How to bolster productivity during shortened working hours
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How to bolster productivity during shortened working hours

How to bolster productivity during shortened working hours

Effective strategies must be deployed to get more work done in a shorter period of time without compromising productivity


Recently we’ve heard of several innovative approaches to rethink our relationship with work. Some have shifted to a four-and-a-half-day-week, like the emirate of Sharjah.

Elsewhere, nationwide trials are in place to study a four-day week, such as the one kicked off in the UK, led by the not-for-profit 4 Day Week Global, and involving researchers from Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College. It will study over 3,300 workers at 70 UK companies. The trial is based on the 100:80:100 model, a 100 per cent of pay for 80 per cent of the time, in exchange for a commitment to maintain 100 per cent productivity.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, more and more companies are recognising that the new frontier for competition is quality of life, and that reduced-hour, output-focused working is the vehicle to give them a competitive edge,” says Joe O’Connor, chief executive of 4 Day Week Global.

Reducing the number of working days by one to improve quality of life is definitely an approach. Another is to reduce the number of hours per day.

German entrepreneur, Lasse Rheingans, implemented a five-hour workday at his technology startup. His employees arrive at 8am and finish work at 1pm. To optimise productivity all social media is banned, meetings are very limited, and email checks are done at certain times, to suit the role of the user. And best of all, when his employees finish work, they “finish” work. There is no work residue creeping into their family or leisure time.

They return to work the next day, fresh to get things done. Rheingans’ hypothesis was that if you removed distractions, and the back-and-forth conversations about work, then five hours was enough time for people to get the most important work done.

One of the most difficult things Rheingans discovered was convincing his employees to stop randomly checking email. So much so, that he had to hire a coach to come in to convey the message and introduce other stress removing habits. Rather they should  check email deliberately, at certain times of the day, according to their role. Rheingans’ aim was to encourage all his employees to slow down, to approach work in a more measured manner, and be less frantic, as it wasn’t getting them anywhere.

A really important distinction to make in any job is whether you are doing work or processing work.

Doing work: This is the essence of the work we do, where we create real value. For a human resource professional this might be structuring a new remuneration scheme, a software engineer writing code, a financial analyst building an investment case, or a management consultant researching and advising their client. Doing work creates real value for the organisation and employee, as it contributes to the pool of intellectual capital.

Processing work: Simply put, this is a conversation about work. What work are we actually going to do? Processing work gets into the detail of identifying work, assigning it, coordinating it and reviewing it. In other words, it provides a method and structure for how work is done. This needs to be a combined effort across a number of individuals, and eventually becomes the operating model for the organisation.

Two ways in which we can design better processing of work is:

Reduce task-switching when partly through a task: You might be deep into a task, and you stop and switch to something else, before returning back to the original task. Research shows us that not only is this task switching less effective, but it also leaves a cognitive cost, which is flooding the mind with cortisol, the stress hormone, and adrenalin, the flight-or-fight hormone.

Lessen the feeling of communications overload: This stems from a sensation that everyone needs us all of the time. This is simply not true and not healthy. Not everything is urgent, requiring our immediate attention. Prioritise and like an air-traffic controller, land one flight, or in
your case, one task at a time. Regardless of how you see the future of work playing out in terms of days or hours worked, the focus must be on what value is being created during those times.

Rehan Khan is a principal consultant for BT and a novelist

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