Can you be as productive in 20 hours as in 37?

The pros and cons of part-time work is a much-debated topic these days – but can working hours be equated with productivity? Mahmoud, a master of engineering, got tired of wasting time at workplaces with a narrowminded approach to working hours.

At Mahmoud's previous job, attendance was non-compulsory.

He came into the office from 8-16 every day, but the last hours were often more or less wasted time because he didn't have enough tasks or was too tired to focus on them.

"For me it was completely pointless, because it was time I could have spent with my family. Unfortunately, the number of hours worked mattered more than working efficiently at the first workplaces where I was employed as a fresh graduate", says Mahmoud, who is an engineer and in his early 30s.

He therefore chose to switch to his current job, where his hours are less rigid. While he may be employed for 37 hours a week, he has agreed with his manager that the 37 hours are a point of reference, not an invariable rule.

"When I finish my tasks, I can take time off afterwards. I have two remote working days a week, and here I can typically achieve the same in three to four hours as I can achieve in a whole day in the office", explains Mahmoud.

He finds that he has more energy when he doesn't start the day stressing through the morning traffic, and that at the same time he has more peace to immerse himself at home.

"Of course, it is important to be physically with colleagues, so I also see them several times a week. But there are also a lot of interruptions in an office. If I count all the interruptions together, it can add up to two or three working hours. Then there is a coffee break, then I have to answer a question from a colleague, and when I have regained my concentration after half an hour, I am interrupted again.”

For Mahmoud, it is also an important motivation that he can turn on the computer early in the home office or go home at 2pm without his colleagues looking askance at him.

"If I can push through and go home to my family after four hours, I am also much more motivated than if I have to stay until 4 p.m. no matter what. I don't think the number of hours is all that important. A working week of 20 hours can be far more efficient than a working week of 37 hours", he says.

Therefore, he is also not tempted when he is contacted on a weekly basis by headhunters who can promise him a higher salary than his current one.

"If I have to come in from 8-16 and have no flexibility, it's a no go, regardless of how high the salary is. It is far more important for me to have time with my family”.

"There is a lot of wasted time in a working day"

“There are all sorts of people who think we can work less. Forget it, friends, forget it”.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and the rest of the Danish government have strongly warned against reducing working hours, because in the long term it will undermine the welfare state. But at the same time, 43 percent want to work less in the next five years - even if they will get less pay. This is shown by a new questionnaire survey by the centre-left think tank Cevea .

And then there are those who believe that you can have your cake and eat it. In the labour market of IDA members, where there is fierce competition for labour, several companies have started to reduce working hours in order to become more attractive. One of them is the biotech company Tetra Pharm Technologies. Managing director Martin Rose reckons they can still maintain their productivity with a shorter working week.

"We have an expectation that you get the work done that you would normally achieve. This means that what we pay for in the end is also the work we get done”.

"We all know that there can be a lot of wasted time during a workday. That doesn't mean you shouldn't enjoy yourself, because you absolutely should, but it may well be that you are more ineffective when you get to Thursday because it's been a long week and you may have started to become a little mentally tired, and that can affect your work performance," he tells Ingeniøren.

Working hours have stagnated

The discussion about productivity and working hours is far from new, explains IDA's chief economist Thomas Søby.

In 1930, the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandchildren would only work 15 hours a week by 2030 because technological advances would make them far more efficient. For several decades his projections appeared to be coming true, but in 1990 the agreed weekly working time of 37 hours per week stagnated in Denmark, although productivity has continued to rise.

"When productivity increases, you can in principle do one of two things: You can either increase prosperity or you can reduce working hours. Historically, Denmark has opted for distributing the gains, so that we have both reduced working hours and increased prosperity. In the past 30 years, productivity increases have primarily gone to increasing prosperity. What should be prioritised in the future will be a question that needs to be clarified between the social partners in the Danish labour market model," explains chief economist Thomas Søby.

According to him, it is a basic principle of economics that people want to maximise their "utility" [a measure of satisfaction – Ed.]. At some point, you can reach a level in income where the individual assesses that it is now more useful for them to take time off than to increase their income.

"IDA members are sought after in the labour market, and they generally have high salaries. So if some of them would like to work less, there are also many of them who can afford it. A prerequisite is, of course, that they can reach an agreement on this with the employers, but one can perhaps imagine that at some point it will become a competitive parameter in the battle to attract labour, and then we will probably see pressure for reduced working hours – regardless of what the political system may think about it”.

Thomas Søby is skeptical about whether it will be possible to maintain production levels if it becomes more widespread to reduce weekly working hours, but he points out that employers can compensate by implementing new technology, hiring more foreign labour and retaining their employees for a longer period of time – i.e. to an older age.

"There are many IDA members who would like to continue working even after retirement and who, on top of that, are highly specialised and motivated. In my view, it is a low-hanging fruit to pick if you as an employer succeed in retaining them longer. It can possibly also be on a reduced time agreement, if that is desired”.

The work must be adapted to our brain

Pernille Garde Abildgaard is the author of the book Burn the hamster wheel and founder of the company Take Back Time, which helps companies organise themselves so that their employees work fewer hours. In recent years, she has experienced an "exponential growth" in the number of companies that contact her for advice, and she knows of around 80 Danish companies that have reduced the working hours of all employees without touching the salary.

"These organisations can either maintain or even increase their productivity while working less. Because when they shorten the working week, they also use it as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and organise themselves differently", she explains.

The basic idea is that the companies must increase the quality of each individual hour of work. The employees must be fresher and more well-rested, and there must be fewer distractions that pull them away from their core tasks.

"Few companies consciously structure the working day. The first hours, when most people are sharpest, are spent answering emails or holding meetings. Here you should put the tasks that require concentration, and make sure that the employees are not disturbed", says Pernille Garde Abildgaard.

She points to the fast food chain Sunset Boulevard, where the head office is in Denmark, as an example of a company that works less but in a more structured way. Here, the working day is divided into red time, where the employees immerse themselves. Yellow time is set aside for coordinating with colleagues, blue time is for meetings and green time is for breaks.

In this way, the employees are more coordinated during the day, and they get the necessary breaks to keep their brains sharp, explains Pernille Garde Abildgaard. According to her, a distinct effect of a shorter working week is also that the employees are more well-rested and sharp when they are on the job.

At the cost of individual freedom

Although a shorter working week for the same salary almost seems too good to be true, not everyone accepts the offer with open arms, says Penille Garde Abildgaard.

"When I am out with companies, they often look at me in disbelief when I say that they can shorten the working hours to four days. Because people are working hard, and they are afraid that it will become even more stressful with a shorter working week. No one wastes time deliberately", says Pernille Garde Abildgaard.

She points out that the more fixed framework with focus time can also feel constricting for some.

"The individual has to compromise their personal preferences for the sake of the collective. Some have gotten used to everyone being available constantly, so a very typical question is: "what if I need an answer from my colleague, should I just sit and wait until they finish their concentration time?", Pernille Garde Abildgaard says and continues.

“My advice here is to try to love the changes for 14 days. It doesn't take much more than a little bit of structure, for example a concentration window every day from 9-11 to work more efficiently, and there are many different models that you can implement in your organisation”.
The chairman of the Council of Employees in IDA, Malene Matthison-Hansen, points out that flexibility is extremely important for IDA's members.

"Our members are very passionate about what they do. They provide a dedicated effort, regardless of whether it is from the office or at home, and regardless of whether they work 8-16 or go home early to pick up the children and then finish off work in the evening”.

"The productivity of Danish companies is high precisely because their employees work independently and with a high degree of responsibility. We must stick to that by involving the employees at the individual workplaces in how they would prefer to organise their work", says Malene Matthison-Hansen.