In my day job I'm the chief executive of Our Community, an organisation that supports Australian not-for-profits. We've started exploring ways to move to a four-day week. It'll give the workers here more time for family life, or fishing, or learning to play the bassoon, or TikTok, or wasting, as they choose.
I don't think it's going to result in any significant productivity loss, partly becuse there are a lot of studies that say that, and partly because we've just gone through an exhaustive two-year global experiment to answer the question of whether people need moment-by-moment supervision to keep them up to the mark. When the results were tallied, we found that staff had worked from home perfectly satisfactorily.
If we carry on our businesses ignoring that clear lesson, we're surely flying in the face of the evidence. Which, to be sure, is what most people do most of the time. As George Orwell said, "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle."
It's like plate tectonics: in some areas of life things proceed smoothly and gradually, a millimetre or so a week, and in others the plates grind for decades and then slip apart in sudden earthquakes. When that happens, we suddenly notice as a society that we're actually not the society we thought we were at all, and we run around frantically until we can settle on a new equilibrium.
It's long past time for us to drop our current working habits. We moved to the 38-hour week in 1983. If you go by ABS figures, productivity has gone up by 83 per cent since then, which would imply we can afford to move to a 20-hour week. I'm not actually proposing that, but I will say that the burden of proof surely lies on anybody suggesting we're currently at the sweet spot.
Why are we so attached to traditional practices? The past is certainly a popular tourist destination. We do tend to think of real work as the Fordist mechanical production line, where steel ingots go in one end and family sedans with walnut trim come out the other. Making bricks or combine harvesters seems more fundamental, more honest, than faffing around with finance or services or software. And even better, of course, is farming, close to the land and in tune with the rhythms of the seasons.
Australia's always been a majority services economy, though, back to Federation - services accounted for 55 per cent of GDP then, 85 per cent now. However worthy making or growing things is, we don't need very many people to do it, and those of us who feel the need to work with our hands just have to go into the kitchen and make beetroot chutney. Most Australians work with computers, not spanners, and Moore's law says that the speed and power of computers doubles every two years. Some rough arithmetic suggests that since personal computers started to become more common 40 years ago, their capability has increased by a factor of 1,048,576. Our work week, then, should have shrunk accordingly to 1.3 seconds (and no, Our Community employees, that's not on offer. Four days. That's the deal. Sorry).
There are still a few things to be sorted out before we make the move - mostly to do with seeing that the few jobs that do cover the full week get fair treatment - but my main worry is looking around and asking myself (and my board) what else we're just not seeing because we're still wearing the blinkers of habit.
Many - perhaps most - bright ideas consist of letting go of bad ideas. There's a World War II story about a scientist called in to do a time-and-motion study of a British coastal artillery battery. Why, he asked, was that man standing at the back of the gun during the firing cycle? After a certain amount of turning over the archives, they found the answer: he was there to hold the horses that they hadn't had since 1868.
What am I still missing, and why? Because these habits aren't really accidental. Our conventions are built into particular belief structures and serve certain narratives. The five-day week, for example, both relies on and supports beliefs in hierarchy and the primacy of discipline. Many bosses, at many levels, enjoy giving orders, and aren't going to allow any subordinate any autonomy, whatever the evidence base says. Some people still believe that rules, any rules, are all that stand between ourselves and bloody revolution (or diversity, whichever is worse).
And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go and see what's in front of my nose.
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