Working 9 to 5

Welcome to this week’s blog. If you’d prefer to listen to an audio version, click here for the podcast.

Working 9 to 5; what a way to make a living’. Our work patterns have become so entrenched that they have been immortalised in song. However, it hasn’t always been this way, and change is on the horizon. For instance, last week 30 UK businesses commenced a 6-month trial of a 4-day working week. With our cities and all forms of real estate having significant dependencies on our working hours, what might be the broader implications of shifts in how and when we work?

Let’s start by looking backwards. A long way backwards. When we were hunter gatherers, our priorities were very simple: food, shelter and safety. The accumulation of possessions and other capitalist notions simply didn’t exist. As a consequence, the number of hours dedicated to ‘work’ was matched to what was needed to survive and was typically very low. It has been estimated that early people worked perhaps 20-25 hours per week. Of course, this was not all roses; it was a brutal life and people died young; but the amount of time dedicated to leisure was nevertheless high.

This changed when people settled down in one place in the agricultural shift. For the first time they became invested in place and would work harder to defend what they had. However, work patterns were still hugely variable. The harvest and the winter brought with them big variations in how people worked, and of course back then working time was limited to daylight hours, which amplified the seasonal variations.

Industrialisation changed all of that. The shift from fields to factories radically changed our economy, creating huge wealth for those who could leverage new productivity machines and work day and night, 7 days a week, throughout the year. People were forced out of rural, artisan roles into this new economy, and the whip hand was very much with the capitalists. For these reasons, the 1800s became a high watermark for the number of hours worked, (often in excess of 80 hours per week).

For much of the next 200 years, we experienced a steady reduction in working hours. This started with the introduction of the weekend. Most Christian-majority countries had observed a day of rest on Sunday since classical times; however, the two-day weekend was the product of negotiation between factory owners and employees in the 1870s, and not adopted in the US until the early 20th century. If you feel that you work too much now, then bear in mind that the working week has halved for most of us over the past 100 years, mainly as a consequence of increasing labour rights, and technologically driven productivity gains. The average number of hours worked by individuals in the UK is now 35 per week. What a victory for workers and society!

What? You still think you’ve got it hard? It seems that this average figure belies stark disparities and unstated assumptions. The huge elephant in the room is that the combined working time of married couples has increased dramatically over the last 100 years, as female participation in paid employment has risen sharply. Whilst household productivity tools like the washing machine have abbreviated the extent of household chores; they haven’t gone away, and the evidence is that women still pick up a significantly disproportionate share of these tasks, despite now working full time jobs. On the face of it, on average women work fewer paid hours than men, but the true number of hours spent ‘working’ is much higher, and the time available for leisure correspondingly lower. This has fundamental impacts on women’s willingness to commute and to accept promotions, both of which have come into the spotlight in recent years.

Secondly, all people are not equal. The number of hours worked by professional and managerial workers in London (a group to which this readership is skewed) is much higher than in many other roles and in other regions. In the 21st century, successive waves of corporate restructuring have left those employees who retained their roles picking up more responsibility and working harder than ever. There has in fact been a 15% increase in those working ‘excessive hours’ in the past decade. Adding to this, a culture of ‘competitive presenteeism’ has developed in many high-performance workplaces, often tacitly encouraged by management, with longer hours correlated with career advancement and financial reward, regardless of personal productivity. Meanwhile, income inequality, an ‘always-on’ society, and a relaxation of Sunday trading rules, has meant that for many workers at the other end of the earnings spectrum, the weekend is no longer protected time.

Finally, technology has opened the door to 24/7 working. Not only are you now expected to spend longer at your desk, you are also expected to be ‘on’ when you get home and when you’re on holiday. By stealth, many of the gains made over the past century have been unwound for professional workers, and many should feel justified in feeling overworked.

However, the world is changing. People are saying that enough is enough, and many progressive employers are actively facilitating ways to help their teams find better balance and eliminate inefficiencies. A four-day working week is an example of this. Those undergoing the recent trial will get paid 100% of their salary, for 80% of their time, on the proviso that their employer gets 100% of their former productivity. Evidence from previous trials around the world suggests that this may well be possible. In many jobs this comes through increased focus and effort during the working day, with the payoff of an extended weekend. For those who are already high performers, with stacked workloads this might look like an elusive ambition. Time will tell.

What might this mean for the future? There appears at least a prospect that over the next 10 years, a reduction in working hours (seen in the past century, but arrested in the past decade) will resume. Partly this will be due to technologically enabled productivity tools (e.g. AI) allowing businesses and individuals to deliver more for less (reducing both work tasks and household chores). However, more significantly it will come down to how workers bargain with their employers for the benefits of this productivity. Right now, employees around the world are in the driving seat. That will likely taper, but their personal positions on wealth accretion vs other factors I think are less likely to do so.

Regardless of this, the greater certainty is that workers will have more and more choice about when, how and where they deliver these working hours in the future. And there is considerable uncertainty about how this collective choice will materialise. This will be the bigger influence on society and cities.

Patterns of work are one of the biggest determinants of how our cities operate. If as a society we shift to a 3-day weekend, it will have a significant (probably detrimental) medium term impact on central value. The oft-cited sandwich shops in our city centres will lose yet another day’s custom as footfall on the extra day becomes more diffuse. Conversely, it would likely have a positive impact on distributed amenity (the kind of places that are currently busy on the weekend). If, however, instead of a 4-day week, workers move to compressed (or ‘core’) working hours on all days, then central value may well increase. If you work from ten till four, then I suspect that at least some of the time gained back will be spent on centrally located leisure, shopping and other commercial activities (once you’re in town, you may as well make the most of it). My personal view is that the latter has much to commend to society, including importantly an unburdening of our infrastructure. Either way, in the long run this is good news for leisure operators.

One final thought. I have presented the discussion above with a tone that work is something that workers actively seek to avoid. And this is not entirely correct. Meaningless and stressful work, delivered over excessive hours and over which one has limited agency, is naturally undesirable. However, for many, particularly those in high value roles, meaningful work is a significant contributor to personal purpose. Work often defines who we are, and delivered right can be hugely positive beyond financial reward. As Confucius said, ‘Choose a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life’. It is lofty to think that we in the property industry can influence this. However, perhaps that’s exactly what we should be striving to achieve. Unquestioningly working 9 to 5 is in fact a terrible way to make a living. However, creating the conditions and spaces for meaningful work that people deliver out of choice is exactly the type of economically impactful and personally rewarding activity that will define the future of work.