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12 October 2021

People want to work less – and they’re entirely right

After the changes wrought by a deadly virus, people are realising that there is more to life than lining somebody else’s pocket.

By James Bloodworth

Demands for workers to return to the office have reached fever pitch. “Home working left Britons at the Taliban’s mercy,” boomed the front page of the Mail on Sunday last weekend (10 October). Either you are at the office or you are with the terrorists, apparently. 

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative Party leader, was similarly hysterical. In an article for the Mail, IDS compared civil servants working from home unfavourably with the Blitz generation who, he argued, kept coming to the office “even when Hitler’s bombs were raining down”.

Leaving aside the fact there was no technology enabling people to work from home in the 1940s, Duncan Smith’s comments are historically inaccurate even on their own terms. In advance of the Blitz, thousands of civil servants were relocated to areas far outside of London, to places such as Colwyn Bay and Llandudno in Wales. 

More recently, millions of employees across Britain were urged by the government to work from home to “stop the spread” of Covid-19. It was our patriotic duty to stay indoors and “save the NHS”. Eighteen months later, as the pandemic slowly recedes, the government and its cheerleaders are urging workers to get back to the office again, this time to save Pret a Manger. 

And yet, it seems that much of the public quite like aspects of the “new normal”. According to a recent YouGov poll, a majority of workers said they would prefer to work from home either full time or at least some of the time. Another study found that 61 per cent of people would be willing to take a pay cut to maintain remote working status.

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As Covid took hold, things that were previously out of the question – greater levels of public spending, flexible working arrangements, an end to homelessness – suddenly became part of the fabric of reality. Those with a vested interest in the old way of doing things are today faced with a dilemma. Either they accept the “new normal” or they try to frighten people back to the office with dire warnings about everything from terrorism to “lazy” office workers who “just want to watch Loose Women”.

It isn’t just working from home that the public seems to like. New polling for Survation has found that nearly 50 per cent of the public would be in favour of altering the 9am to 5pm five-day work week altogether.

It’s easy to assume that the way things are today is fixed, that the nine to five is “just how it is”. Yet you don’t have to go far into the past to see just how recent an innovation the five-day working week actually is. Until the 20th century, most workers clocked in around 60-70 hours per week. In the US, the Ford Motor Company only adopted the five-day week in 1926. The gradual reduction in working hours in the ensuing years was made possible by improved productivity and the emergence of trade unions.

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Today, our rigid adherence to office nine-to-five culture is arguably a fetter on productivity (it’s certainly a bigger barrier to productivity than workers watching daytime TV). Indeed, recent surveys have found that productivity is often higher when employees are allowed to work from home. 

Much as the 70-hour working week began to look old fashioned during the 20th century, so the idea that more hours equals greater productivity looks increasingly old fashioned in the 21st. The difference today is that we have the data on what peak performance looks like; and it doesn’t offer much support to those who believe we should spend 40 hours a week working slavishly in an office. We know for example that over the course of a week, 25 hours is the optimum amount for cognitive functioning. We also know that Germans work 400 fewer hours per year than Americans and have a better quality of life.

Several recent studies have looked at the impact a shorter working week would have on productivity and employee wellbeing. A New Zealand-based company, Perpetual Guardian, recently trialled a four-day working week and found that employees showed improvements in job satisfaction, teamwork and company loyalty, as well as a reduction in stress. Productivity was unaffected. 

Bigger trials in Iceland, which included 1 per cent of the country’s workforce, were so successful that 86 per cent of workers have subsequently shortened their hours or gained the right to do so. During the trials, which took place between 2015 and 2019, productivity stayed the same or increased according to researchers.  

Of course, productivity shouldn’t be the only relevant metric. An increase in leisure time would probably do most of us good. Indeed, progress was considered synonymous with expanded leisure time for the reformers of the 20th century, something worth remembering today as we are marinated in an exploitative hustle culture that teaches us to “rise and grind” and do little else. 

The perception and scope of what the government can do tends to widen during times of national crisis. It happened in the aftermath of the Second World War, which is why those today using the “Blitz spirit” as a rhetorical device to castigate office workers would do well to remember what happened once the war was over. In the years after 1945, the so-called Blitz spirit demanded an end to squalor and indignity. People didn’t want to go back to the old way of doing things; and so, despite harrumphing from the Tory benches, the welfare state was created. 

Today, the ground is shifting once more. The enemies of progress are harrumphing again. But owing to the changes wrought by a deadly virus, people are realising that there is more to life than lining somebody else’s pocket.

[See also: From Germany, the UK appears ever more dysfunctional and absurd]

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