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the work issue | Marcela García

Embracing the three-day workweek

Philip Giordano for the Boston Globe

The world’s richest man says we need to shorten the workweek. Easy for him to say, but who really wants to disagree?

Mexican multibillionaire Carlos Slim has been advocating for a three 11-hour days while also predicting that many of us will work into our 70s. Or, in other words, Slim, a workaholic worth almost $80 billion, believes work needs to be made more sustainable for the long haul. The extra leisure time would lead to happier and more productive workers, he has said.

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Beware when billionaires start promulgating big labor ideas — and condemning the rest of us to work into old age. But the concept of fewer workdays is not only intuitively pleasing, it’s already gaining approval across corporate America as employers focus less on where and when one’s work is done and more on the end product. In a recent survey of 1,051 organizations with 50 or more employees, the Society of Human Resource Management found that 43 percent of employers allowed at least some people to compress their workweek. That’s up from 38 percent in 2008.

And there’s some strategic sense to shortening the workweek.

For one, the compressed week is a good fit for congested regions — like, for instance, Boston — because of the cost of commuting, according to Thomas Kochan, professor of management and co-director of the Institute for Work and Employment Research at MIT.

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Kochan likewise thinks workers stand to benefit from having more control over their schedules. “It has some advantages for people in situations where there’s child care involved, or elder care, where there’s need for flexibility,” he said. “If I have a sense of control over how I do my job, where and when I do it, that makes people really productive and highly motivated.”

For most American enterprises, the compressed week is just one tool for providing employees more flexibility. “There’s part time work, there’s flex scheduling, there are telework options,” said Lisa Horn, the Society of Human Resources Management’s director of congressional affairs. “Each organization has to do that analysis and look at their workforce and business model and determine what works best for the business and their workforce.”

It is radical and refreshing to think of full-time work that still gives workers more than half the week off.

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Nonetheless, in a world where work seems to find a way to invade every day of the week, it is radical and refreshing to think of full-time work that still gives workers more than half the week off. The United States remains the land of the workaholic. Outside of South Korea, Kochan notes, we have the longest work year in the world — although the historic trend has been toward shorter and shorter American workweeks.

So perhaps Carlos Slim, who’s a friend and admirer of the futurist author Alvin Toffler, is just looking ahead. Maybe in 50 years, the three-day workweek will be the norm. And there will be overtime for working Mondays.

Marcela García is a regular contributor to the Globe’s opinion pages. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.
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