In Asia, it’s still quite common for employees to work more than eight hours a day.
11 Dec, 2017NST.COM.MY
If you were to propose a productivity strategy that calls for reducing the work week from five days to four days, or reducing working hours from eight hours a day to just six hours, you’d be thought of as crazy by most employers.
That’s because it’s so normal to think of work as being a 9-to-5/five days a week job. It’s so common that there are even two different hit songs that bear the title 9 to 5 (one by Dolly Parton and the other by Sheena Easton).
Actually an eight-hour workday is already a reduction from what it used to be. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, it was not uncommon for workers to work up to 12 hours a day, six days a week.
Then Henry Ford came along and introduced a 40-hour workweek for the Ford Motor Company in 1914. This translated to 9-to-5, five days a week. It was nothing short of revolutionary at the time.
Why was he being so nice to his employees? Actually he wasn’t being altruistic. As a businessman he figured that doing this would enhance workers’ productivity. And he was right.
By reducing his workers’ working hours and making them happier, he significantly enhanced productivity, so much so that Ford’s profit margins doubled within two years. Many companies noticed this and began to follow suit.
It’s worth noting that although this standard was designed for assembly-line work, the eight-hour workday and five-day workweek somehow became entrenched even for white collar office jobs which couldn’t be more different than blue collar factory work.
Although most Malaysian office workers are now used to the five-day workweek, until the mid-90s, it was quite common for companies to expect workers to also come in for half-a-day on Saturdays. A five-and-a-half day workweek was fairly common at one time.
The half-day Saturday was a complete waste of time, of course. Everyone just whiled away the time in the morning looking forward to lunch time so they could go home. Soon enough employers came to realise how unproductive it was to do this and the practice was abandoned.
FLEXIBILITY OF TIME
In Malaysia it’s still quite common for employees to work more than eight hours a day. While it’s common here to refer to the typical office workday as being “9-to-5”, the reality is that many offices open at 8am and many office workers end up working until 6pm or 7pm. Or even later. Indeed, our working hours are long.
Is it any wonder then that people who have managed to embark on a freelance career usually say they’ll never go back to full-time employment? If you ask them why, the number one reason cited is always time flexibility.
Yes, freelancers have deadlines just like anyone else but the important thing is that they deliver their work on time. It doesn’t matter how much time they spend on it or whether they start work at 9am or 9pm. What’s important is that they produce the results expected.
If companies want to attract the best employees and retain them, perhaps it’s a good idea to introduce some time flexibility to keep employees happy. Two core concepts when it comes to this are the four-day workweek and flexi-hours.
Of course employees would love the concept of working just four days a week. Even if you told them that they’d have to work longer hours on those four days, they’d still prefer it over working the same number of hours spread across five days. The notion of a three-day weekend — on a permanent basis — is naturally very appealing.
This concept isn’t new. Labour experts have been studying the four-day work week since the 1970s but it’s still not widely practiced. The reason is that you can’t really get that much productivity from fatigued employees working extra hours so they can shave off one day from the work week. Longer hours can also result in more workplace accidents as tired employees become careless towards the end of a long day.
If an employer really wants to try out a four-day workweek and still hope to have fresh and alert employees, they’d probably have to do so without increasing the working hours. Of course, not many employers will want to do that.
What may be more palatable to employers is the concept of flexi-hours. This concept can mean two different things. One take on flexi-hours simply means employees have the right to start work at non-conventional times. So instead of 9-to-5, a worker can opt for, say, 8-to-4 or 10-to-6.
The other way to look at flexi-hours is not only that employees can start work at non-conventional hours, but that they could actually work fewer hours too. This concept requires more of that Ford mind-set than a mere shift in operating hours.
Flexi-hours is very practical because different people have different biorhythms. Some people are night owls who do their best work after midnight. They obviously don’t like going to work early in the morning. There are also those who like to be up at the break of dawn.
Whatever the case, giving workers some leeway in when they should start work is something that would naturally be quite popular. What’s even better — certainly for the employees — is the notion that flexi-hours means they could work fewer hours as long as they get their work done.
CHANGING NATURE OF WORK
A few progressive companies have experimented with a six-hour workday. Swedish Internet start-up Brath for example has implemented this on the belief that employees would be happier and healthier if they didn’t have to work long hours. Apparently their profits doubled within a year.
Researcher Alex Pang goes as far as to suggest that the optimal amount of time to spend on creative work is only four hours per day. That’s because the human mind can only stay focused and creative for that length of time. Of course, this is not to suggest that a working day should be only four hours.
What it means is that employees shouldn’t spend more than four hours on work that requires a lot of creative thinking. The remaining hours could then be spent doing other type of work like menial or administrative work which isn’t so taxing on the brain.
Although it’s hard to imagine local companies implementing a four-day work week, it’s very possible to see flexi-hours being implemented. The reality is that the nature of work is changing very quickly.
There’s not so much factory work anymore as much of that has gone overseas to cheaper places like Vietnam and China. In its place is the so called “New Economy” work which can be done anywhere, anytime as long as there’s Internet connectivity.
In the war for talent, companies will want to hire the best workers. Oftentimes, such workers don’t want to be tied down to a system that requires them to start work and leave the office at set times.
Such rigidity does not sit well with creative types. So if an employer wants to hire and retain good talent, he might have to adopt a bit of a Henry Ford mind-set and allow for some flexibility in working hours.
This article was first published by Oon Yeoh on New Straits Times