizing shorter work hours, preventing individual companies from setting their own policies based on this competitive anxiety.

Meanwhile, our society seems to applaud people who work long and hard, with figures like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos celebrated for their grueling schedules. This cultural narrative contrasts starkly with the indication that we should be working less, not more. More importantly, it makes discussing this topic even more difficult. As our understanding of productivity evolves, perhaps so should our work culture. Isn’t it about time to challenge the romanticized version of performing labor and realize the potential benefits of working less, both for ourselves, our families, and our businesses?

Looking ahead, technological advancements such as AI and automation could make a compelling case for shorter workdays. If we can achieve the same output in less time thanks to these tools, it stands to reason that we should be able to reclaim more time for ourselves. After all, the primary goal of technology should be to improve our quality of life, not to prolong our working hours.

The thing is, when we grow older, and look back on our lives, we will probably not remember our colleagues or any office parties. Instead, we think of the people we loved, our passions, our adventures, and our most joyful, romantic and heartwarming moments. Although career success certainly has its place, it’s these profound aspects of life that should not be pushed aside in the persuit of relentless productivity.

In conclusion, rethinking our approach to work could have profound implications for individual wellbeing and societal productivity. If we consider the idea of working less, we may discover that we can actually achieve more. As we continue to contribute to the future of work, it's crucial to keep asking ourselves: what are we working for? Is it for productivity's sake, or to improve our lives and the lives of those around us?