Companies in Sweden made headlines when they introduced a six-hour working day.
The idea is appealing in its simplicity: meetings are kept to a minimum, employees take a mandated one-hour lunch break, and they become far more focused and productive during the hours in which they do work.
The UK has a chronic productivity problem, and some are calling for a radical overhaul of the traditional working day.
One of those people is Joe Staples, chief marketing officer at American firm Workfront, a work management software company. He believes that the solution to our productivity problem lies not only in software solutions, but also in rethinking the way we approach our working schedules.
Business Insider met Staples in London to hear about his proposals for a new kind of working schedule, which places an emphasis on flexibility above everything else.
Thomas Colson: The driving idea behind your firm is boosting productivity. Is that how you came to be interested in the concept of moving towards a six-hour working day?
Joe Staples: That’s correct. I think there’s a number of things that productivity can do. It doesn’t mean that you have to shorten the working day to six hours, but it could mean that.
Essentially it’s just saying — how much time is being wasted? When we talk to clients, at the top of the list — the biggest thing that they claim as a time waster — is wasteful meetings.
We just did a study. People estimate that they spend 39% of their day on what they were actually hired to do. So 61% is spent on waste. Responding to emails, sitting in useless meetings, providing status reports, and so on. If you can trim 10% off that, for a company of any significant size, you're talking about a saving of millions of dollars.
TC: Is there not a danger that if you reduce it to six hours, people will still waste 61% of their day?
JS: There absolutely is, if the only thing you change is the number of hours you work. Let’s say we had exactly the same process that we have today, and I come in as the owner of the business and say: "Go and do a six hour work day." Nothing would change, you would just get 20% less work done.
So we think the right approach, if you do want to work towards a six hour work day, is to improve the productivity and then shorten the day accordingly. Software tools are one way of doing that. We could come in, and best practice might be, we say, “OK we’re going to implement Workfront, and we’re going to start with, for example, online review and approval. And we’re going to track how much time we spend on that right now, and how much time we spend after we implement it."
And let’s say we come up and we go, "OK, it’s saving us thirty minutes a day." Then we’re going to go from an eight-hour work day to a seven-and-a-half hour work day. What’s the next thing we’re going to tackle? We do another "before and after" benchmark, and that’s saved us another half an hour. OK, now we’re going to go down to a seven hour work day. So that way, you shrink the work day through productivity, rather than just a random: “Let’s work for a few less hours.”
TC: Do you think it’s realistic that this will happen across the UK?
JS: I think it’s very realistic for certain businesses. It would be very hard for a country to accomplish it. The idea isn't just to say "you know what, we’re not going to do as much work, we’re just not going to have as much output, we’re only going to work for six hours."
You could always do that, but in a global economy you’d fall behind pretty fast. But for many companies, saying, "We’re going to increase productivity where we get to a six hour work day," I definitely think we could do that.
TC: Why is the UK falling behind, and becoming less productive?
There are lots of reasons. In the industries we deal with — primarily IT and marketing teams, but also some financial services — we still come across a lot of companies that use pretty antiquated technology. For the most part, people use email and spreadsheets. You ask an employee to do something, he types in the name of the project into a spreadsheet, he types in a date into Cell B, and then I never know anything about it until I say to that employee, "I need to have a status meeting on this, because I don’t know what you’re doing."
It’s just inefficient. So I think that’s what’s making us unproductive. We’re still using old technology, and the speed of business is increasing.
TC: Does mobile technology have a part to play in boosting productivity?
JS: I think mobile technology is another critical part of it. If you take the example of a review and approve system — if someone has to be in their office in front of the computer to review something, I'm going to slow the designer down. But if instead I can go, "Looks good," I click approve, and it's simple as that.
TC: And do you see many benefits to the idea of remote working?
JS: Absolutely. How long is the average commute? Thirty or 45 minutes, sometimes longer. Typically an employee will arrive a little later than the person who walks to work, or works from home, and they’ll try and get out early to catch the right train, or beat the traffic. So they’re getting squeezed and compressed. Common sense says that if I’ve commuted for an hour and a half, then I show up at work, I’m starting the day worn out, compared a walk up the street, where I can sit down, I can pick up my laptop, and I’m fired up and ready to go [working from a local office or work space].
A lot of studies have shown that the ability to keep an employee longer is there if they’re allowed to work remotely, too. The turnover isn’t as fast, because they like that kind of flexibility. And in any discipline, high staff turnover means lower productivity, because of how long it takes to come up to speed with any job. When you start your job, you don’t even know where the bathroom is, let alone how to do your job.
The other thing about remote working is that it allows you to recruit the right employee. So if my office is in Reading, you have to be in the office, and so I’m looking for people around that proximity, I’m much more limited than if I say, "I don’t care where you work from." Live in Bristol if you want to. Now all of a sudden my ability to hire a person who’s going to be highly productive increases.
TC: Would those changes improve the work/life balance too?
JS: Yes. A high percentage of people say they skip bathroom breaks because the work pressure is so intense. A high percentage of people say they have missed an important life event because of work. Those are the kinds of things that cause people to get burned out, and even when they’re at work they’re not happy, because they’re sitting there going, I know my son’s playing his football game and I’m missing it. And he’s irritated about it. So we think work life balance is a real key.
One of the things we've done is to give employees unlimited personal time off. Richard Branson started it — any whacky business idea we’ve ever had comes from Richard Branson! We implemented it a year ago. It’s rare that anybody abuses it, but they feel like they have so much more flexibility.
Before, they used to go into something and they’d think, "I really want to leave early because my son has a football game but I better not because I want to save those two hours of holiday time."
Now, it’s 'you know what, if you need to go, then go.' I may very rarely call you on a Saturday and tell you I need you to come in, so it’s kind of a two-way street, but it’s much more flexible.
TC: Would you consider a four day working week as an eventual end goal?
JS: We’d certainly consider it. But I think it's less about saying, "No, it’s a 5-day, 8-hour work week, or a 4-day 12-hour work week. I think our approach is — we’re going to be flexible. We have tonnes of people that start work at 10 o’clock, because they want to take their kids to school and then they still might not work really late. They’ll still go home and then they’ll feel comfortable working for three hours from 8pm until 11 pm at night. As far as the work life balance question is concerned, what people really want is flexibility. They just want the ability to go, I’m good right now, I can put in a lot of hours, or I’ve got something going on, I want the ability to go home.
TC: The Swedish experiment with a six-hour day includes a one-hour mandated lunch. Do you think that's important too?
JS: Our study looked into that. Essentially it says the one hour lunch is gone, for the most part — it just doesn’t exist anymore. Either people eat at their desk, take a really short lunch hour, or don’t take any lunch hour at all. And then the follow on question was: “How come?”
And one of the dominant answers was, there’s too much pressure to get stuff done, which the employer can control. He can say, “No, I want you to take this lunch break.”
In our business we have a billiard table, we have a very nice ping pong table, and we promote the idea that you’re a better employee if you’re happy. We do service days, teams go to movies together. You don’t want people to feel lazy or entitled but at the same time if it’s 'get down and chip some coal,' you end up burning people out.
Workfront is a project management software firm. Their 'State of Work' report is available to view here.
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