“Want to Work Less?” All Hands Go Up. “But, You’ll Make Less Money” Most Hands Go Down

Suddenly, it seems everywhere you look another billionaire is promoting a reduced workweek.  I recently appeared on WSJ Live to share my thoughts on the trend (scroll down to view the clip–I make my main points at 3:35).

While I believe their motivations are valid, these moguls need to understand that it will not be easy to make their vision a reality.  Some major hurdles stand in their way.

First, who is saying what?

Latin American telecom tycoon, Carlos Slim, is extolling the virtues of the three-day workweek, while the founders of Google are discussing the benefits of splitting one full-time job into many part-time jobs.

Why?  They have identified real challenges that could, in theory, be addressed through the collective reduction in the amount of time we work each week.

For Slim, the challenge is how to help people stay healthy so they can extend the number of years they are able to remain in the paid workforce.

For the founders of Google, the challenge is how to address the potential mass-displacement of workers by technology (e.g driverless cars, etc.), a not-so-distant reality recently described in an oped by respected Silicon Valley insider, Vivek Wadhwa.

Sounds good…but not that simple

Translating what may sound good on paper into action is not going to be easy for the following reasons:

People can’t afford to make less money.  If you ask a room full of people if they’d like to work fewer hours a week, almost every hand will go up.  However, if you add, “…but you will make less money” most hands will go down.

Bottom line: most people can’t afford to work less.  Therefore, any discussion of a reduced workweek must address financial reality, especially since individuals are being asked to shoulder more of the expense and risk of retirement and health care.

Workplace legislation and management infrastructure are based on a 35-to-40 hour workweek.  Any change in the standard workweek would require major legislative, HR policy and accounting regulation updates and overhauls.

For example, today overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act is calculated based on a 40 hour workweek. Would that change or stay the same?

In most organizations, compensation and benefits, such as health care, retirement contributions, and vacation are calculated based on a 35 or 40-hour full-time workweek.

In terms of accounting, internal head count cost allocations in most organizations are also based upon a full-time, 40-hour workweek.  That means if an employee works part-time the system still charges the business unit overhead for a full-time worker. It’s not prorated. If you hire another part-time worker, that’s another full head count.

How do you deploy more people working fewer days/hours and remain responsive and competitive in a global economy?  This won’t be as big an issue for less human capital intensive, or highly localized industries, but for service industries with customers in many time zones, a reduced workweek will require more complex coordination and communication across people, teams and shifts.  Managers will have to break their addiction to management by face-time.

Carlos Slim and the founders of Google have identified very real challenges.  They should be applauded for starting an important conversation.  But any wholesale reduction or reconfiguration of the workweek will require new approaches to compensation, updated employment legislation, and revised team management processes, benefits calculations and internal cost accounting rules to succeed.  That will be a heavy lift.

What do you think about the growing interest in reducing the workweek on a broader scale?  Does it have merit?  Could it really work?


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