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  • 1st Mar 2022

Tackling long hours culture and presenteeism

The pandemic has dramatically shifted ways of working, with 57% of employees now wanting either full time home working or ‘hybrid working’ – where they are in the office for some of the week and at home for the remainder. At the same time, working hours have increased for remote workers during the pandemic, bucking the 150 year trend where working hours declined in Western countries. 

Long working hours harm our wellbeing and our physical and mental health, as well as reduce productivity. They also damage workplace equality, as women tend to have less time to begin with due to disproportionate caring responsibilities, reducing their capacity to work long hours.

So how can we create great workplaces that promote productivity and well-being? 

Employers are already trying a variety of different approaches to tackle long hours while increasing productivity. BMW and Volkswagen have limited after-hours employee emails, and some investment banks have introduced policies to cap working hours. However, many organisations see low uptake of such policies among employees because of organisational culture. This is something we’ve seen first hand in our Gender and Behavioural Insights (GABI) programme where we designed a number of interventions to tackle the gap between the prevalence of flexible working policies and actual take-up. 

A key behavioural barrier is a strong social norm of working long hours within an organisation, which may drive employees to work longer than they need. Employees may choose to work late simply because others are, or because they fear being judged. The amount of time we spend in the office (or increasingly online), often just to be seen at work (‘face time’) is frequently used to infer performance and commitment, especially in knowledge-based industries where measuring real productivity is hard. But the reality is that this presenteeism is associated with lower productivity. A culture of ‘face time’ is particularly detrimental to women, who are more likely to work part-time. Furthermore, harmful norms such as the stigmatisation of flexible working can prevent take-up of policies which are potentially beneficial to reducing long working hours. 

Remote work may also exacerbate long working hours, since the boundaries between working time and free time are blurred making it more likely for work to infringe on free time. This raises significant challenges for companies given that increased working hours can have detrimental effects on both job performance and productivity

What can employers do about long hours?

  1. Project new social and cultural norms: People pay more attention to certain messengers than others. Employers should ask managers and senior decision-makers to model and encourage reasonable working hours, with email signatures, calendar settings, or ‘out of office’ messages, for example. Employers should also discourage taking meetings and answering emails outside of normal working hours, and encourage booking time off in advance and keeping weekends work-free. A low-cost solution to problematic social norms could be to ban working past a certain time, or perhaps something as simple as turning off the lights. These measures tell staff that they are not expected to be working late, which may help shift the culture.
  2. Reward results and efficiency, not time: Organisations should strive to reward the results of work while ensuring that the hours worked to achieve those results are reasonable. This depends on setting SMART objectives, supporting staff to prioritise, and using feedback to measure performance against objectives and understand other important outcomes such as rapport and support within teams. Having these metrics makes it less likely that managers use working hours as a heuristic for good performance. 
  3. Support flexible working norms: Flexible working allows workers to choose the working hours that work best for them and better manage work-life conflicts. Employers should explicitly encourage flexible working at all levels of seniority, for all new positions, and for all staff, including men. We found that simply measuring and communicating staff support for flexible working increased staff intentions to work flexibly. Simultaneously, employers should ensure that part-time workers’ objectives and workloads are conducive to reasonable working hours, and that remote work doesn’t lead to overtime working by creating clear cultural norms (see above). Another approach (and one that is less one-size-fits-all) would be to relax formal working hours, as PwC did earlier this year. However, changing employee expectations around working patterns is unlikely to be effective without addressing the incentives that drive people to work long hours. 
  4. Pilot a 4-day work week: Once considered far-fetched, the 4-day work week is gaining momentum among employers both overseas and here in the UK. While there is a risk that a 4-day week will result in longer workdays, when implemented carefully and in collaboration with employees, it should lead to fewer hours spent more productively. For example, after trialling a 4-day work week, a Microsoft subsidiary in Japan reported a 40% jump in productivity. Here in the UK, Atom bank recently became the largest British employer to move to a permanent 4-day work week with reduced hours and no salary reductions, after finding no changes in productivity from their previous 5-day, 37.5 hour working week to the new 34 hour working week. 

If you are an employer and would like our help in designing and piloting an intervention to improve employee productivity, please contact us to explore opportunities to collaborate. 


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