Do we need a 30-hour working week?

The dream of a four-day, 30-hour working week is something that many of us aspire to achieving one day. But the reality is that few companies offer such flexibility, despite rising preference among employees for a better work-life balance. Furthermore, in many places there remains a stigma attached to those opting to work reduced or part-time hours, which could have repercussions for those wanting to continue their climb up the career ladder.

However, there are a few companies looking to break the mould and help remove the taboo of a shortened working week, and Amazon is one. Since last summer it has been piloting a 30-hour week for some of its technical teams, including managers. The employees on the scheme have access to the same benefits as full-time staff, but earn 75% of the pay. They work from Monday to Thursday from 10am to 2pm, with additional flexi-hours, and the option to increase to a full-time contract if desired.

“We want to create a work environment that is tailored to a reduced schedule and still fosters success and career growth,” stated Amazon, when the scheme was announced. “This initiative was created with Amazon’s diverse workforce in mind and the realisation that the traditional full-time schedule may not be a ‘one size fits all’ model.” No doubt the scheme is also helping Amazon to attract the top-tier talent that is highly sought after by tech companies.

Many companies, such as Deloitte and KPMG, offer four-day contracts with flexible hours but stick to the standard 40-hour week. If the Amazon pilot is successful it could help to encourage more diversity within the business, enticing more working mums into senior IT and management roles, which are currently very dominated by men. Furthermore, it could help encourage other businesses to follow suit and adopt a more flexible way of working.

Sweden’s six-hour work day

A couple of years ago, Sweden made global headlines when it introduced the six-hour work day, for an eight-hour salary, in a bid to increase employee productivity and wellbeing. The intention by participating companies was to get more done in a shorter amount of time, and ensure people had the energy to enjoy their private lives.

The eight-hour work day is not as effective as one would think,” said Linus Feldt, CEO of Filimundus, an app developer based in the capital Stockholm, who was one of the companies to introduce a six-hour day, in an interview with Fast Company. “To stay focused on a specific work task for eight hours is a huge challenge.  In order to cope, we mix in things and pauses to make the work day more endurable.  At the same time, we are having it hard to manage our private life outside of work.” He added that staff were not permitted to use social media, meetings were kept to a minimum, and that other distractions during the day were eliminated, but the aim was that staff would be more focused and work more productively while in the office.

A retirement home in Gothenburg also made the switch to a six-hour day for 68 of its nurses, and while flexibility and improved wellbeing was achieved (with staff taking half as much sick leave over the two-year period, and reported to be 20% happier overall), according to more recent reports it has also proven to be a costly experiment. The city had to employ an extra 17 staff, costing 12m kroner (£1.4m), Bloomberg reported, and so the scheme has been put on hold while a longer-term strategy is sought.

The impact of the gig economy

As we’ve written previously, the gig economy is booming, and is proving to be one of the biggest work trends of 2017. Driven by the up-and-coming generation of workers, freelancing is seen as a highly attractive and lucrative career option by 87% of students with first or second class degrees, who are looking for more flexibility and independence, and a better work-life balance.

Experts within the knowledge economy believe it is well on its way to becoming gig-ified, which is likely to place new and increased pressures on companies to offer more flexible ways of working, including the option for a shorter working week. Moving forward, top-tier talent may choose to go freelance in order to achieve the sought-after four day week, instead of waiting for their employers to offer it to them.

Those in leadership are aware of the predicament, with many supporting a reduced working week. According to a recent UK study by Crown Workplace Relocations, six out of 10 bosses believe that cutting employees’ work days from eight to six hours could be beneficial for business. When asked if their company would consider implementing the six-hour work day, 36% of decision makers answered “yes, possibly” and a further 26% said “yes, definitely”, compared to 25% of bosses who thought “probably not”. Four out of 10 bosses said they believed their staff would be just as productive in six hours as in eight hours.

What’s the solution?

While scaling back to a 30-hour week is a desirable option for many, expecting employees to achieve the same workload of a full-time member of staff, for proportionately less pay, is effectively asking them to purchase that freedom, then to make up the shortfall through side-gigs. It’s not a sustainable or attractive proposition when viewed in this way.

Douglas Rushkoff, author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, says he sees it as a form of “disenfranchisement of the labour force,” in an interview with Fast Company. Amazon’s 30-hour workweek pilot, in his view, is “exactly one-half of the necessary move. Yes, reduce the workweek, but you don’t have to reduce the pay proportionately, or at all.”

Moving forward, companies will have no choice but to offer an attractive and fair approach to flexible working, if they wish to retain an ‘employed’ workforce. How they go about this will be an important trend to watch.

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