Working hours

So, as we enter the last month of an extraordinary year it may be time to reflect on the wild predictions that have been made about the world of work.

Some were apocalyptic, some were laughable and one or two are reasonably likely to come true. Regular readers will know that, in my opinion, the world of work will not be revolutionised. Not in the way that, for example, e-commerce has been catapulted to stardom. With Black Friday volumes doubling previous records and African consumers getting their first taste of reliable online shopping.

But the workplace and the way we use it will evolve. And I use the term workplace deliberately because, no matter what you hope for, your workplace will not be your bedroom. Nine months of remote working has convinced the most home-loving among us that there are separate times and places for work, for sleep and for personal life. That in itself is a positive evolution: a more balanced approach to work and life.

In my New Year wishes, I’d hope to build on that by breaking some of the pointless norms we workers have endured for more than a century. First among them the need to arrive early, work late and be present to be valued.

Unilever, the world’s biggest consumer goods group, has just begun to trial the four-day working week. They’re doing it in New Zealand, which is about as far from the rest of the world as you can get, in many senses. Perhaps they are hoping to avoid a Wuhan-style pandemic escaping to infect their global workforce until they are good and ready.

During the 12-month trial, Unilever will pay its New Zealand employees five days for a four-day week. They will use the findings to inform future working practices for 155,000 staff worldwide. Their approach is to find the right combination of flexible working hours to make staff as productive as possible (what works for you) while improving the way they measure individual performance and contribution (what works for us).

Could this work in Africa? Sure it could, among those businesses that oblige staff to work collectively in offices. Perhaps less so with the way we organise factories and manual labour. It certainly couldn’t be a case of “Wednesday, we are closed” We’d have to trial it intelligently and solicit feedback from customers as well as employees. But I think we might be surprised at what we learn. The younger generation of employees should certainly respond to it and would welcome the opportunity for a more intelligent performance appraisal and a fairer reward and recognition system.