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    Working Harder Isn't Working
    Bruce O'Hara

    from The Jobs Letter No.91/ 1 December 1998

    Canadian author BRUCE O'HARA believes that when a country adopts a shorter working week, and a two-shift workplace, it will find itself with huge competitive advantages in lower overheads for businesses, a more productive workforce, a more robust domestic market, and lower taxes. And its people will no longer need to be unemployed or over-worked.

    In this special feature, we give an essential summary of O'Hara's call for "a big shift" in the way we organise work.

    I believe the 40-hour workweek is 50-year-old technology, an outdated and inappropriate model for work scheduling in today's world. It's the equivalent of trying to run an engineering office with slide rules and drafting pencils, or operating an international airline with propeller-driven DC9s. The 40-hour week no longer serves the interests of working people, and isn't good for business either.

    Consider the following:

    The 40-hour workweek was designed for a time when very little happened on Sundays, and not much more on Saturdays. Today, most customers want a full range of services every day of the week.

    The 40-hour workweek was designed for a time when overhead costs for land and equipment were low, relative to the cost of labour. Today such overheads are high: about twice the cost of labour in most organizations.

    The 40-hour workweek was designed for men with stay-at-home wives. When the work day was done, they went home and relaxed. Today's dual-earner workforce goes home from paid employment to the second shift: cooking, cleaning, shopping and childcare. Working double-shifts has left them exhausted. They are cranky and ineffective, at work and at home.

    When the 40-hour workweek was put in place, it divided the available work so as to create full employment. Dividing the work the same way fifty years later leaves millions of people officially unemployed.

    We want the future to be like the past, only more so. That's how most change happens: little by little, building on what went before. But, occasionally, change needs to jump outside the old framework, and take a big, all-at-once leap.

    Consider the history of computers: until 1980 they were getting bigger and bigger, more and more centralised. The logical expectation for the future was more of the same. The idea that ordinary people would work from their own tiny personal computers seemed absurd. Most of the established players in the computer industry dismissed the PC computer as a toy. That's why Microsoft today is bigger than IBM: Microsoft jumped out of the old box and began thinking about computers in a whole new way.

    I believe we are at a similar crossroads in work scheduling technology. Until now, we've built our economy around a one-shift model. We have been able to shorten the workweek a long way within that model, in a series of incremental steps, from nearly 80 hours in the early 1800s, down to 40 hours by the late 1940s. Shortening the workweek had great benefits: it converted unemployment to leisure; it improved worker productivity; by keeping unemployment low, it made for a robust and prosperous economy.

    But shorter work times also carried a price: gradually increasing overhead costs and decreasing hours of service. At 40-hours, we'd pushed that trade-off as far as it could go: reduce the workweek any further and the increase in overhead costs would have been prohibitive. So the workweek has been stuck at 40 hours for a very long time, despite the huge social and economic problems that have accompanied steadily rising unemployment.

    The way beyond the impasse is to imagine an economy built around not one, but two shifts. I don't know exactly how it should be configured; I'm guessing that as an interim step we might have one half of the workforce working eight hours a day Monday to Thursday, and the other half working 10 hours a day Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Soon, I expect we'll move to a model where both shifts work eight hours a day, three days one week and four days the next.

    So what would a two-shift workplace mean for working people?
    -- Every weekend is a long weekend: You'll have time for a life.
    -- Most workers will be able to work the same days as their spouse works, and the same days their kids go to school, far more so than now. (Schools can be on two shifts too.)
    -- Recreation facilities aren't overcrowded because we aren't all trying to use them on the same two days of the week.
    -- Commuter traffic jams are half what they used to be because only half the workforce goes to work on any given day.
    -- Any service you want, any errand, is available seven days a week: you don't have to sneak it in on your lunch hour.
    --You feel safer and more secure because a 32-hour work week has created nearly full employment. Your grown children will get jobs and finally leave home.
    -- With unemployment low, your employer cannot bully you into unpaid overtime or drop you to casual status or you'll go down the street and get hired by someone else.
    --And finally, it means your taxes are a whole lot lower because the formerly unemployed are now working and paying taxes instead of draining the public purse.

    And what does it mean for employers?
    --Plant and equipment can be used seven days a week: a move which will eventually cut overhead costs by almost a third.
    -- Employers can provide customers with seven-day-a-week service without overtime rates or the hassle of part-time staff.
    -- Their workforce is fresher, more productive, less prone to making mistakes or getting sick.
    --And finally, the formerly unemployed can afford to buy things again: the choke-hold on consumer demand is released.

    "The Big Shift to a two-shift workplace is a huge and very complicated transformation of the economy, and not without risks. That's why we've put it off so long. But I would argue that we've reached the point where doing nothing entails even greater risks, and that a bigger, more complicated and infinitely more painful transformation of the economy is inevitable if we do nothing."

    Can we afford to drop from a 40-hour workweek to a 32-hour workweek all in one go? I believe so, if these four areas of savings are taken into account:
    -- We could celebrate public holidays on our regular long weekends, instead of taking additional days off. In Canada, the statutory holidays currently make up 4% of total work days; drop them as paid benefits and the actual reduction in work time falls from 20% to 16%.
    -- Research has shown that typically about one-third of lost production time due to shorter workweeks is offset by higher productivity: if previous experience holds, a 16% drop in work time will only drop workers' output by about 11%.
    --A 32-hour workweek would put millions of unemployed people back to work, saving the public purse billions of dollars on the dole and related social expenditures. In Canada, according to my calculations, those savings to the public purse work out to about 6% of the total national payroll.
    -- And finally, the two-shift workplace will reduce employers' overhead costs. Those savings will be modest at first perhaps initially saving on average a sum equivalent to only two or three percent of payroll costs. Over time, as businesses grow into the available unused capacity, those savings will grow. Over the first three years we might expect an average savings on overhead costs equal to at least 5% of payroll costs.

    If workers froze their take-home pay at current levels for three years, they could go from a 40 to a 32-hour workweek with no loss in pay, without increasing the cost of doing business. And the savings on overhead won't stop growing after three years. After ten years they could equal one third of total payroll costs. With unemployment lower, unions will be in a good bargaining position to make sure that a fair share of those savings wind up in workers' pockets.

    The percentages I've given are both approximations and averages, based on the Canadian economy. After a more careful and thorough accounting, we might conclude that a shorter or longer wage freeze is warranted, and that special arrangements are required to protect certain workers and certain industries.

    The bottom line is that moving to a four-day workweek with no loss in pay is a viable option so long as it is done on a two-shift model, and includes some period of wage stability.

    There is one problem with the Big Shift: it needs to be done all at once. No one organization can make the Shift on its own if it does its employees will be out of sync with the larger community around them. They'll clash with the school system, with the transport system, with the expectations of customers and suppliers.

    The Big Shift to a two-shift workplace is a huge and very complicated transformation of the economy, and not without risks. That's why we've put it off so long. But I would argue that we've reached the point where doing nothing entails even greater risks, and that a bigger, more complicated and infinitely more painful transformation of the economy is inevitable if we do nothing.

    Government is the obvious player to initiate and coordinate the Big Shift, using its rule-making powers to ensure that everyone changes course at the same time and in the same direction. As a first step, governments would need to open a national dialogue with business, labour and the general public to seek some kind of consensus about how the Big Shift should be structured.

    The Big Shift could be made on a trial basis in one city, enabling the rest of the country to gather hard data on job-creation, on the impacts on productivity and absenteeism and overhead costs, and the effects on social expenditures. We would have an opportunity to learn on a manageable scale how to link and coordinate two shifts, and what level of job-training support is required. The media would love it: with a little encouragement they could find a different story hook every day for a month. It would make the Big Shift real, concrete, and possible for the rest of the country.

    Why don't our leaders do something about this issue? Salary-based payroll arrangements have had a bad habit of promoting workaholism, with the result that most of our political leaders, most of our corporate leaders, even our labour leaders are hard-core workaholics. Now what's the workaholic's solution to every problem? You've got it: work harder!

    But working harder is not working. Most of our current leadership will need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the Age of Leisure. Change must come from ordinary people.

    Past battles for shorter work times were won by big, grassroots movements that captured the public's imagination with big bold goals: the ten-hour day, the eight-hour day, the five-day workweek. We need to create the same kind of movement today.

    Unions spearheaded past movements for shorter work times, but they didn't try to go it alone: they worked with churches, with women s groups, with political parties, with progressive businesses, with anybody and everybody.

    Past movements for shorter work times made sure that all working people understand clearly the price employed people pay to live in a high unemployment economy: falling wages, job speed-up, loss of job security, rising taxes. They raised the issue again and again at every opportunity, at every public gathering. When almost everyone is stressed out either by unemployment or overwork it will be necessary to create a word-of-mouth movement where a great many people do a little bit each.

    Implementing the Big Shift will give us the opportunity to create a society where life is richer, fuller, more secure, and less stressful. It will give us a society where our kids have jobs and hope for the future, where we don't face an either/or choice between jobs and the environment. And you won't have to choose between having a job, and having a life.

    Source _ from "The Big Shift" by Bruce O'Hara. O'Hara is the author of "Working Harder Isn't Working" (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1993) and "Put Work In Its Place" (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1994)

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