Dr Ben Jansen BSc is CEO of Déhora Consultancy Group and founder and Chairman of Stichting Time Design
Customized work, where a balance is struck between the interests of the employee and the employer, is the right choice for the future. In many cases the dominance of the eight-hour working day damages organisations’ flexibility and productivity. A standard (collective) working period is now obsolete. The three-times-twelve-hours of working days per week which telecom billionaire Carlos Slim of América Móvil recently suggested as a new standard, is also a really bad idea. In a sustainable society working hours should in fact be custom-made for everyone.
From a modern marketing perspective it’s understandable that in a more ideological pursuit, a specific standard collective working day or working week is chosen. After all, a standard like this communicates well. But that the duration of the working day varies such a lot here, says a lot.
Carlos Slim believes a twelve-hour working day would offer advantages to all stakeholders. He says he has ‘proved’ this in his own practice. Whether that’s true or not, what is certain is that scientific research into working hours does not substantiate the proposition that a collective work duration of any type is actually good.
The eight-hour working day came into being in 1919, after a bitter battle on the length of the working day fought out following the emergence of the factory system. The eight-hour working day was said to strike a good balance in the life of the working man: eight hours of labour, eight hours of rest and eight hours for relaxation and development.
The eight-hour working day has remained the dominant form of labour through to this day. It applies irrespective of the weekly labour duration, in other words also for part-time work. That wouldn’t be a problem, were it not for the fact that this eight-hour working day is no longer appropriate in many situations. Often that’s because of the nature of the work and/or the work process. So for instance the work might be too heavy to perform eight hours at a stretch (consider standing security tasks), or the work process requires an extended working day (consider global flights).
Increasing numbers of employees prefer a different division of the working day, among other things to achieve a better balance between work and their personal lives. What is clear is that preferences are highly individualistic here.
This was certainly different from the past. Then it was about collective, highly ideologically-tinted preferences. Philosopher Sir Thomas More argued for a six-hour working day back in 1516, for instance. Such a day should be sufficient for acquiring essential goods. The Argentine-German doctor and writer Esther Vilar argued in the last century for a collective five-hour working day, on the grounds that it was necessary to achieve a better division of paid and unpaid work.
In light of that it’s good to consider the experiments which have been carried out for years in the Scandinavian countries. There in particular it’s about the six-hour working day. The Swedish government is currently amassing experience with this in a creative manner. These employees can earn a full-time salary in five days of six hours each, rather than eight hours.
But a six-hour working day is not suitable for all work situations. Neither is there any proof that the economy as a whole would benefit from it, or that it would lead to a balance between work and personal life which would promote health and welfare significantly. It’s a different situation with customised working times. Certainly the recent implementation of self-scheduling in organisations has shown that this yields excellent results. For the employer, the employee and the client.
Customised work, where a balance is struck between the interests of the employee and the employer, is the only right choice for now and for the future. We cannot continue to insist that the traditional standard solution is the right one.