Earlier this week Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn went head to head on ITV’s general election debate.
Both the Conservative and Labour party leaders outlined their views and policies on various hot topics to a varying degree of success.
At times during the debate, both Johnson and Corbyn elicited laughter from the audience by repeating several stock phrases and avoiding answering certain questions.
At one point, Corbyn seemed to amuse members of the crowd by suggesting that a four day working week makes workers more productive.
This might not be a laughing matter, however. There is evidence that managing our working hours more efficiently might increase production in the UK.
What are the facts?
Evidence suggests the UK’s productivity is lagging behind that of other EU nations, and that long-hours culture could be to blame.
The TUC found that UK full time employees worked an average of 42 hours a week in the final quarter of 2018.
This is almost two hours more than the EU average, and roughly an additional two-and-a-half weeks over the course of a year.
But the TUC also found that full-time staff in Denmark are 23.5% more productive per hour than UK workers, despite working four hours fewer per week.
Similarly, full time staff in the Republic of Ireland work an average of 39.4 hours a week and are 62.7% more productive.
Last August, Microsoft Japan trialled the Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019, giving its 2,300-person workforce five Fridays off in a row without a decrease in pay.
The shortened weeks led to more efficient meetings, happier workers and boosted productivity by a staggering 40%, the company concluded.
Why does the UK work such long hours?
The UK’s ‘always on’ culture is likely to blame. Despite advances in technology making many people’s job easier and quicker, many workplaces still adhere to the traditional 9-to-5, Monday to Friday (plus overtime) working pattern.
It was invented in the United States in the 1800s and adopted by Henry Ford in the 1920s. Workers today are still prepared to accept the same shifts because they are so used to it.
Presenteeism is also a large problem, where simply being visible in the workplace is valued higher than the actual quality of work being done. This is what leads to people coming to work when unwell.
As noted in our article last week, the UK’s stagnant wage growth is leading people to work more to ‘top up’ their earnings. They feel poorer, so therefore feel pressured to work longer hours in order to live comfortably.
The ripple of laughter brought on by Corbyn’s suggestion of only working four days a week was probably due to the outdated perception that workers would simply down tools for one day and do nothing.
This is, of course, false. Employees would instead work flexibly and work smarter.
What are the benefits of flexible working?
A flexible working schedule might not necessarily reduce the number of hours worked, but will crucially allow people to decide when they wish to work.
For millennial employees, this is especially important. According to HR Technologist, seven-in-ten millennials want flexible work options and 77% say they would be more productive as a result.
Employees who are able to work flexibly will have a better work-life balance. They will be able to fulfil work commitments and personal responsibilities without having to sacrifice one or the other.
This should have the effect of improving gender inequality, as statistically women are more likely to be carers for other people.
Having this option reduces stress and increases a sense of wellbeing. Workers will also have a longer period of time off in order to rest and recuperate, leaving them more refreshed when they return to work.
Absenteeism should also decline, meaning less presenteeism. Employees who are healthy will be more motivated and more productive than someone coming to work and going through the motions. During the Microsoft Japan trial, employees took 25% less time off.
Overall, being happier at work will lead to employee engagement. If an employer allows an employee to work flexibly to accommodate outside responsibilities, then they are far more likely to reciprocate by doing their best at work.
The increase in productivity leads to greater profit margins, which should lead to a growth in wages. Employees will be more financially secure, once again increasing wellbeing and continuing the cycle.
How to embrace flexible working
Employers don’t need to wait for a change in government to reap the benefits of flexible working.
If an employee has worked for an organisation for 26 weeks, then they are eligible by law to request it, as long as they have not submitted an application in the previous 12 months.
Employers can start embracing flexible working by developing the relevant policy. It should include the options available to employees, where they can find more information, and set out how they can request a flexible working arrangement.
The fact that all employees have the legal right to request to work flexibly should be made clear. In addition, it should explain that flexible working is encouraged by the organisation and that anyone who applies won’t be treated less favourably than colleagues choosing to work more traditional hours.
Employers should also become familiar with the procedure for dealing with flexible working requests. They should know what is required from employees when they make a request in writing, and what the qualifying period is before they can make a request.
An employer is under an obligation to consider the application in a ‘reasonable manner’ and there are strict timescales that must be adhered to. However, an employer can refuse to accept an eligible application on one or more of ‘specific grounds’, set out by legislation.
One final point is that the infrastructure should be there to facilitate flexible working. This can include hot desks, and providing the ability to work remotely with laptops and mobile phones.