By Carmen Hawker
While a 40-hour work week seems standard in today’s workplace, it wasn’t always this way – and it might not be for much longer if the Founders of Beamible, Stephanie Reuss and Victoria Stuart, have anything to do with it.
They have broken up with the 40-hour work week, and here’s why they think you should too.
Whose bright idea was this anyway?
According to B Corp CultureAmp, the makings of the 40-hour work week started in the 19th century after the Industrial Revolution, when activists and labour union groups advocated for better working conditions for workers who were frequently putting in 80 to 100 hours a week, often in pretty gruelling conditions. Next to that, 40 doesn’t seem so bad, does it?
With laws mandating eight hour work days in the US by the mid 1920s, car manufacturer Henry Ford began to popularise the 40-hour work week after suggesting that working any more than five, eight hour days yielded only a small increase in productivity.
Of course, good capitalist that he was – he would have also calculated that people could spend more money if they weren’t at work, and that they’d likely require more transportation to help them do it. Regardless, the 40-hour work week became the ‘way of the (white man’s) world’ in the Roaring 20s.
Even during the Great Depression of 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the world would shift to a 15-hour work week within one hundred years thanks to the rise of industrialisation, automation and a trend towards people wanting to spend more time at home or on hobbies, once their necessities had been paid for.
While it seems unlikely that we’ll see a 15-hour work week considered ‘normal’ in the next eight years, if the fallout from the pandemic is anything to go by, the traditional 40-hour slog is over.
Call it the ‘Great Resignation’, the ‘Great Reshuffle,’ the ‘Great Exhaustion’ or perhaps the ‘Great Purpose Revolution’ (heard it here first), how can we heed the lessons of our time and continue disrupting the traditional work model to unlock a more flexible and equitable future, both in the B Corp community and beyond? That is the question.
Building a more inclusive economic system
B Lab recognises that we cannot credibly build an inclusive economic system without addressing the fundamental injustices, inequities, violence, and discrimination that disproportionately impacts people of colour, women and people with a disability or neurodiversity. It is no longer enough to be quietly non-racist, non-sexist and non-ableist, if it ever was.
Instead, we have a responsibility to build a community of vocal, visible, inclusive, anti-racist, and distinctly feminist business leaders with Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) central to all of our operations.
Holding firm to the 40-hour work week is inherently exclusive to the point of discrimination, with the idea of tipping these ‘traditions’ on its head starting to gain momentum throughout the B Corp movement and around the world.
World leaders including Aotearoa Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern even suggested recently that New Zealand businesses could trial a four-day work week as a strategy to help rebuild domestic tourism and the economy as COVID-19 restrictions lifted, and she’s not alone, with countries like Belgium, Scotland, Iceland and Spain all trialling four-day work weeks with varying degrees of success.
Barriers to the successful implementation of ‘flex work’
There is more and more research to suggest the benefits of a four-day working week with studies showing everything from happier, healthier employees to reductions in stress and absenteeism, and even increasing productivity levels and employee engagement, especially among women (WGEA, 2021). Though will a four-day work week really solve the problem?
Whether it’s a reduced work week or simply more flexible working environments, one thing is for sure: impact is increasingly being measured on outcomes, not time at a desk. While there are certainly limitations, particularly in hospitality, healthcare and some other industries that require you to be present at a certain place at a certain time, generally speaking – greater flexibility allows more people to approach their work in different ways, paving the way for greater gender equity, diversity and inclusion – and isn’t that what we’re all striving for?
So, why don’t more organisations use non-traditional role structures to retain and attract talent?
That’s the question on B Corp Beamible’s (formerly Beam Australia) lips, following their extensive research into the seven major barriers to the successful implementation of ‘flex work’.
Beam(ible) me up, Scotty
The top reason cited for leaving: a lack of personal fulfilment, purpose or meaning at work. While this is a big issue ‘out there’, the so-called purpose-problem is unlikely to be the case in the B Corp movement – so what unique problems are B Corps facing when it comes to attracting and retaining talent right now? According to Beamible, it’s burn out and unsustainable workloads.
Being ‘purpose-driven’ doesn’t make you immune to having staff quit. But it can lead to unintended business risks like trying to fit it all in and burning out.
Policy, senior leadership, financing, and culture were also among the ‘flex barriers’ Beamible found, often manifesting in low take-up of flexible work options, gender imbalances at the top of the organisation and offices still full at 6pm.
For this dynamic duo, it quickly became clear that the global workforce needed a scalable technology solution to help overcome these critical issues that were seemingly present in nearly every organisation looking to implement greater flexibility.
And so, Beam(ible) me up, Stephanie and Victoria, with the pair originally creating a jobs marketplace for flexible and part-time roles to pave the way for an alternative way of working, and later a cloud-based platform where individuals, teams and organisations can design, prioritise and optimise roles.
Worried your organisation might have flex barriers? Download The Flex Playbook.
A modern flex to the big (labour) short
If, like Beamible, you are determined to flip the FTE on its head, it might be time to take a ‘bottom-up, people-led’ approach to workforce management and analytics. Why is this important? Because on top of fears about the ‘Great Resignation’, we are also facing a significant downturn in the labour market and talent shortages are real.
Why the big (labour) short? Perhaps it’s war in Europe, a pandemic, floods and fires, closed borders, an overwhelmed healthcare system, climate despair. The fact that it’s possible to list so many monumental stressors for the modern worker (and human), means it’s not overly hard to see that any number of factors are conspiring to create the big (labour) short, both big and small.
It’s true – flexibility alone will not fix these issues, if only. But one thing Beamible consistently found in their research is that: by recognising that the old work systems are broken, and both adding and normalising more flexible work opportunities, businesses were able to increase workforce participation and create more inclusive workplaces that allow more people to do good more often (= more impact).
“Many organisations design their business model and processes around one type of role: full-time, 9-5, permanent, one person does one job. But there are many other ways to cut a cake! There are hundreds of permutations of flexible work.
“As long as organisations have people with lives, families, obligations and needs, we will be there to empower people and organisations to thrive through flexible work.”— Beamible
If you’re serious about diversity and inclusion, get flexing
The pandemic has had a considerable impact on the way we work, but also the way we view work. A recent Gallup poll showed 66 percent of women and 56 percent of men said greater work-life balance and better wellbeing was one of the most important factors when considering whether or not to take a job. And, according to Forbes Council member Anita Samojednik, the pandemic’s impact on workers’ value systems has subsequently driven them to seek a new kind of currency: flexibility on their own terms.
Further to that point, McKinsey’s latest Women in the Workplace 2021 report found that the pandemic took such a huge toll on women’s wellbeing and capacity that one in three women are now considering downshifting in their career or exiting the workforce entirely. And what did women report they needed? Greater flexibility and more recognition – so it’s time for businesses to get flexing.
Photoy by Izabela Harbur on Getty Images
Flexibility by design
With many B Corps passionate about greater gender equality, diversity and inclusion, Beamible put the issue of how to create more flexible workplaces on the agenda at our latest People & Culture workshop to celebrate B Corp Month 2022.
While we certainly expected an open conversation about how to promote wellbeing in the workplace and perhaps even a discussion on the latest trends in flexible work – what also emerged was a solution-focused and generous-hearted space where B Corps shared all of the ways in which they are trialling and taking flexibility to the next level, with design at the heart of it.
Work design is all about deciding how, when, where, and by whom work gets done. According to Beamible, there are two key enablers of flexible work design that help ensure individual and team success: team work (habits that foster a flexible work culture) and role design, and it was this last one that resonated most.
“We need to design roles thoughtfully — and with a team-based view of who does what work. It only matters that we allocate people to the highest value work, optimise our talent budgets and adapt to how our people need and want to work. It’s no longer important that everyone works a traditional 38+hour week.”— Beamible
This focus on the ‘how, when, where, and by whom’ of our roles led to a fruitful discussion on how to manage your workload, without burning out, when your business is growing and scaling, fast.
What some participants were interested to learn was that B Lab’s own Impact and Engagement Manager (formerly Community Manager), Kira Day, has been working with the team at Beamible on exactly this. Looking to reduce her weekly hours from an unsustainable 60 to a more manageable 38 without impacting outcomes, Kira has been looking for ways to redesign her role as the B Corp community continues its rapid growth.
“Over a 15-year period, the global B Corp community has grown to include 4,500 businesses. Yet since the onset of the pandemic, B Lab Global has received more than 6,000 applications for certification from businesses — more than all of the current B Corps and some!
While this is amazing and shows that the movement has finally reached its tipping point, it has also meant our team has doubled in size and our workload has increased dramatically, creating a real ‘bowl of soup’ situation for some roles like mine.”— Kira Day
Photo by flowersandclassicalmusic on Getty Images
Reducing work hours in a hockey-stick growth period
As a test case, Kira was tasked by Beamible with redesigning her role to identify areas where the redistribution of responsibilities based on preferences, skills and capacity was possible.
Listing all of the activities she performed in an average week, and the time spent on each, Kira then tagged those that were critical to the role, those that could be redistributed, those that could be stopped altogether, and those that made the role enjoyable and worthwhile.
Using these insights, she made a host of changes, including renaming her role to ‘Impact and Engagement Manager’ to better reflect the type of activities she would be responsible for, as well as identifying a new role for B Lab to recruit: Comms Coordinator.
By mapping her role in this way, and taking a more holistic view of the way her role was designed, Kira was able to gain important visibility into the activities that had crept into her remit that didn’t necessarily belong there. It also gave her, and the organisation, the ability to craft a compelling business case to shift her focus and identify a major resource gap that really only became clear for the first time.
Read the full case study: Reducing work hours in a hockey-stick growth period ↗
When it comes to talent, flexibility is not an edge, it’s an imperative
From job ads to wellbeing budgets, there are plenty of ways that businesses can better codify and share their commitment to flexibility to attract top talent. Though, as Beamible warns, your flexibility offering needs to be holistic and systematically embedded across the organisation to attract quality staff. To retain them, it’s doubly important.
What could this look like? Some examples shared at our recent People & Culture workshop included:
- Give details → outline exactly how your hybrid work and remote work options could work, including part time, asynchronous, job-sharing, four-day work weeks (for full-time pay) – making sure they’re available to anyone, for every reason;
- Hyper-personalisation → no one size fits all, and giving staff the ability to re-write or reshape their own job descriptions;
- Focusing on outcomes → rather than a laundry list of daily responsibilities;
- Protecting wellbeing → through sustainable workloads with more ‘white space’, or creating an ‘activity swap’ if there was another team member who enjoyed a task more;
- Giving employees a ‘health allowance’ → to spend on wellbeing activities that are meaningful and re-energising for them (e.g. gym membership, pilates, cat cafés etc)
- Encouraging managers to ‘leave loudly’ → show that flexibility isn’t just a word to them;
- Mind your language → banishing phrases like ‘I just work part-time’ or ‘you’re leaving early’ from the company vernacular.
Flexible work is the ultimate win-win
Here’s the thing: we know people want to work differently. We also know that organisations are ready to embrace greater diversity and inclusion, and that means greater flexibility. But they also might need a little help.
To support your organisation to create greater inclusivity and genuine flexible work culture, Beamible’s Flexible Work Playbook is a brilliant resource (backed by research) and great place to start (or continue) to flex.
With an in-depth and interactive guide to the seven levers of a high performance flexible workplace, complete with team activities to action and tactics to put in play, you can help your team map out their work, prioritise workload sustainability and attract more talent to see you through the big (labour) short and beyond.
Want to continue the conversation? Visit the B Corp Community forum and have your say.
Carmen Hawker (she/her) brings social change campaigns and communities to life through compelling and purpose-driven storytelling. With a background in communications and community engagement for women’s rights and maternal health organisations, she is also a Co-Founder of Australian-based non-profit The Global Women’s Project. She loves helping B Corps and businesses doing good to communicate their impact through content – all you’ve gotta do is CARMEN GET IT!