Tinkering With The “Work Week”

A New Zealand company called Perpetual Guardian, which manages trusts and estates, decided to experiment with moving its 250 employees to a four-day work week.  In the experiment, employees worked four eight-hour days, rather than five eight-hour days, and researchers from the Auckland Institute of Technology studied the results.

videoblocks-african-young-man-with-glasses-in-white-shirt-and-black-tie-working-in-office-african-man-shaking-hand-another-worker-indoor_rsrwtwcxb_thumbnail-full01The experiment worked so well that Perpetual Guardian has decided to permanently implement a four-day work week option.  The researchers found that, during the trial period, there was less absenteeism, employees showed up on time, didn’t leave early, and took fewer breaks.  The employees also reported increased productivity, more energy and focus, lower stress, and a better work-life balance under the new system.  The experiment also indicated that workers at Perpetual Guardian identified where time was being wasted — such as in unnecessarily long meetings or office chatter — and changed their practices to be able to get their work done in a shorter work week.

And, because the Perpetual Guardian workers are completing the same quantity of work under the new system, they’ll continue to be paid what they were being paid for working a five-day week.

It all sounds good, but would it work in the United States?  During my more than 40 years of working, changes to the standard 9-5 five-day work week — whether it’s shorter working days, or fewer working days — have been the Great White Whale of workplace reformers . . . and the five-day work week still generally prevails.  But during that 40-year period many standard practices have changed.  Leaves of absence and work-at-home arrangements are much more common.  Workplace attire rules are much more relaxed.  And employers generally seem to be a lot more flexible about taking time off to pick up kids or take an aging parent to a doctor’s appointment.

Of course, the morphing of the 9-5 five-day work week has worked in the opposite direction, too.  With the advent of smartphones and laptops, white-collar workers are no longer tied to their office desks — and many find themselves toiling after hours and on weekends to answer emails or finish reports.

Will the four-day work week catch on?  I’m skeptical — not because it’s not workable, but because I think the old days of standard, across-the-board practices applying to all workplaces and all businesses are behind us.  Technology is allowing employers to shape their practices to their individual needs.  For some employers, it might be a four-day week, for others, it might be an understanding that certain work needs to get done, without much concern about when or where that occurs, and for still others it might be something entirely different.  And employers seem to have a much better attitude about the need to keep productive, capable workers on the job, even if it means bending or changing rules to accommodate their needs.  I’m convinced that the American workplace will continue to morph.



When The King Goes To Canada

Burger King has announced that it is buying Tim Horton’s, a Canadian doughnut and coffee chain, and moving its headquarters to Canada as part of the move.  From the frenzied reaction to the decision, you’d think the head guys at Burger King had set fire to the American flag and then used the remains to mop the floor by the deep frying machine.

Ohio’s Democratic Senator, Sherrod Brown, seems to be the one who has gone the deepest off the deep end; he’s urging a boycott of Burger King in favor of American burger outlets like Wendy’s and White Castle.  In an email he sent out yesterday, Brown calls what Burger King is doing “abandoning your country” and says it is part of a “growing trend in which companies get rich in the United States, then move to a foreign tax haven with the stroke of a pen.”  Bernie Sanders, the Independent Senator from Vermont, says the move shows “contempt” for the “average American.”  Dick Durbin, the Democratic Senator from Illinois, also has ripped Burger King for being un-American.

It’s not entirely clear that Burger King’s motive in pursuing the Tim Horton’s deal is to avoid taxes.  The company says they are making the move not to dodge taxes, but because they want to buy Tim Horton’s and think the move will be more palatable to Canadian regulators if the combined company’s headquarters is in Canada.  It seems undeniable, however, that the move to Canada will change how the new company pays taxes — companies that are headquartered in the U.S., under U.S. tax laws, pay the steep 35 percent corporate income tax on all income earned anywhere in the world (even in countries that have no corporate income tax), whereas companies headquartered in Canada (and many other countries) pay the different corporate tax rates in the countries in which the income is earned.

The overreaction to the Burger King move seems like pretty obvious, and silly, political posturing.  So Canada, our friendly neighbor to the north with whom we share a peaceful common border that is thousands of miles long, is now a despicable “tax haven” like, say, the Cayman Islands?  So corporations that see a better deal and pursue it are now unpatriotic if that deal reduces the taxes they pay in the U.S.?

As a reminder to our Senators, corporations don’t exist to funnel as much money as possible to the U.S. government.  Instead, corporations are principally answerable to their stockholders and, in most instances, have the primary goal of making money, not shelling it out unnecessarily.  Burger King isn’t breaking any laws by buying Tim Horton’s and moving its headquarters, and if doing so will help it save on unnecessary tax payments and realize better shareholder value, what’s wrong with that?  If American tax policy is out of step with that of Canada and other countries, maybe America needs to revisit its policy rather than blaming companies for making entirely rational economic decisions.

One other point on this:  there’s a Burger King near my house.  I’m not sure how many people it employs, all told — 50, perhaps? — but how do you think those people would be affected if Sherrod Brown’s call for a boycott were successful?  If Burger King moves to Canada its restaurants will continue to employ thousands of Americans, and it will continue to pay taxes on the money it earns here.  That seems fair to me.

Part-Time Problem

Richard has another really good piece in the Chicago Tribune today. This one is about the significant increase in part-time workers in Illinois.  The link is http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-involuntary-parttime-0808-biz-20140808-story.html.

It’s hard to argue that the economy has rebounded fully when so many willing, able workers want to find full-time work, but can’t. Those of us who are fortunate to have full-time work can’t fully appreciate the angst of not knowing what might be in your next paycheck.

How do we help these people realize the American Dream?  The only emploment-related proposal being addressed is raising the minimum wage, but that’s no panacea. A raise in the minimum wage isn’t going to help these people — it will just cause their employers, who are trying to hold on themselves, to be even more grudging in allocating hours to the people at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Debating The Value Of Work

The recent CBO report on the impact of the Affordable Care Act — which concluded that total hours worked by Americans will decline because people will chose not to work more in order to preserve their government subsidies for health care — has spurred a debate about work. Supporters of the law say that allowing Americans to choose more leisure time is a good thing. One article in this vein is entitled “Why Do Republicans Want Us to Work All the Time?”

One point that seemingly is lost in this discussion is how we are going to pay for this leisure time. In the 20th century, utopians dreams about people having more leisure time involved the use of labor-saving devices that people purchased with their paychecks, not government programs that discouraged people from taking on work that was available to them and that they were capable of doing. One obvious question from the CBO report is, who is going to pay for the subsidies (and the other ever-growing government programs) if people are working fewer hours and therefore paying less in taxes?

But let’s lay aside the issue of who is going to pay for all of this, and focus instead on work as a standalone concept. If America as a country has really reached the point where people are debating the value of working, then we have strayed far from the very deep roots of our culture. Our Puritan forefathers believed that work promoted qualities, like industriousness, that were crucial to a successful social order. Pioneers and farmers worked from dawn to dusk. Immigrants were attracted to our country because the Land of Opportunity afforded the opportunity to work and build a better future for their families. For generations, all American political parties agreed that work was good — indeed, essential — and that our goal should be to achieve full employment. Now, apparently, that unanimous view is fracturing.

I’m one of those people who believes that work is a good thing. I think working involves important values, like personal pride and self-reliance and selflessness, in that many of us who are working are doing so to provide better lives and opportunities for our families. I think working gives structure to our lives and promotes qualities like cooperation and teamwork that you simply don’t develop sitting at home. I’m not opposed to leisure time, but I think it should be earned — not encouraged by government subsidies. And I wonder how much of that government-subsidized leisure time that some people are now extolling will be used productively, and how much will be frittered away watching the TV or indulging in other time-wasting or even personally destructive activities?

Work is work, and it is a good thing. I’m amazed that the topic is even open for debate.

Working Three Jobs

Recently the Wrestling Fan and I had lunch at a favorite restaurant, where we were waited on by a young woman whom we know.

She proudly announced to us that she had been hired for a position at a local hotel, where she will be supervising certain nighttime operations.  We congratulated her, wished her well, and expressed regret at the fact that she would no longer be available to serve us our noontime meals.  Oh no, she explained, we didn’t understand:  she would be working at that job, and would keep her waitressing gig, and would also continue to work at another job that she already had but hadn’t mentioned to us.  Three jobs was a pain, she conceded, but she needed the money and really had no alternative.

Is holding down two, three, or even four jobs becoming “the new normal” for Americans — or, as the Wall Street Journal recently put it, is America becoming a part-time society?  Whether you blame the health insurance costs imposed by the Affordable Care Act, or the other health care, benefit, and related employment costs imposed by hiring full-time employees, or just general trends, it’s becoming increasingly clear that many employers that shed full-time jobs in the Great Recession aren’t looking to go back to the way things were.  Instead, they are filling their manpower needs with part-time workers, seasonal employees, or workers provided by temp agencies — all of whom receive sharply limited, if any, benefits and can be canned at a moment’s notice.  And, without extensive benefits programs to create and supervise, such employers find they don’t need a large HR department, either.

Many of the people who aren’t employed full-time aren’t lazy; they’re out busting their butts trying to find work that allows them to have a happy and fulfilling life.  That’s the case with our young waitress and her three jobs.  Three jobs!  Imagine the hassle of filling out forms for three different employers, dealing with three bosses and their different practices, juggling competing work schedules, and commuting from job site to job site to hold on to each piece of part-time employment you felt lucky to have.  It’s probably fair to say that workers who hold multiple jobs in an effort to get close to a 40-hour work week are, in many ways, working harder than people who hold one, blessed, full-time job.

For our waitress, the American Dream of a 40-hour-a-week job, with benefits, is just not attainable.  Are we looking at a future in which such full-time employment status will become, in fact, nothing but a dream?