Sociology professor Ryan Finnigan discusses reevaluating the labor/life ecosystem, moving past Ford’s creation
John Maynard Keynes, perhaps one of the most influential economists to ever live, hypothesized that his grandchildren would be working 15 hours per week. He was dreadfully wrong. Over 90 years since the “traditional” 40-hour work week was adopted by Henry Ford of Ford Motors, it remains intact in the midst of transformative economic development. Since the 1930s, productivity rates have skyrocketed, yet work hours have remained relatively stable.
For many employees, the current system just isn’t cutting it. Most companies are still inflexible when it comes to schedules and hours. Balancing a healthy work and life schedule gets tossed to the side in order to meet managers’ demands and make ends meet.
Sociology professor Ryan Finnigan, a specialist in U.S. labor schedules and worker inequalities, gave his two cents on the state of the current U.S. labor system.
“In a lot of the research, it doesn’t necessarily seem like it’s ideal for workers for a lot of occupations,” Finnigan said.
Finnigan discussed how the role of management and workplace expectations perpetuate a rigid structure in order to get the perceived best solution for shareholders.
“Part of it is this logic of having something to show for your efforts, so for managers, they can control numbers and hours,” Finnigan said. “They have something to show their bosses and their bosses have something to show to the board of directors, in that they’re taking steps to limit cost because it’s a short-term reward.”
With companies focusing on the bottom line, many see workers as numbers in a system where they can manipulate schedules to reach optimal hours while cutting costs.
Finnigan, however, believes that by taking this strict approach and not allowing the workers to have some autonomy, they miss an integral component of the system and workforce — their humanity. Finnigan referenced a study done at the University of Chicago released in 2017 as an important discovery in schedule flexibility and productivity.
“The Gap introduced these new predictable scheduling rules for a random selection of their stores relative to a control group,” Finnigan said. “ Not only did the workers themselves report being happier and less stressed because they could manage their work and home life better, but productivity at The Gap stores with predictable scheduling went up.”
Across the board, workers were happier and productivity went up. Although the study is not a definite indicator that all employers should adopt more flexible hours, it should spark some curiosity and further investigation. With companies focused on the bottom line, it seems that they would want to get the most out of their labor force even if it means opening up schedule flexibility. Choosing to focus on the system as a whole rather than prioritizing the metric of hours may be a promising development for companies. To Finnigan, this seems like a win-win situation.
“If they boost the quality of the hours, then they wouldn’t have to worry as much about the quantity of hours,” Finnigan said.
This focus on quality rather than quantity and rethinking common practice is starting to catch hold in major companies across the world. Microsoft Japan recently experimented with decreasing the workweek to 32 hours and the preliminary results were stunning, with Forbes reporting “a 40% productivity boost, with over 90% of employees reporting they preferred the shorter week.”
Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand financial services company, tried a similar experiment where employees who worked four days instead of five were not docked any pay. According to surveys from the study employees at Perpetual felt a burden being lifted off their shoulders. When reporting on if they could manage work-home life, they found an increase from 54% in the five-day work week compared to 78% from the four-day, while also boosting productivity in the hours they were at the office.
In addition to reducing stress and increasing productivity, a shorter workweek may also have a positive effect on gender inequalities in family and work planning. Finnigan commented on family and work dynamics common in American households.
“Women often don’t want to give up their careers for family,” Finnigan said. “They want a better balance, but the problem is that the men aren’t meeting them halfway so they feel stuck between and they think, “if I’m not doing these things nobody is.”
Potentially, with companies adopting shorter or more flexible hours, men may begin to contribute more to parenting — giving women who want it, an opportunity to remain dedicated to their careers.
“For male workers, it is possible it would balance some of the gender differences or at least it would make that possible,” Finnigan said.
Adopting a shorter workweek, especially in the U.S., however, may not bear the intended results. Finding honor in work and long hours is a value that’s been infused in the American ethos from the get-go. This long-term commitment to work may override any outside policy. Finnigan discussed how many employees may choose not to opt-in to the shorter workweek given outside pressures and to demonstrate their will to excel at their profession.
“In some fields there’s a culture of being really proud of being busy and working a lot even if they’re given the option to work less,” Finnigan said.
Choosing to work long hours in defiance of the policy may have an unintended consequence for the rest of the company, which may mitigate the policy’s effects. Finnigan discussed how the younger demographic who are driven to establish themselves in the company, might be the first ones to disregard the policy.
“If it’s just an option then young workers might not take it,” Finnigan said. “If young workers don’t take it older workers might feel pressure to step up and then we’re back where we started.”
It takes both culture and policy in tandem to see a sustained change in the workplace — “The policy and culture have a very cyclical relationship,” Finnigan said.
The policy would have to be mandatory to have a significant effect. Otherwise, culture would simply override it and the workplace routine would remain unchanged.
The U.S. economy and labor force is one of the most diverse, robust and adaptive in the world so it seems natural that it should continue to reevaluate and tweak current policies.
If employers can see the productive merits in giving workers more autonomy and look at decreasing overall hours perhaps, they can begin driving the cultural change needed to uphold new policies that are advantageous for the labor and life ecosystem at large.
Written by: Andrew Williams — firstname.lastname@example.org