Ever wished your busy life allowed you some more free time to enjoy the things you love? Wouldn’t it be neat to have a bunch more hours to spend with your family, or to dedicate to your passions alongside your career? Two are the solutions to the dilemma: either to sleep less, or to have a shorter work day! While the former might seem reasonable in the short run, you might find it quite impractical to sustain an insomniac lifestyle for a longer time span – and I’m speaking from experience. The latter might sound like utopia, and yet you would be surprised by how plausible the possibility of a shorter work day has become as of today. In particular, recent news gave extraordinary resonance to a reform of labor, allegedly taking place in the fair country of Sweden, which would turn the existing 8-hour work days – current standard in most of the Western world – into 6-hour daily shifts, with a net gain of 2 hours additional spare time for workers. “Not bad!”, some of you might be thinking. “I wish *insert custom country* would do the same!” And that is exactly how the web reacted to the astounding news, with a sudden outburst of Scandi-mania seemingly spreading across the Internet. We will come back to that later.
Why would a society want its citizens to work less in the first place? In 1930, William Keith Kellogg, founder of the Kellogg Company (which we owe our corn flakes to), experimented an audacious strategy in his factory in Battle Creek, Michigan: he cut his employees’ work shifts to 6 hours, hiring more manpower at a slightly lower salary to make up for the productivity loss. The results were impressive: in a 1935 newspaper, Kellogg claimed that the increase in workers’ efficiency, as well as the decrease in production costs and work-related accidents had been so significant that he would never move back to the old system – which they later did, but for different reasons (war was calling). But let’s see how this affects productivity.
The current system involves shifts of 8 hours, but how many of them do we really spend working? The truth is that, although we nominally spend 8 hours on the workplace, we only likely invest around 6 on our job. That is because of the many distractions that can arise on such a long time span: chatting with colleagues, checking Facebook every now and then, and even staring at a random spot on the wall when the afternoon drowsiness kicks in; time-consuming instances we are all more or less familiar with. If you add the occasional late arrival, lunch and coffee breaks and visits to the restrooms, it all easily sums up to around 2 hours of our time we dilapidate doing basically nothing, and even when we do work, our perception of “plenty of time” at our disposal is such that we do not focus as much as we could. If that is the case, it could be argued that we might as well reduce the nominal duration of the shift to six hours, getting a proportionally (or slightly) lower wage for the same amount of effort. This benefits the company in several ways. The obvious one is that the firm will save on the hour wages that it would pay for the employee’s slacking. But a shorter shift also affects the working environment in a much subtler way: subtracting 2 hours from the work shift means that the employee will be able to rest adequately and cope with the increased time pressure, thus putting more effort and focus into its job. While he or she might still be tempted to waste some of that time in unproductive activities, the overall quality of its performance will increase.
But those 2 hours also have another valency: they allow the employees more time for themselves. Although some sloths might decide to employ them for additional TV or Facebook time, others will use them to pursue their personal growth, to follow their aspirations and interests, or even dedicate them to their family: remember those free dance classes (or book club, or film club, or music lessons) you had to give up for the sake of your schedule? Wouldn’t you be happier to wake up in the morning and go to work, knowing that you will be allowed to enjoy them later without having to run here and there to make everything fit together? That is exactly an example of how such a scenario would affect productivity. After all, we are more than mere machines mechanically executing the same operation over and over again. We need inspiration, purpose, a reason to go to bed at night and wish we will still be alive the following day. Without it, life is empty, an endless sequence of the same picture. Following our passions makes us happier and better human beings. And an happier employee makes for a more productive worker.
It seems then that the Swedish agenda might actually make sense. Their fabulous plan, though, has only one major flaw: it doesn’t exist. The endless feed of news regarding the reform is nothing but result of a wrong interpretation of a very different reality. The Swedish-based section of “The Local” shed a little bit of light on the matter: the Swedish government is not enforcing a six-hour work day on a national scale in any way, shape or form. What did happen is that a few firms – the most illutrious being Toyota – and institutions in very isolated regions and municipalities of the country have tried the model in an experimental fashion, much like Kellogg did back in 1930, over the last few years, with apparently successful results, which means that more and more other enterprises might follow their example in the near future. That doesn’t mean the entire country will be applying the same model by law anytime soon. Therefore, unless you’re interested in those specific firms, or of course unless the pleasure of exploring Sweden is the purpose of your trip, you might want to cancel your flights to Stockholm while you can still get a refund.
What amazes (and scares) me the most about the whole situation is the speed at which the information spread among the several existing channels of communication, despite being substantially wrong. One misinterpreted report from a nursing home in Göteborg and in a few days the whole world thought Sweden was about to implement a labor reform. Now, in our case the outcome was harmless – perhaps a little embarrassing for news providers, but at least nobody got hurt -, but if you think about it, what would prevent the same mechanism from being used to spread far more dangerous ideas? We need to learn and discern credible sources of information, and even then we need to make sure we read them thoroughly and compare them with equally valuable sources, in order to fully understand the factual reality. Much of the evil that haunted our history derived from a misuse of the media, and as the media grow more and more intertwined with our daily lives, the threat grows with them. A false alarm might cause the stock market to crash, an entire religious group to be persecuted all over Europe, even start a war in some oil-rich country in the Middle East. That wouldn’t be the first time.
Do you not believe a single word you’ve read so far? That is perfectly fine. By all means, do use the Internet to access other news websites (preferably more than one, that’s what it’s there for), read them carefully, compare them, see if they make sense and then decide for yourself. That’s how it works.