I left home when I was 22 and took a flight to London. It was February 1988 and I joined 80,000 others who deserted the sinking ship that was the Irish economy. Unlike most of them, I had a job in Ireland, but left it for the bright lights of Soho and the smell of a pound.
The job I left was a 35 hour a week role in an Accountancy practice. When I got to London, I expected this to change. To my country bumpkin eyes, London was the centre of the financial universe, with young hustlers in striped shirts and braces working 16 hours a day to cover markets in New York and Tokyo.
The reality was a little different. Thatcher had been in power for nine years by the time I arrived, but she hadn’t quite snuffed out the flame of collectivisation and worker’s rights. I got a job with a large insurance company, as an Accountant in their head office finance team. I thought I had finally arrived in the Promised Land. That at last I was dining at the altar of high finance. But in many ways, it was like stepping back into the 1950s.
There were twenty other Accountants in the team, all white and all male. I was there when the first female Accountant was hired and management patted themselves on the back for their sense of diversity. On my first day I was invited to the pub for lunch by my boss. I had never drank at lunchtime before and starting the habit on a Monday didn’t seem a good idea. I found out later that he was an alcoholic. He would have happily drank every lunchtime but settled for three times a week to keep up appearances. He had Wednesday and Friday already sorted out but needed to be creative to find an excuse to go on Monday. I was his excuse on my first day but blew it by turning down the invitation. I had been offered three jobs and took the one with the Insurance Company because they had an excellent canteen. At that age, I couldn’t boil an egg and finding a job that would feed me every day was key.
The other thing that happened on my first day was a meeting with the staff association representative. He told me about the company sports club, the social club, the collective bargaining process and the company working hours. We were expected to work a 35 hour week and had to be in the office between 10am and 4pm each day, with an hour for lunch. The remaining two hours a day could be done before 10am, after 4pm or for most people an hour each side.
If you did an additional seven hours in a month (which wasn’t hard as it amounted to twenty minutes a day) you were entitled to a day off.
This wasn’t unusual at the time. Companies competed on how many benefits they could offer employees and employee care and well-being was high on their priority list.
I mention all this because the company I work for now has introduced a four day week. We still get paid the same as when we worked five days and in theory you don’t have to increase your hours on the four days you are in the office. This has been met with huge interest from the likes of CNN, BBC and every morning show from here to Hawaii. The owner reckons it has been clicked on two hundred million times and he has received more free publicity than Banksy did when he shredded that picture.
I get met with incredulity when I tell people about this. The most surprising thing to them is that a company would introduce a policy that is beneficial to their staff when the trajectory of the last thirty years has been in the opposite direction.
I left that comfy job in London for a three year posting to Luxembourg. When I rocked up back in Dublin in 1996 the world had changed. Globalisation was stalking the world and Capitalism was king. If you weren’t working hard enough, your job would get shipped off to some third world country overseas. Thatcher and Reagan’s legacy was that collectivisation and employee welfare were consigned to the rubbish bin of history and that individuality was king. We moved to single contracts, performance based pay and a bonus culture.
If your job is office based, it’s difficult to objectively measure performance because the metrics aren’t as straightforward as it is in say, the widget manufacturing business. People are positively assessed for the amount of hours they work because this is the laziest form of measurement. Like the guy who sends emails at 1am or the girl who is always first in and last to leave. It’s an easy optic and one that is easily abused by the cunning masters of presenteeism. I’m not immune to this myself and am in fact writing this at work while pretending to be busy.
I am indulging in this trip down memory lane to make the point that the policy my company here in New Zealand has implemented is not revolutionary. It is more generous than the one I worked under in 1988 (I now have to work 30 hours a week rather than 34 then) but the principle is the same. They both aim to reward staff by giving them time back rather than money. At the centre of both policies is a concern for employees above profit. Although both companies believe that if you have a contented and rested workforce, then more productivity will result.
It should not be shocking that my company has introduced a policy like this. What is shocking is that everybody used to think like this and then moved in the opposite direction. We lost our way over the past twenty five years. We are taking the first steps to re-embrace that glorious past.