Work fills the time alloted for it.
As Joe Pinsker wrote for The Atlantic last month: “When we have 40 hours of work a week, we find ways to work for 40 hours.”
That’s not to say we accomplish more, though.
The notion of work filling time was formalized in 1955 by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, writing for the Economist.
“It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” he said. “Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and despatching [sic] a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street.”
The eponymous Parkinson’s Law is hardly revelatory; to its accuracy I can personally attest.
The News + Record is a weekly print paper with a loose conviction to post daily online. That means breaking news on a Wednesday goes online Wednesday. We can’t hold it for print a week later. When I get word of a murder that morning, I’ve usually interviewed the police, pulled as much background as I could find and written a story within a couple of hours.
But ask me to throw together a feature story five days ahead of deadline and you’ll find a decidedly less capable reporter.
A recent Autonomy study of 2,500 Icelanders proves my dilemma might be universal. After shortening their work week to 35 or 36 hours spread over four days, employees across several industries consistently achieved similar productivity as they had with a traditional schedule.
“Based on the analysis of a wide range of data, we can see that workers experienced significant increases in wellbeing and work-life balance,” the researchers concluded, “all while existing levels of service provision and productivity were at the very least maintained, and in some instances improved.”
Other countries are following suit. At least Spain and Japan have ambitious plans to wean work to 32 hours, and several U.S. companies are piloting four-day weeks. But for widespread change to stick, we’ll need a fundamental change of attitude.
“We live in a society in which overwork is treated as a badge of honor,” Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, an author and consultant who helps companies try out shorter workweeks, told Pinsker. “The idea that you can succeed as a company by working fewer hours sounds like you’re reading druidic runes or something.”
If ever the traditional mold were to break, it’d be now. Work practices were turned on their head during the last year in pandemic, and employees discovered a work-life balance was achievable without expending productivity.
And recent months have seen record numbers of job openings. Millennial workers — long known to have eschewed the company loyalty boomers heralded — are leaving their employers in droves. For the first time in more than a decade, employees hold all the cards.
“The erosion of employer power began during the low-unemployment years leading up to the pandemic and, given demographic trends, could persist for years,” a New York Times report said.
Employers, you’ve lost your leverage. The people are making their wishes known, and your best candidates want a four-day work week. It’s time the little guy gets his way.
Have an idea for what Chatham business topics I should write about? Send me a note at email@example.com or on Twitter @dldolder.
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