In Gothenburg, working less is not a utopia: 30 hours a week (paid at 40) is a reality for Jens, an employee of a telephone assistance platform. A win-win system?
The bike ride is an indispensable part of Jens’ day. And for the past four years, he has hardly ever missed this special moment. His work day ends at 2:00 p.m., which gives him enough time to get away from work before his children come home from school. If this Swede living in Gothenburg finishes so early, it is not because he started at dawn, but simply because he only works six hours a day. I only start at 8:00 a.m., which gives me a little time to take care of my children, » he says. By going out at 2 p.m., I can also have a moment to myself before I pick them up. »
Since he took this job at a telephone support platform, Jens has worked fewer hours, but at the same salary. His company is one of the many private groups that are committed to reducing working hours. The aim is to increase employee productivity while enhancing their well-being. And the recipe is paying off. This insurance company boasts that its profits have increased every year since the measure was introduced five years ago, with peaks of +21 and +23% in the first two years. I can see that I’m more efficient than I was before, when I worked at another insurance company for eight hours a day, » says Jens. Besides, the call targets remain the same, and I don’t see anyone around me who can’t meet them. »
Profitable for the company
Of course, his company has had to hire to fill the gaps, but financially, it is making a profit. On the one hand, as Jens points out, most of the employees are handling as many calls as before. On the other hand, the platform is now active for longer periods of time, with two six-hour shifts instead of one eight-hour shift. Daily productivity has therefore increased significantly, resulting in new margins. The company has therefore benefited from this arrangement. As for the employees, they want more. Of course, working less time for the same pay is a good thing in itself, but there’s more to it than that, » insists Jens, as the sun falls over the islands far behind him. With more free time, my life is organized differently, and my work is no longer the central element, or at least less than before. »
Jens is not the first to benefit from reduced working hours, and to see the benefits. In Gothenburg, the Toyota garage initiated the movement in 2002, with a similar operation and equally convincing results: longer opening hours, optimized use of machines, increased productivity and with it, sales (+25% in the first two years). Almost twenty years later, the system is still in place, and it pleases not only the managers but also the employees, making the company more attractive and allowing it to recruit better mechanics. And the virtuous circle continues.
A growing model
In Sweden, the model is spreading. There are many examples and many testimonials. One of the latest comes from the capital. Linus Feldt, CEO of Fast Company, which develops applications in Stockholm, adopted this measure last year. Like his predecessors, he is now convinced that working eight hours instead of six does not produce more. I think the eight-hour day is not as efficient as you might think, » he says. Staying focused on a specific work task for eight hours is a huge challenge. To cope, we alternate tasks and take breaks to make the workday more bearable. »
Less breaks for employees, then?Less distractions, » says Linus Feldt. Fewer meetings, too. We keep them to a minimum, so that everyone can focus on their actual jobs. Fast Company, like other companies that have adopted this work schedule, boasts that its turnover rate has dropped, thanks to happy employees, and not just within the company. « The more time we spend in the office, the more difficult it is to manage our personal lives outside of work, » says Feldt. So it’s no surprise, he says, that his employees are just as happy outside the office.
A shadow in the picture
While the reduction of working hours seems to be unanimously accepted in the private sector, where it has created jobs, increased productivity, the well-being of employees and the profits of companies, its application in the public sector still comes up against the financial obstacle. A hospital, a school, an administration, does not sell a service and its objective is not to make its turnover explode. It is difficult, under these conditions, to absorb the cost of creating jobs as in the private sector. In Gothenburg, again, the city council tested the formula in 2014 in a medicalized retirement home it manages. For one year, 64 care assistants worked a 30-hour week, paid at 40.
Among them is Carina Dahl, who has noticed the benefits: « I manage eight rooms, and I am much less tired than before, which allows me to be more alert, more efficient in my decisions and actions. » Her manager doesn’t hide her satisfaction either. As proof of the improvement in working conditions and the well-being of her employees, she points to the drop in the rate of absenteeism since the introduction of the six-hour day. Less absences have saved the municipality nearly 30,000 euros.
However, the expenditure column is undermined by the fourteen new employees needed to run the retirement home with the reduction in working hours. Total cost of the operation: 600,000 euros per year. Maria Ryden, deputy mayor of Gothenburg at the time of the test, explained that the experiment would not be extended because this figure was considered too high. « It costs more, that’s obvious, » conceded Daniel Bernmar, head of the city council’s department for the elderly. Despite this, he remains a strong advocate of shorter working hours. « The richer we become, the more we need to take advantage of that wealth in ways other than trying to consume more. »
While the positive effects of reduced working hours are clearly evident in Swedish experiments, the cost cannot be denied. However, the response of private companies is clear: in the end, the operation is more than profitable. There remains the question of public service, where productivity does not necessarily compensate for the burden, and where such a measure therefore appears to be a strong political decision. For decision-makers, the question is how to counterbalance such an expense, and what mechanisms can be set in motion. The underlying question is: what priority should be given to well-being at work?