Future of the Global Workplace: The Six-Hour Workday
By Gareth Jarman, Director, HR Advisory, Radius
As Radius reported last fall, certain public and private sector employees in Sweden are trialing a six-hour workday. And while the story was widely reported at that time, the concept of a truncated workday is actually not a new concept in Sweden. Over a decade ago, for example, Toyota reduced shift hours for its mechanics in a Gothenburg service center, leading to increased profits and worker-retention rates. And in 1989, in the northern city of Kiruna, Sweden’s public sector implemented a similar program that extended over a 16-year period. (Unfortunately, the results of that experiment were inconclusive due to a lack of data.)
Employers and HR experts that value innovation and the promotion of work-life balance will welcome Sweden’s ongoing experiments. The experiments are in some ways not surprising. After all, we live in a time when many global employers are looking to promote employee engagement as a means to recruit and retain top talent in a competitive world marketplace. And those in the HR community are well versed in the demands of the millennial generation, which places a premium on workplace flexibility. Seen in this light, Sweden’s six-hour workday trials seem less radical than they do the natural progression of widespread global employment trends.
Still, it’s important to remember that Sweden’s six-hour workday trials are just that — trials. Sweden has not mandated a shortened workday, and it is far too early to decide whether a six-hour day is necessarily a good or a bad thing. Sweden’s experiments are in fact part of an important ongoing debate about how to balance work life and home life while promoting workplace efficiencies. Each employer — whether in the private or public sector — must determine for itself if reduced daily working hours align with the organization’s unique values, leadership practices and culture, and of course whether reduced hours are practical given the day-to-day demands of the organization.
Those innovative employers that are trialing the six-hour workday recognize the significant potential of the practice. While there are potential disadvantages to a shortened workday — such as the possibility that the employer might need to recruit additional workers to make up for lost hours — the long-term employer benefits of moving to such a schedule could include the following:
- The ability to attract top talent
- The promotion of employee health through reduced stress
- An increase in workforce retention
- An increase in employee loyalty
- An increase in work-output quality and employee decision-making due to reduced fatigue
- An increase in productivity, under the principle that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
- A reduction in costs due to reduced recruitment expenditures and overhead costs (e.g., office lighting and heating are required for shorter periods)
Having noted these potential benefits, it’s important to put Sweden’s six-hour workday trials in a broad, indeed international context. I mentioned earlier that the six-hour workday trials are part of a global trend towards a more flexible working environment, which has been exhibited not just by tech start-ups in Silicon Valley, but by governments throughout the world that seek to foster innovation, a positive working environment and employee retention. Indeed, Gallup has frequently noted the relationship between increased employee engagement and increased profits.
An employee benefit similar to a shortened workday — which is becoming more and more common among US-based companies — involves offering employees unlimited paid time off. Like the six-hour workday, unlimited PTO makes some traditionalists uncomfortable. However, when an employer imparts this message of trust to its employees, that message fosters positive employee engagement. And as we’ve noted, increased engagement can ultimately lead to increased profits.
The introduction of concepts like a six-hour working day and unlimited PTO raises valid concerns not just with dusty HR traditionalists, but with CEOs and COOs of all stripes. After all, no executive wants to lose their employees’ productive time, nor do they want to surrender control. And while this kind of skepticism is I think fully justified, the evolution of employee benefits is inevitable in today’s global, connected economy.
As a result, executives must be open to the possibility that initiatives like six-hour workdays and unlimited PTO can produce real benefits for both the employer and the employee. An employer’s willingness to provide workplace flexibility almost always generates employee loyalty. Some employers that have moved to an unlimited PTO model, for example, have found that their employees actually took fewer days off after the transition than they did under the traditional model.
Likewise, I believe that those employers in Sweden that are trialing a six-hour workday will ultimately find that their employees are grateful for the perk and will be willing to put in extra time at work when necessary. As ever, the times are changing. And in this case, employers and employees are working together towards HR practices that optimize both workplace flexibility and productivity.