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4-day work week, Hybrid Work, Work-from-Home, 4-hour work day: Which one works for you?

“Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while,” wrote British economist John Maynard Keynes in a 1930 essay on the Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, “For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!”

Nearly a century later, we still have not achieved the aspiration of having three hours of work per day. While productivity increased to as much as eight times since 1930, reduction of working hours have not followed suit in similarly significant fashion. In fact, recent studies show that employers have been regaining the working hours lost since the time Keynes made his essay, thanks in no small part to the pandemic and the digital shift it has helped accelerate.

Work Life Balance

Our World in Data , which charted average working hours per year by a laborer since at least 1870, noted that the United States and Germany have reduced annual working hours from 2,316 and 2,128 hours in 1929 to 1,757 and 1,354 hours in 2017, respectively. A reduction of 24 percent for Americans and 36 percent for Germans. Assuming 20 working days in a month, the average working day in the United States and Germany went down from around 9 hours to nearly 6 hours. Since 2020, the gradual decrease has been reversed. Some nations, such as India, reported as high as 40 percent increase in working hours during the pandemic according to the World Economic Forum.

What took a century to erase has been reclaimed in a matter of years. Whether this is a temporary hike or a sign for things to come, that may well be another matter. The Philippines, for one, may well rank among the most overworked in the world. As of 2019, the Philippine Statistics Authority found that, as of 2019, Filipinos worked 43 hours a week on average, amounting to over 2,246 hours for the entire year. This is way above the prescribed 8-hour work day in the Labor Code of the Philippines, and greater than any of the nations ranked by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Colombia, which topped their list in 2019, had its average annual working hours at 2,172. One can only imagine how much work time has been added to Filipinos since then.

4 Hour Workday

A 1923 campaign ad for the 4-hour workday

This brings forth the question at hand: What working scheme would suit best the 21st century laborer? Let us examine the proposals being floated recently. Perhaps it will help both makers and implementers of policy decide.

Four-day work week: Is it high time?

To begin, there seems to be no one standard for the 4-day work week. Spain, arguably one of the first European nations to formally adopt the 8-hour work day, announced a pilot program to implement a 32-hour work week. This means while the week will be compressed to four days, the working hours mandated per day would still be 8 hours. Plus, no salary reductions would be made. Similar programs are attempted in Iceland, New Zealand, and even Japan, the origin for the term karōshi. That is, “death by overwork,” a phenomenon that has claimed over 745,000 lives according to an estimate by the World Health Organization in 2016.

What will your accumulated overtime pay (i.e., for hours worked beyond the prescribed working time) amount to when you lose your very body and soul?

Meanwhile, the Philippines appears to have a different idea on implementing this scheme. In exchange for shortening the work week, the work day would be extended to 10 hours – basically an addition of 2 hours. As defined by the Civil Service Commission, the required hours in this alternative setup shall not be less than 40 hours a week.

While this would provide an additional day to the “weekend,” the way the Philippines would like to apply the four-day work week differs from other economies which combined reduction in total hours worked along with the days worked. It is with this merging of employee management tactics that some found a correlation with increased productivity. The average working hours per year in the European Union is 1,513, around 29 hours a week, yet their gross domestic product (GDP) per hour worked is at 105. Compare this to Mexico, which reported an annual average of 2,124 working hours, but has its GDP per hour worked at 98. Working longer hours, as affirmed in the American Journal of Epidemiology, helped workers perform worse than those who opted to labor for shorter hours.

A 2010 study in the United Kingdom, meanwhile, found how academics and researchers could have finished their tasks within 35 hours a week, yet their average work week spans for 45 hours.

In the main, would it have been a better option to compress the work week while extending work hours per day? Would it be possible to choose the day off, as when flexi-time allows to choose between a set of core hours?

Work-from-home: Will it carry on?

To be at home with the family while earning, is that not a dream come true? Working at home has been an option forcibly accelerated by the recent pandemic, yet revealing in the past few years systemic issues which apparently plague the workforce for the longest time. First off, the home is not the office. Coordination may prove more difficult from a distance, and the job-related amenities immediately available in the workplace might usually be not at home. In the short run, massive investments on each one’s homes shall be required to improve one’s abode to office-grade. Suddenly, prime real estate for workers, as well as areas in their vicinities, have become virtually unused.

A quick glance at Google Mobility reports for the Philippines as of March 2022 will reflect that: even as Covid-related restrictions relaxed for many parts of the country, workplace traffic actually decreased by 3 percent compared to the baseline, and transit traffic reduced by 15 percent, whereas parks, groceries, and pharmacies show an increase of 42 percent from the baseline. Residential traffic also grew by 20 percent. Given that said mobility reports may have their own limitations, yet how different would it be from real-life experience on the ground?

Not only is coordination challenged, so is control. Accounting eight hours of work a day in a centralized setup such as the office or the factory would differ from doing so in a decentralized setup that involved distant homes. It might be considered farfetched in the time of Keynes, but think of efficient login monitoring, facial recognition, effective computer use surveillance, analysis of vital signs and activities under work-from-home setups, or perhaps even crediting how many keyboard presses one would commit in any given work day. Science fiction? Probably. But while some might be wishing it would stay fictional, it is certainly feasible with today’s technological development.

Yet beyond dealing with one’s actual occupation, being at home also means doing chores while working. There are studies which show that multitasking eventually affects productivity, usually for the worse. As a processor would likely break down when trying to run so many operations at once, so will a person when attempting to perform both duty to the boss and responsibility to the home, even if the human brain consumes less energy than a PC.

Compensation may also be another matter, especially in a work scheme that values time over outcome. How will overtime pay be operationalized in a work-from-home setup? Will fixed wages disadvantage the more diligent? For that matter, other performance indicators may be prone to abuse as well. Then again, it might be too exhaustive to discuss in a concise article such as this.

As with the four-day work week, a potential solution to make working from home less hectic might be reducing the hours needed to report for work. After all, should not technology make it possible to work smarter, not merely harder? As the saying goes, “The stone age did not end because the world ran out of stones.”

More so, there are certain types of jobs which may not be entirely taken at home. Or perhaps people at home who are jobless. How about those without homes?

Hybrid: Back to the office, or not?

Taking into mind the issues with the aforementioned schemes, a hybrid setup is also being considered. Essentially, work in the office when you can, and work at home when you can. Or at least that should be the principle behind it. In the Philippines, the usual setup would be having required days to report in the workplace.

One possible problem in implementing this would be: who decides what? Or perhaps, what decides what?

Think of it this way. Would not employers, particularly those suited in the pre-pandemic work schemes, to hire employees who are more amenable to working in the office? This means less investments on improving homes, and better centralization on tasks. On the part of the employees, would there not be a source of enmity between those who work at home and those who report in the workplace? If you observed a sort of divide between workers who faithfully serve their hours and workers who seem to have more things to do with their time back when all are required to work in the office, how much more would it be noticeable in a hybrid work scheme?

It is not that workers in the latter category do so out of the desire to slack off and horse around. Who knows? Having a child to fetch in school. Having to catch up with the last train or bus to home. Having to attend to a friend in need.

Outside the workplace, they may all be admirable. Among fellow workers, however, they might look like excuses.

There are times when merging tactics would work quite well, but how about for the 21st century digital workplace?

Four-hour work day: Our grandfather’s vision?

Keynes may be pushing it up a notch by conceptualizing a three-hour work day, but his contemporaries were not that far off. Workers in the 1920s have already been campaigning for four hours of work a day, an advocacy further intensified by the Great Depression. How did an economic crisis spur the reduction of working hours? Employment.

Sweden’s six-hour work day trial did not only increase productivity and improve well-being, it also created new jobs.

One of the rationales heralded by proponents of shorter working hours is the idea that more people will be employed when less hours are required in their shifts. Besides, who literally works for 8 hours straight? A poll by vouchercloud shows that the average worker is only productive for a little over two hours. The top distractions include social media (47 percent), news (45 percent), discussing with colleagues (35 percent), and making hot drinks (31 percent).

If that is how much time a worker might spend effectively doing non-work activities, why not shorten work hours? The quick answer would probably be wages. It is relatively cheaper to hire one person who can do the job of four. To add to this, wages have not kept up with the increase in productivity. OECD explains that the decoupling between salary and productivity has something to do with public policy and technology-driven declines, among others.

Yet there are nations which are closing the gap to reach the level of working four hours a day. Denmark, for one, has an official 37-hour work week policy. They even discourage overtime and working longer hours. OECD, however, notes that Denmark’s average is way lower than that, being around 26 hours. Imagine their work-life balance?

This paradigm shift, however, would have to be accompanied by a sociocultural dynamic. For humanity, who has been accustomed to long hours of work for much of recorded history, would it be a transition worth trying?

Conclusion

Total work, perhaps similar the concept of total war, demands all available resources to achieve desired outcomes. With work hours increasing despite technological advancement and productivity growth, are we driving into the age of total work? Is our entire purpose and value to society our skills and contribution to the system of work? A matter of time management? Then again, time flows and moves forward even if one does nothing. How can it be managed?

Provided that no system is perfect, yet what scheme might be optimal to meet the many objectives of society? In saying the optimum, fair and careful consideration must see all sides of the issues. There is more to life than work, a saying goes, but when you have to work for a living, how can the competing demands, advantages, and disadvantages be reconciled and harmonized? The future of work, one can only envision how it will eventually unfold.

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Avatar for Arius Lauren Raposas

A public servant with a heart for actively supporting technology and futures thinking, responding accordingly to humanity's needs and goals, increasing participation of people in issues concerning them, upholding rights and freedoms, and striving further to achieve more despite our limited capacities. In everything, to God be all the glory.

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