Yet more evidence on productivity and shorter working hours

The ABC reported yet another study of reduced working hours this week, this one undertaken in the Icelandic public service between 2015 and 2019. The ABC quotes the report as saying that the trial was an “overwhelming success”, with productivity remaining the same or improving, worker well-being increasing, and the system being subsequently adopted by the great majority (86%) of Iceland’s workers.

Reading the details of the trial, the participants reduced their working from forty hours to thirty-five or thirty-six hours, which is in fact similar to that already used in many Australian public sector organisations. Western Sydney University, for example, has a thirty-five-hour week and the last two non-university organisations that I’ve worked for had thirty-eight-hour weeks. France, for one, has a thirty-five hour week as standard, and some Germans even have twenty-eight hours. So perhaps the Icelanders are only catching up with other countries. Even so, the results support the view that we (or public sector workers anyway) can do what needs to be done without sweating over our desks for forty hours each week, and they also illustrate a path to taking improved productivity as extra leisure time rather than yet more total production.

The report ascribes the productivity achievements to more efficient uses of time, such as replacing some meetings with electronic communication and making changes to schedules and opening hours. I wondered if these changes might have resulted in the remaining thirty-five hours being more intense. The report does note some pre-trial concern that working a short week would result in a need to work faster; on the other hand, workers looked forward to finishing earlier. The latter camp agrees with my experiences of work in which I’d rather get things done and get out than wait around to fill a set number of hours. The report doesn’t mention anyone being bothered any intensification in work by the end of trial.

This leaves open the possibility that, having created these efficiencies, going back to a forty-hour week would get even more done again. Again neither the article nor the report suggest that anyone wants to do this, though I can easily imagine pro-growth economists and business leaders demanding that Iceland must produce more stuff, just as the same lobby does here. But evidently most Icelanders prefer being with their families, exercising, or being involved in their hobbies.

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