Future Work

With all the speculation about AI, robots and automation, are we ready to let technology take more of the strain at work?  Surely one of the advantages of automation is that we can work less?

To coincide with the launch of the Behavioural Economics Forum in May 2019, Amárach surveyed its SmartPoll panelists about the changes they would like to see at work, and some of the factors driving their views.

The Four Day Week

The five-day working week started to become the norm at the start of the 20th century.  Is it time for the four-day week, now that the robots are coming?  If it is, how will we get there?  One simple idea might be to introduce four new bank holidays every year for the next 10-12 years, effectively giving us a four day working week by about 2030.

We asked a representative sample of Irish adults what they thought about this idea and the response were extremely positive, and not just among those in employment:

Strangely enough, despite the popularity of the concept with working women and young employees in particular, no political party has so far advocated the four-day working week. A missed opportunity perhaps?

Money vs Time

Of course, a shorter working week is all very well, but can we afford it?  One clue lies in a question we posed to all those in work: would they rather be paid more and work the same hours, or be paid the same and work fewer hours?  We've asked the question before, and for the first time ever a majority of workers want to work fewer hours than earn more money:

Full time workers are more enthusiatic than part time workers about the money/time trade off.  This may be because a majority of full time workers in the same survey feel they could do their current job in four days or less, whereas part time workers don't feel they have the same leeway.

Fulfilling Work

One reason for such a strong preference to work less rather than earn more may simply be that workers don't enjoy their work.  To find out, we posed the same question asked in a YouGov survey of British employees in 2015 about how fulfilling their work is.  It turns out that Irish workers find their jobs generally more fulfilling than British workers:

In the UK survey, women were significantly more likely than men to find their work fulfilling, but it leans slightly the other way in Ireland.  Similarly, in the UK younger employees were as likely to find their work as fulfilling as most older workers, whereas in Ireland younger workers are significantly less fulfilled in their jobs than older workers.

Meaningful Work

Nevertheless, a lot of employees are unfulfilled by their work. Is this the result of what is pejoratively called 'bullshit jobs'?  We asked another question from the YouGov survey, this time about the extent to which employees feel their work makes a difference.  Again, the contrast between the UK and Ireland is quite stark:

Nearly twice as many British workers as Irish workers feel their job is not making a meaningful contribution to the world.  There are some variations in responses among different cohorts in the Irish workforce, however the biggest difference is between those in fulfilling jobs and those in jobs that are not fulfilling: nearly half of the latter feel their work isn't making a meaningful contribution to the world.

Better Decisions

Is there anything that can be done to improve employee job satisfaction?  One 'surprising' answer may be to improve the quality of decision making by business leaders and managers in the workplace.  While the vast majority of Irish employees are happy with the quality of decision making where they work, once again those who are less than fulfilled by their jobs are - to put it mildly - less than happy with decision making:

It may be a 'chicken and egg' thing - do you make people's jobs more fulfilling and they'll be happier with decisions, or do you make better decisions and job fulfillment will improve? - but it is certainly food for thought for those charged with recruiting, retaining and training employees in a full-employment labour market.

Either way, expect to hear more about the quality of decision making and the related issue of 'noise' in coming months.


Apart from better decision making, what else can managers and employers do to make work more fulfilling and get more out of workers who might be doing less in future (a lot less in a four day week)?

What about applying a little behavioural economics and psychology to the task?  We presented employees in our survey with a series of potential 'nudges' that could be introduced in the future (and have already in some organisations and countries).  The surprising thing is just how popular some of the more 'demanding' interventions actually are with Irish employees:

Generally speaking, women are more enthusiastic about nudge@work than men, and younger employees more enthusiastic than older ones.

Moreover, some of the proposals are not 'nudges' in the intended sense (optional but requiring a decision to 'opt out'): we used the word 'mandatory' to see just how far we could push some of the concepts and - despite the implied lack of choice - 4 in 10 Irish employees would welcome the chance to wear a fit bit device at work that drove their bonus payments and pay rises. 

We might enjoy a four day week in the future, but it looks like we'll have to work a lot 'harder' on the days when we actually are at work...




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