Modernizing work: why we need to focus on working smarter, not working harder

Photo Credit: Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Photo Credit: Green Chameleon on Unsplash

In North America we have an obsession with work. Virtually everybody I know is either worrying about what job they’ll get after college or university or already has a job and is regularly working over time, often adding hours at the end of their days and even working weekends.

This infatuation with work and productivity is nothing new, hence why “burnout” is now considered a workplace health syndrome by the World Health Organization, but very rarely do we as individuals conceptualize hard work and overworking yourself as something potentially negative, despite evidence supporting this fact.

That’s why a recent story out of Japan caught my eye. Back in the summer, Microsoft Japan tested a four day work week with all of its employees for the month of August. The results may surprise you, given the common narrative around hard work, though they make sense if you consider the evidence. Researchers found that the shorter week made their meetings more efficient, improved workers moods and boosted productivity by 40 per cent.

The results have shocked many people, but why should they? The logic of these results is based on a saying that most people have probably heard before: work smarter not harder.

The fact of the matter is that we waste so much time at work and we all know it. Having worked at jobs where the focus is on “doing your time” instead of actually getting things done, I know for a fact that quite often I would simply try and fill time until I could clock out and call it a day, instead of actually delivering for the company I worked for.

This is because framing work this way totally messes up the incentive structure for getting things done. Why would I work harder on a project if, whether I get it done in four hours or eight hours, I still have to be at work for a whole eight hours? There’s no reward for working harder, so why would I bother?

Compare that to the reduced work model. With 20 or 30 or even perhaps 40 per cent less time to waste, not only are you more excited to have more leisure time spent away from work, but you are then more incentivized to get the work that you have to do done.

The best part about this is that the facts of this pilot in Japan back up my claims. The Japan example shows that people need to be incentivized beyond just their pay to work, so when you offer those additional incentives, like shorter work days, a three day weekend, etc., people are more motivated to work, thus increasing productivity.

It’s a textbook case of working smarter, not harder. Hours put in don’t necessarily dictate the quality of a job, at least to a certain degree. The thing is, more employers just need to start realizing that.

Of course, any major change like this to our economy would have to be coupled with a change in how we pay people for work. Hours worked, as has been outlined, is an outdated way to pay people in most industries, therefore, pay ought to be tied more closely to productivity.

Would a change like this come at the cost of corporate profits? Yes (oh the humanity!). But could these changes be counterbalanced by radical increases in productivity, like to the tune of 40 per cent as in the Japan example? Absolutely. Wages haven’t kept steady with productivity gains in North American since the 1970’s, at the very least we could start to pay people for the work they actually do, rather than the time they spent locked away in a dimly lit, damp, depressing office.

While it might be hard to visualize at first, this model could be transferred to virtually every industry. It might seem difficult to conceptualize in service, retail and other distinctly coverage-based industries, if you consider the broader idea of deemphasizing the difficulty of work, like how we force first responders, nurses and others to work 12 hour shifts, retail and service industry employees to work from open to close and so on, then it becomes much more tangible.

I understand that this is a pipe dream, I’m not implying that this is an easy change to make or that it’s likely to happen in any reasonable amount of time. It is clear, however, that shortening working hours, increasing vacation time and so on, has benefits not just for workers but for all of our society. So if you ask me, it’s time to finally start working smarter, not harder.

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