Fans of the new regime are certainly easy to find. Take Emilie Guimard. The Paris-based economist now enjoys a couple of three-day weekends a month, on top of her six weeks of annual paid vacation. She has taken up tennis, and started reading the Sunday edition of Le Monde from cover to cover. Many of her long weekends are spent touring museums across Europe. “I now have time for things that make my life richer, and that is good for me and for my employers,” she says. “When you are relaxed and happy in your personal life, you work better. Most of us in the office feel we are more efficient on the job than we used to be.”
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Many bigger companies have grown to love the 35-hour week. On top of the tax breaks they received for hiring more workers, the new regime allowed them to negotiate more flexible ways of working. Staff at large manufacturers, such as Renault and Peugeot, have agreed to work longer hours when production peaks and shorter hours when it slumps.
So the Cassandras who warned that the 35-hour week would send the French economy into instant meltdown have been proved wrong. The gross domestic product has grown, and unemployment, though still above the EU average, has fallen. Productivity also remains high. Indeed, some evidence suggests that many French workers are more productive now. With less time on the job and more leisure to look forward to, they make greater efforts to finish their work before clocking off.
“Whatever happened to the Age of Leisure? Why are so many of us still working so hard?”
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Yet working less is just part of the Slow blueprint. People also want to decide when they work. They want control over their own time—and businesses who grant it to them are reaping the benefits. In our time-is-money culture, giving workers dominion over the clock goes against the grain. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the norm has been to pay people for the hours they spend on the job rather than for what they produce. But rigid timetables are out of step with the information economy, where the boundary between work and play is much more blurred than it was in the 19th century. Many modern jobs depend on the kind of creative thinking that seldom occurs at a desk and cannot be squeezed into fixed schedules. Letting people choose their own hours, or judging them on what they achieve rather than on how long they spend achieving it, can deliver the flexi-bility that many of us crave.
Studies show that people who feel in control of their time are more relaxed, creative and productive. In 2000, a British energy company hired management consultants to streamline the shift system at its call center. Almost overnight, productivity nose-dived, customer complaints shot up and staff began leaving. By denying employees a say in when they worked, the new regime had ruined morale. Realizing its mistake, the company promptly gave the staff more control over its shifts, and soon the call center was more productive than ever. Many of the workers said that having “time autonomy” at work helped them feel less hurried and stressed both on and away from the job. Karen Domaratzki bears witness to that at Royal Bank of Canada: “When you have control over your own time, you feel more calm in everything you do.”
The benefits of working less, and working when it’s convenient, are clear enough, but now let’s consider why it sometimes makes sense to work more slowly. In the just-in-time, modern workplace, speed seems to be all-important. Email and cell phones demand an instant response, and a deadline lurks around every corner. A 2001 survey conducted by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions found that EU workers were under much greater time pressure than a decade ago. A third now spends all or almost all of their time rushing to meet deadlines. Of course, speed has a role in the workplace. A deadline can focus the mind and spur us on to perform remarkable feats. The trouble is that many of us are permanently stuck in deadline mode, leaving little time to ease off and recharge. The things that need slow-ness—strategic planning, creative thought, building relationships—get lost in the mad dash to keep up, or even just to look busy.