Shorter, flexible workweeks can save the planet

You’ve seen her in your office: the woman who rushes out the door at 4:29 p.m. every day to pick up her toddler. As she waits for the elevator, she worries her teammates see her as a slacker for not working a full eight hours.

That’s hardly surprising. Many employers still treat reduced or flexible hours as a reluctant accommodation for moms, rather than a company-wide policy.

But according to some economists, that attitude misses the big picture. They suggest working less and more flexibly is an environmental necessity because the current model—in which people and the planet serve economic growth—isn’t sustainable.

“The longer we try to stay on the traditional track of more growth, the worse things are going to get. There are better alternatives out there, and they entail less work society-wide,” says Peter Victor, an economist at York University.

No Growth? No Problem

Victor himself has developed a no-growth, low-carbon simulation model of the Canadian economy. No growth doesn’t mean an absolute decline in gross domestic product; it means GDP stays constant instead of expanding, he explains. It’s controversial, of course, but given the increased focus on the environment amid last month’s climate change conference in Paris, policy makers are considering big changes and, perhaps, radical solutions.

One way to avoid rising unemployment with no growth is to reduce, over 30 years, the number of average annual work hours by about 15% from the 1,700 hours that are currently the norm in Canada, Victor explains. (The resulting work year of about 1,500 hours would still be longer than in Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands.)

People would have to work less in a no-growth scenario because Victor’s model calls for spreading the amount of work available across a larger group of people. “I came to that [conclusion] as a matter of arithmetic,” he says.

The New Economics Foundation, a British think tank, has a similar vision. It calls for reducing the workweek over a decade to 30 hours, for example, and spreading the work available among more people to reduce unemployment. To alleviate skills shortages resulting from job sharing, employers and the government could develop training programs, according to the foundation.

The think tank also calls for curbing average and above-average salaries, while increasing minimum wages so people with low-paying jobs wouldn’t do worse by working less.

“We’re not expecting people to be forced into poverty by this,” says Anna Coote, associate director of social policy at the foundation. “If people don’t think they can make ends meet on a shorter working week, that’s a problem about rates of pay, not about hours of work.”

The idea is to trade work and money for more leisure time so people can get out of the rat race and the planet can exhale. “You work more in order to earn more, and you earn more in order to buy more stuff, and you’re buying stuff that’s being made in ways that are ruining the planet. We want to reverse that tendency so that people begin to value and use time differently,” says Coote.

Under the foundation’s model, people would have more time to spend with friends and family. As a result, they’ll be able to dedicate more hours to childcare and eldercare, and rely less on social services.

The hope is that, as people gain more free time, they’ll use public transportation instead of driving, repair things instead of discarding them and buy less stuff, says Coote. “One of the fastest-growing businesses in the U.K. is personal self-storage. People are buying things they can’t even fit into their houses. Perhaps we don’t need all this stuff.”

But this vision makes some people uneasy. “I’m always a little concerned if public policy says, ‘You shouldn’t want that.’ That winds up crossing the line,” says Erik Weisman, chief economist at MFS Investment Management.

And, he adds, good luck with convincing Westerners to want less. “Don’t people have enough? Apparently not. We work across the street from an Apple store, and every time a new [phone] comes out, people line up for hours before the store opens, and the line goes around the block, and it’s that way for days.”

Critics also fear not having growth would reverse progress. “Zero growth gave us Genghis Khan and the Middle Ages, conquest and subjugation,” economics writer Eduardo Porter wrote recently in the New York Times.

Working hard for the money

Emerging and struggling economies had the longest work years in 2014:

  • Mexico 2,228 hours
  • Greece 2,042 hours
  • Chile 1,990 hours
  • Russia 1,985 hours

Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

“It fostered an order in which the only mechanism to get ahead was to plunder one’s neighbour. Economic growth opened up a much better alternative: trade.”

Additionally, zero growth would exacerbate tensions between different social groups because there would be less for society’s most vulnerable, wrote Porter. But Victor insists the opposite is true. “If we don’t find better ways of sharing work, you’re going to have increasing polarization of society.” And, he noted in a recent paper, “the prospects for real improvement in the developing world are likely to be diminished if developed countries continue to encroach on more ecological space.”

Many employers would inevitably push back against such a plan, but Coote doesn’t see that as a deterrent. “If we were going to wait and not do anything that employers would resist, we would never make any progress. Employers resisted the two-week holiday.”

And, Weisman cautions, countries that have introduced the no-growth model could lose business. “You’re going to buy the product from the country that has the longer workweek where they manage to produce the product at a lower price.”

But that hasn’t happened in the Netherlands. Dutch law makes it possible to convert any full-time job to part-time, although the country hasn’t adopted a no-growth model. As a result, the Netherlands has the highest percentage of part-time workers in the European Union, at more than 75% of women and more than 25% of men. The joblessness rate is 7%, and the country remains one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

No Longer a Women’s Issue

Despite the absence of similar legislation in North America, some companies have changed their approach. Starting in 2008, Ryan LLC, a global tax services firm headquartered in Dallas, introduced flexible schedules and stopped tracking how many hours employees work. “We have those records, but the only time they come into play is when a manager might find they’ve got someone who’s not meeting the results they’re supposed to,” says Delta Emerson, president of global shared services.

While Ryan doesn’t track time, it advises employees against dropping below 30 hours because they wouldn’t qualify for certain benefits. It offers flexibility even to employees for whom face time is a bona fide requirement, such as receptionists. They decide how they’re going to distribute the work among one another. “We have one receptionist who does like to work just four days a week, so she works 10 hours a day,” says Emerson.

She says all Ryan employees—not just moms—appreciate having a better work/life balance. “We don’t see it as a women’s issue anymore,” says Emerson. “Everybody is going to have a day or a week or a month or a year where they need to get a little bit of slack about having to show up at 8:30 in the morning because they can still get their jobs done wearing pink fuzzy slippers and sweats working in the middle of the night at home.”

But introducing flexibility requires a lot of planning, which is why many companies haven’t embraced it, according to Emerson. Employers have to upgrade technology so staff can access company servers and software from anywhere, she says. They also have to teach managers to evaluate staff based on results rather than face time and hours worked, she adds. “Some are going to have their arms folded with a scowl on their face, saying, ‘This is not going to work and you can’t make me do it.’ We had managers who resisted and we told them, ‘You have to get with the program or you’re going to lose people.’ But we didn’t train them and now we do.”

Since it introduced the change, Ryan’s revenue has increased. And in a 2015 survey, 91% of its employees agreed that, at their company, “people are encouraged to balance their work life and their personal life,” compared to 42% in 2005. And 88% agreed with the statement, “I want to work here for a long time.” That compares to 56% in 2005.

It’s time for other employers to follow suit, says Victor, noting the first step would be to introduce more flexibility. “Employers have to decide where they’re going to fit in, in terms of building a better future. Are they going to stick to the traditional ways of doing things? Or are they going to start moving toward the idea that we’ve got to adapt to new circumstances?”

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Yaldaz Sadakova is associate editor of Benefits Canada.