Work less live more?

Britain's productivity growth hits an all-time low.

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Work less live more?

By Jim Scott

Amongst the government's ongoing negotiations to try and keep our exit from the European Union the least bit turbulent. Only last week, it was reported that the UK had experienced its "worst decade for productivity" since the 18th century.

Staff at the Bank of England said the UK's efficiency, a measure of the country's capital to labour ratio, was at its weakest point since 1761 and 1781 and even the 19th century recession.

But as productivity growth levels hits an all-time low, would following countries like the Netherlands, where a four-day working week exists, mean we could work less and live more?

Accountancy Age reports the UK's employees work on average for 34 hours and 26 minutes each week. A normal office shift which begins at 9 and finishes at 5 means this figure is pushed up by workers working into a "fifth" day, something unions have argued against.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) said working a four-day week is "realistic". Its leader, Frances O'Grady said technological advances in today’s society would take away some of the strain full-time workers face, The Independent reports.

The union said 74 percent of employees surveyed wanted tech (Augmented Reality) to give them more control over their working lives and ultimately reduce their hours at work.

Currently, an estimated five million people in Britain are working on average, over seven hours a week without pay. Which could signal an issue with employers unable to pay overtime because of too many staff members or even, not enough working hours. At the same time, an estimated 1.4 million people are working seven days a week, the Daily Mirror reports.

But people in Britain could be working a lot less if the Green Party made it to office, the BBC said. Last week the Green Party announced that "Free time should be measure of UK's well-being" whilst it asked government to introduce a "Free Time Index" to replace the current indicator, the Gross Domestic Product.

Sian Berry, co-leader of the Green Party, said: "People are constantly 'on', even when they are commuting.

"There's an enormous amount of unpaid caring going on which doesn't get measured, which doesn't leave people with very much free time either. We have got a mental health crisis and we think we should be measuring this. It should be used as a more important indicator than GDP of how our country is doing."

The Netherlands, one of world's happiest places to live, adopted a four-day week several years ago. The average full-time worker only works 29 hours a week whilst annual wages are reported to be around $47,000 (Approximately £35,000).

Last week, The Guardian reported a New Zealand company which trialled a four-day week with its 250 staff was successful and would be implemented into their business. Perpetual Guardian, who handles the estate of those deceased said stimulation, commitment and a feeling of empowerment by staff improved significantly.

But a four-day week might not work in the UK, reports the Scotsman. Backing up its claims that the initiative wouldn't work for every business. It used the example that customers could expect a company to be available five days a week, whilst a four-week employee, unavailable on a Friday, could be more likely to take their custom elsewhere if that business didn't open that day.

It also reported that organising childcare would be difficult as many daycare and after school clubs worked around a normal 9 to 5 schedule which could be altered if a four-day week was introduced.

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Otago Daily Times

Four-day week becomes permanent at Kiwi company

New Zealand trusts business Perpetual Guardian has signed off on the four-day week, turning an experiment into company policy. Perpetual Guardian founder Andrew Barnes first introduced the reduced workweek in March to see what impact, if any, it would have on productivity levels at the business.

This initial test was a success, with independent academic research showing productivity levels remaining intact and job satisfaction improving markedly among staff members.

As was the case with the trial, employees who opt into the four-day week will be eligible for a weekly rest day provided they meet their weekly productivity objectives and will be paid their usual salary.

While the new policy comes into effect on November 1, getting it over the line wasn't quite as easy as sending out an all-staff email.

Perpetual Guardian sought legal opinions from Belly Gully and MinterEllisonRuddWatts, who recommended a framework that would ensure the company remained compliant with New Zealand law.

"We actually have to get people to opt into the policy. This will be done on an annual basis, and it has to be done individually; it cannot be done collectively," Barnes tells the Herald.

"At the same time, when they opt in, they have to acknowledge that their working hours remain the normal nine-to-five working hours. They have to acknowledge that these rest days are a gift. They need to be cognisant that there might need to be some flexibility around those rest days."

The complexity arises, says Barnes, because employment laws are still drafted in the language of "hours worked" rather than "productivity".

"The Employment Relations Act, for instance, requires that all employment agreements include agreed hours of work, the days of the week when the work is meant to be completed and the start and finish times of the work.

"This is one of the reasons why we have low productivity in New Zealand.

"We're not focusing on the right thing. We're focusing on the days and therefore the assumption is the days deliver the amount worked, but this doesn't always hold true."

Barnes' novel approach to work has already started an enormous international debate, spread across 32 countries and featuring in the BBC, CNN, the New York Times, the Guardian, The World Economic Forum and others. It's even made its way into popular culture, with comedian Jim Jefferies mentioning the initiative in a segment on what Americans get wrong about work.

"I would've been happy with a short article in the Herald", responds Barnes when asked whether he was surprised by the media response.

But, he doesn't want the debate to end with a few news articles scattered across the globe, saying he'd like to see it provoke changes to employment law to ensure that flexible arrangement, like the four-day-week, can be implemented without the risk of workers relinquishing their rights.

"I do not wish to see the hard-fought protections lost," he says.

"I do not wish to see other employers use the four-day week strategy as a method to reduce working weeks and reduce pay.

"But to change this, we need to have employment legislation that is flexible enough to focus on agreed productivity outcomes and flexible enough to allow workers to have flexible hours, provided they have met the other side of the contract."

Further to this, Barnes takes aim at the gig economy (particularly companies like Uber), which he accuses of offering false flexibility.

"With the gig economy, there's no holiday pay, no sick leave, no contracts, no contribution to superannuation. There's no protection," he says.

"It's a source of great wonderment to me that we are rethinking employment legislation to hold the big tech companies accountable."

"Governments are complicit. They pretend that Uber isn't a taxi company. They pretend that Airbnb isn't a hotel company. And these companies play by different rules ... There is a failure to address this.

"If you do a gig economy, it should cover a payment that goes into superannuation.

"It should cover a payment that goes into a separate account for that individual for sick pay. It should include a payment that goes into that individuals account for holiday pay.

"Because if we don't and that person falls sick and needs to take time out, it's ultimately paid for by the rest of us in taxes and in terms of some type of social security."

Barnes says he has already been approached by international governments to discuss how his policies could be employed more broadly but has not heard anything from the local leadership.

"Organs of the British Government and Australian Governments have reached out, but I have not had one phone call from Wellington," he says.

"This is a global initiative being led out of New Zealand and our Government has done nothing. I find that super frustrating."

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