An Icelandic thinktank, Alda, has published a report on two multiyear studies that indicate it really is better to work smarter, not harder – or not longer at least. Workers in a four-day workweek were just as productive as those working five days, had (of course) improved well-being, and had no effect on company revenue (pdf):
From 2015 to 2019, two large-scale trials of shorter working hours — in which workers moved from a 40-hour to a 35- or 36-hour week, without reduced pay — commenced in Iceland, following longstanding calls from grassroots organisations and unions. One trial was conducted in the capital of the country, Reykjavík, by the city authorities and one of the major trade union confederations, BSRB. Starting from two workplaces with a few dozen workers, this trial expanded to over 2,500 staff in the next few years. Another trial began between the Icelandic government and BSRB in 2017, comprising around 440 staff. Combined, these two trials came to encompass more than 1% of the country’s working population.
The trials were successful: participating workers took on fewer hours and enjoyed greater well-being, improved work-life balance and a better cooperative spirit in the workplace — all while maintaining existing standards of performance and productivity. The trials also remained revenue neutral for both the city council and the government, providing a crucial — and so far largely overlooked — blueprint of how future trials might be organised in other countries around the world. Significantly, their success impacted positively on recent renegotiations of working contracts by Icelandic trade unions. By the time of this report’s publication in June 2021, 86% of Iceland’s working population are now on contracts that have either moved them to shorter working hours, or give them the right to do so in the future. These trials are therefore an incredible success story of working time reduction, of interest to campaigners and workers worldwide.
Initially, two workplaces were selected. The first was a service-centre for Eastern parts of Reykjavík City, Árbær and Grafarholt, while the second was the Reykjavík Child Protection Service. Both were chosen on account of the high levels of stress present in each workplace, which shorter working hours aimed to reduce. An additional workplace was also selected as a control group for comparison. This was also an office location, albeit one that administered different duties.
The trial commenced in March 2015 with these two workplaces shortening the hours of their workers, seeing 66 members of staff participate. Hours per week were shortened from 40 hours to 35 or 36, depending on the particular workplace. No change was made in the control group workplace (Reykjavík City, 2016).
The trial grew almost thirty times in size over the next five years, to around 2,500 participating staff in response to early positive results. Ultimately, it encompassed not only offices, but also playschools, city maintenance facilities, care-homes for people with various disabilities and special-needs, and beyond. The Reykjavík City Mayor’s office was included as well.
The trial’s aims also expanded. First, to understand if the hours of those in irregular shift patterns could successfully be shortened. Second, to see if the longterm effects of shorter hours would be similar to the short-term ones that had been observed (Reykjavík City, June 2019).
One popular concern about a shorter working week is that it will unintentionally lead to overwork: to maintain the same output, workers will simply end up making up their ‘lost hours’ through formal or informal overtime. This idea has been strongly propagated in Iceland by employers’ associations and think-tanks (e.g., Ólafsson, 23 October 2018).
The trials directly contradict this concern. The stated reduction in working hours did lead to staff actually working less as a direct result of workplaces implementing new work strategies, and through organising tasks via cooperation between workers and managers.
As mentioned earlier, a central aim of both trials was to ensure service provision remained the same following reductions in working time. To be able to work less while providing the same level of service, changes in the organisation of work therefore had to be implemented. Most commonly, this was done by rethinking how tasks were completed: shortening meetings, cutting out unnecessary tasks, and shifts arrangements (Government of Iceland, June 2019; Jóhannesson & Víkingsdóttir, 2018; Kjartansdóttir, Kjartansdóttir & Magnúsdóttir, 2018).
One participant in the Reykjavík City trials said: “We shortened meetings in our workplace and we keep trying to constantly shorten them, we constantly think about how we perform the tasks here” (quoted in Kjartansdóttir, Kjartansdóttir & Magnúsdóttir, 2018, p. 56).
[via The Hustle]