If I could earn back time: Workers feel tech benefits

If I could earn back time: Workers feel tech benefits

IN today’s world of work, there is a precious commodity rapidly increasing in importance in the minds of workers – time. Since the COVID pandemic, the demand for flexible work arrangements has sky-rocketed, with workers seeking better work-life balance and more leisure time.

Calls for working from home, hybrid work and the four-day work week have all grown dramatically, as underlined in a recent study by recruitment firm Michael Page, which found flexibility is now the second most important factor for job-seekers, behind salary.

What’s also interesting, as Swinburne University research shows, is that a four-day working week can also benefit employers.

Time after time

Over the past century an abundance of new technologies have dramatically disrupted the way we work.

From the desktop computer, photocopier and fax machine to the internet, mobile phones and email, technologies have slashed the time it takes to complete many tasks, enabling workers to perform more work in the time allocated to them.

However, up to now, workers have not been reaping the benefits.
The additional time saved by these technological breakthroughs has been used to increase productivity and company profits.
Workers, on the other hand, still follow the 40-hour five-day week model established by Henry Ford in the early 1900s — a time when families typically only had one bread-winner and the average life expectancy of Australian workers was just 55.

Rubbing salt in the wound, not only do these technologies enable employees to fit more work into their existing hours, they also make it easier for their employers to contact them outside of their standard working hours.

This behaviour has become common in the past two decades, and has led to an average of 5.4 additional hours of unpaid work — commonly known as ‘wage theft’ — being performed each week by Australian workers today.

In response, Australia this month followed countries like France, Germany and Canada in introducing ‘right to disconnect’ laws which discourage bosses from making contact with employees outside of their contracted working hours, and gives employees the legal right to not answer phone calls, emails, or text messages outside of work hours, unless under “reasonable circumstances”.

The time warp

As part of Swinburne University’s research into the four-day workweek in Australia, we interviewed workers following the new 100:80:100 model – 100 percent pay, for 80 percent of the time, in exchange for a commitment to 100 percent productivity.

We found employees invested the extra time they gained from working fewer days in lots of positive ways. These included greater participation in hobbies, such as golf and tennis, as well as taking up new pastimes, like learning a new language, learning a musical instrument, painting, or training for a 10km charity run.

And the health and wellness benefits don’t end there, with participants in the study indicating they had more time for massages, facials, trips to the gym, and walking.
Twenty percent of our survey participants mentioned they now have more time to visit the doctor and take regular health checks; something they didn’t have time to do when they were still working five days each week.

While these might be gains that focus on the employee, the advantage of having healthy, rested workers with good work-life balances, will undoubtedly benefit employers too, with many reporting a reduction in absenteeism, improved recruitment, increased worker retention and better productivity.

One boss, who held a six-month trial into a shorter working week, said: “Our capacity as an organisation increased by 11 percent, our sick leave reduced by a third, stress levels went down, work-life balance measures increased (and) our electricity usage decreased.”
Let the good times roll

The emergence of generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) tools — such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT — and their potential to support work time reduction strategies is now refuelling interest in a shorter working week.

Unlike other technological advancements of the past century, there is a growing expectation that at least some of the time saved by GenAI will be gifted back to workers, in the form of a reduction in working hours.

Is this the age when employers share some of the gains they make, from advances in modern technologies like GenAI, by giving some of that time back to their employees?
Only time will tell.

John Hopkins is an Innovation Fellow, and Associate Professor of Management, for Swinburne’s School of Business, Law and Entrepreneurship.

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