In Obvious News, Turns Out Working Fewer Hours Leads to More Productive Workers

So, my job is measured in output. When Accountingfly brought me back to Going Concern in late 2018, we agreed upon me delivering x number of articles a week for y amount of money and that was that. There’s a loose expectation that I’ll write more than a sentence when filing a story, but funny enough one of my most popular posts of the last three years is literally just one word so even that is flexible. Regardless, the owners of this website could not possibly care less how many hours it takes me to write an article, nor do I care much to bill them that way, as long as it gets filed at the end of the day. So it all works out.

Of course, that’s not how most jobs work. We continue to have this idea that 40 hours minimum is the acceptable full-time workweek (yeah, I realize the audience here chortles heartily at the concept of just 40 hours a week), and that work should be measured in hours rather than output. But when you really think about it this makes no sense at all.

Last week The Atlantic tackled the topic of killing the five-day workweek, starting off with a real-world example. Social media management tool Buffer — a fully remote company long before anyone heard of the Rona — trialed a four-day workweek with no decrease in pay last year with some surprising results:

Miraculously—or predictably, if you ask proponents of the four-day workweek—the company seemed to be getting the same amount of work done in less time. It had scaled back on meetings and social events, and employees increased the pace of their day. Nicole Miller, who works in human resources at Buffer, also cited “the principle of work expanding to the time you give it”: When we have 40 hours of work a week, we find ways to work for 40 hours. Buffer might never go back to a five-day week.

At a moment when the future of work is being decided—when businesses are questioning the value of physical office space and when lower-paid workers are agitating for better treatment as the economy reopens—what worked for this small, somewhat quirky tech company might be much less radical than the rest of the American workforce has been led to believe. People who work a four-day week generally report that they’re healthier, happier, and less crunched for time; their employers report that they’re more efficient and more focused. These companies’ success points to a tantalizing possibility: that the conventional approach to work and productivity is fundamentally misguided.

In 2011 my esteemed former colleague Caleb Newquist wrote about a survey in which a whopping 66% of finance professionals said they’d even be willing to take a salary hit of up to $18,000 a year in order to have a shorter workweek. And we know how y’all are about your money.

He touched on the obvious downside to this thusly:

Of course what isn’t mentioned is that even with a four-day work week, a number of people would just end up working longer hours on those four days and would spend a portion of their free day checking email and other various work-related activities. In the Big 4 (and the rest of the top 10-20 firms) however, there are people who are completely satisfied with the status quo and others willing to give their lives for the firm, so there’s little chance that you’ll see a big shift in culture.

You know, if the Big 4 exodus rages on like it has been this past year or so, there won’t be anyone left at accounting firms but the staunch defenders of the status quo. Funny, their reward for loyalty to the firm will just be more work because everyone who could share the load got the hell out of there long ago.

The Atlantic piece goes on to suggest — and this will come as a shock to some dead weight management at your firm who cannot possibly fathom such a thing — that overworking is nothing to be proud of. Here’s the thing about that. The entire rickety foundation of public accounting is built upon this idea that working more is noble, that you all sacrifice the life in work-life balance for the greater good because that’s just what you do. The firm even relies on you all to regulate one another, constantly measuring yourselves against your colleagues because obviously if ol’ Kevin on the team went to his kid’s soccer game one Sunday instead of billing half a day buried in an Excel sheet, then he must be a huge piece of shit who is dragging you all down. Kevin may or may not be a piece of shit, but the bigger piece of shit is the firm management understaffing the team and expecting you to do more and more work for the same amount of money.

The Atlantic piece continues:

Regardless of any benefits to businesses, stripping away all of work’s extra scaffolding and paying people the same amount for fewer hours—whether they’re salaried or paid hourly—would genuinely nurture human flourishing. It would make caregiving, personal development, and the management of modern life easier for people across the economic spectrum. And it would reignite an essential but long-forgotten moral project: making American life less about work.

That sound you just heard? Partners’ spleens recoiling up into their throats at the batshit insane concept of life being more than work. The horror!

Maybe if the Big 4 exodus gets bad enough one of the firms will get so desperate they float the idea of a four-day workweek to recruit talent. Hopefully it doesn’t work out like that whole “unlimited” PTO thing.

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