The 'great resignation' creates fertile ground to demand flexible working

OPINION: The great industrialists have always understood the relationship between economic stimulus, productivity and time away from work.

Henry Ford introduced the five-day week in his business 100 years ago as a means to give his own workers time to buy his cars. It worked, and the developed world followed suit, shrinking the standard six-day week and codifying the norm that would remain “the working week” for the next century.

Our leading businesspeople, thinkers and workers now agree we need a comparable change to that made by Ford – one which acknowledges the superstorm created by the collision of the digital age with the pandemic.

Before Covid-19 we were talking about the four-day week as part of the future of work – a productivity focused, reduced-hour model that would maintain profitability while allowing millions of workers to be better at work and at home, helping save the planet and balancing some of our modern social ills.

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The pandemic accelerated the pace of change and has put the question of how we work at the centre of family life, society and economies around the world.

Whole nations are already on the case. Spain’s government is supporting a four-day week trial for businesses nationwide; the successful Four Day Week Ireland campaign has signed 20 companies to a 2022 trial; and Scotland is trialling a four-day week in the fulfilment of a campaign promised by the ruling Scottish National Party.

In the United States, California congressman Mark Takano has introduced a bill that would reduce the standard work week to 32 hours and treat anything more as overtime, and Microsoft Japan’s four-day week trial resulted in a 40 per cent uptick in productivity.

Henry Ford (centre) introduced the five-day week in his business 100 years ago as a means to give his own workers time to buy his cars – and it worked (file photo).
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Henry Ford (centre) introduced the five-day week in his business 100 years ago as a means to give his own workers time to buy his cars – and it worked (file photo).

What is driving this movement?

Fundamentally, workers now feel they should be consulted – their voices should be heard. This is what is driving the “Great Resignation”.

There are no more top-down dictums or edicts disguised as negotiation, as Apple chief executive Tim Cook recently learned.

He runs one of the most talent-hungry businesses there is, and perhaps assumed that Apple’s wealth, prominence and desirability as an employer would mean that when he told staff they would be coming back to the office three days a week, it was a foregone conclusion.

Not so – many employees bristled at not having been asked what they wanted to do. They expected to be consulted and listened to. They had autonomy.

Charlotte Lockhart: “Workers now feel they should be consulted – their voices should be heard. This is what is driving the Great Resignation.”
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Charlotte Lockhart: “Workers now feel they should be consulted – their voices should be heard. This is what is driving the Great Resignation.”

The Great Resignation reflects that people en masse are exercising their right to be heard and their choice about how they work, where they work, and who they work for.

I often say: “As leaders, we need to remember we borrow people from their lives,” reflecting that work is just a part of their lives, so employers and employees – more than ever before – have to function as a true partnership.

The Great Resignation also constitutes an orderly but widespread rebellion against imbalance in business structure and compensation. Workers, especially those in lower-paid roles, do not feel they should tolerate the C-suite receiving extortionate compensation – salary, bonuses, stock options, cars, you name it – relative to those beneath them.

Dan Price, the Seattle entrepreneur, understood this equation as early as 2015, when he cut his own salary by US$1 million so he could start paying a minimum of US$70,000 a year to all his employees.

As a result his business tripled and staff turnover halved, and it bounced back from the pandemic. He continues to look for new ways to give better conditions to his business partners – his people.

He told RNZ’s Kim Hill that contrary to the right-wing talking point (at the time he announced the plan) that his business would be a case study of failure in MBA programmes, Harvard Business School now discusses these “gravity payments” in its MBA course.

They now teach (in his words): “When you pay people more, their productivity goes up. Not because they’re more motivated, that’s the misnomer, but because their capability increases, they have less stress, they have less pressure, and they’re able to focus more on their work, and they have an increased sense of licence.”

Dan Price is dead right, and he was arguably the first of the new wave of entrepreneurs to connect his thinking with that of Henry Ford.

If you exchange productivity for time but do not compromise on pay, you change the “us and them” model of work to one of partnership, because a business does not exist without its people, and you need them at their best. The partnership, as Ford theorised, might even include turning your employees into your consumers.

As four-day week conversations continue around the world, we are seeing more and more employers getting it, focusing on the wellbeing of their people not just because cutting down on absenteeism and presenteeism is better for the bottom line – safe at work and well enough to go to work – but because the movement towards greater care of people as whole beings is genuine and enduring. And employees are seeking out those employers.

And the four-day week movement, commensurate with the spirit of the Great Resignation – better terms and benefits, more rights – will always support paying people more, because the fundamental argument is for the benefit of time in exchange for productivity.

If people are not stressed about finances, they can bring their best, most focused selves to work. If they have more time outside work, they can upskill, retrain, and bring their new knowledge and abilities back to the business.

For any economy, a better-trained workforce, and better consumers for products and services, is desirable.

Let the last word go to US professor and author Brené Brown: "It takes courage to say yes to rest and play in a culture where exhaustion is seen as a status symbol.”

– Charlotte Lockhart is the co-founder of 4 Day Week Global.