Could automation and altruism combine to shorten our work week, and make the modern workplace a more professionally- and spiritually-satisfying environment?
All around the world, as a result of automation, technological change and ongoing research into the optimal patterns of human productivity, we have begun to witness a growing push to reduce the length of the average workday.
Organizations, corporations and even countries have started to implement shorter workdays and work weeks. The Baha’i teachings view this trend as a very positive one. As early as 1907—long before the eight-hour workday was officially adopted—Abdu’l-Baha foresaw a future where the total number of hours we work would markedly decline, and the number of leisure hours increase:
That all mankind might have opportunity, it was necessary to shorten the hours of labour so that the work of the world could be completed without such demand of strain and effort, and all human beings would have leisure to think and develop individual capacity ….
Soon there will be a six hour day, a five hour, a three hour day, even less than that, and the worker must be paid more for this management of machines, than he ever received for the exercise of his two hands alone. – Abdu’l-Baha, as reported by Mary Hanford Ford in Star of the West, Volume 10, pp. 106-107.
Some companies have tried shortening their workdays from the standard eight hours to six, and they’ve actually recorded increases in productivity and profitability, as well as in worker retention, talent acquisition and employee satisfaction.
But could a shorter workday also help reduce discrimination against women?
I work in the tech world, which mostly employs men. Technology companies face growing criticism for their glaring lack of equal representation by women and minorities.
Most people outside the tech world do not understand that this institutionalized discrimination has gradually and stealthily built itself into many big technology companies like Google, Apple and Facebook, with structural decisions disguised as perks and benefits that actually prop up and reinforce a culture of male-dominated workaholism.
Facebook, for example, reports that women account for just 32% of its total workforce—and fill only 16% of its actual tech jobs. Apple’s most recent workforce report reveals the exact same level of male dominance, with 32% of its jobs filled by women and 68% by men. Google fares a percentage point worse, with 31% women.
What accounts for this huge disparity? In three of the world’s largest tech companies—and in many, many more that don’t publicly report their gender diversity—men dominate the workforce, representing more than two-thirds of employees.
By comparison, the United States Department of Labor reported in 2017 that almost half of the nation’s workforce—47%—are women. So what’s wrong with this picture? To find out, let’s evaluate the underlying reasons for this discrimination, and see if we can go beyond the conventional wisdom to address it.
By now, everyone is familiar with the bottomless newsfeeds built and delivered by the likes of Facebook and Twitter—all intentionally designed to keep you on their apps and websites for as long as possible. In other words, these web giants have optimized their services to take ever-greater slices of your free time, family time and productivity from you.
Of course, these companies live in an environment of ever-increasing competition among each other, so as one tech giant improves their “time on service” numbers—the analytical measurement of how long each person stays on their app or website—others have to further optimize by providing you with greater personalization, more clickbait and other methods designed to keep you scrolling and hitting the “like” button. Those addictive “features,” in return, bring the person who first posted the item back to the service to enjoy their greater number of likes, and so on and so on.
Humanity loses the equivalent of thousands if not millions of human lifetimes every day to this massive perpetual motion marketing scheme.
This same psychology happens in the workplace, too. Giant tech companies like Facebook optimize their work environments with perks and benefits and even the design of the offices themselves to keep employees at work for as long as possible. On the surface these so-called perks—free food, dry cleaning, game rooms, massages, etc.—seem like fantastic services for lucky employees. If you look deeper, though, they are really designed to get employees to work longer and longer hours for the same salary.
If you were an executive at one of these companies, you’d likely ask yourself: how can I get 12 hours per day from my team rather than eight? Answer: offer all of those perks and “free” services, which cost much, much less than the real value of the extra hours worked. If I make my workplace more alluring, more ostensibly comfortable and more laden with so-called “free” stuff, I dramatically extend the hours my employees will spend there—especially if I hire mostly young, single males who don’t have spouses or children waiting for them at home. What a bargain for the company!
Once implemented, that stay-at-work scheme inevitably infects the culture at most companies. If the guy who sits next to you (and it’s usually a guy) spends 12 hours a day at his desk, you’ll definitely feel like a slacker if you go home after only 10 hours. Eight hours? Unacceptable!
This new strategy, now not only accepted but expected at many large tech firms, has massive negative consequences and creates a profound discriminatory impact. It plays into the “bro” culture in tech firms everywhere, and can produce hostile work environments as a result. It is one of the major unacknowledged reasons the big tech firms have so few female employees.
Think about the mothers, and even the fathers, who really do want to put in an honest day’s worth of work—but who also need to live their own lives and attend to their families. The idea of them not being able or willing to spend endless hours in a work environment optimized to keep people there for as long as possible doesn’t work for them—so they get pushed out, or leave out of pure burnout or frustration. No wonder the average age of employees at these companies is typically in the 20’s, and fewer than a third of the employees are women—and probably a very small percentage of those women are mothers.
I find this to be a collective atrocity of unimaginable proportions, and a deliberate one. It is committed by companies that are supposed to be good players in the world, but who are really wolves dressed like sheep, enslaving their employees with carrots rather than sticks.
Instead, the Baha’i teachings recommend implementing a shorter work day. When that happens, companies will actually get better employees—and will actually get six productive hours from them, rather than the 12 hours of the nonsense called work in many modern tech environments. In reality, most 12-hour days are made up of mindless, unproductive activity, much of it often spent on those bottomless Facebook and Twitter feeds I mentioned earlier.
I make this proposal from long experience. The company I run is much smaller than the tech giants, and I’m happy to say that we offer great services to our employees—but we have consciously chosen to stay away from the kinds of perks intentionally designed to keep employees at work for longer hours.
Instead, we’ve tried to make the lives of our employees easier and better, and the hours they spend at work more reasonable and more enjoyable. We encourage efficiency and productivity, and reward those qualities rather than long work hours for their own sake. I’m proud to say, as a result of those policies, that 55% of our employees are women, and half of the women working for us are mothers.
What have those policies accomplished besides gender balance? Well, our productivity has risen. Our faithful employees have helped us build an enviable record of company loyalty and retention, so we don’t constantly spend the enormous amounts that other tech firms must expend recruiting, hiring and training new people to replace those they’ve lost as a result of their workaholic cultures. We don’t have the frantic, dawn-to-dark, unproductive but highly-pressurized workplaces that burn people out so quickly and so often. With sensible hours and reasonable perks, we’ve built a company culture that truly does value and promote gender and racial diversity.
Policymakers and employment experts alike say that shorter workdays result in happier, healthier and more productive employees, fewer sick days, and a general upswing in the number of people employed. Because of the productivity gains, wages can often stay at the same levels—or even higher.
All of these benefits have given my company an enormous competitive advantage in the marketplace—and made our workplace a humane, hospitable and happy environment.
After all, humans aren’t machines, and human productivity inevitably declines the longer people have to work. We know that a healthy work-life balance means better quality and more sustainable work. We also know that happier, more motivated workers generate much higher productivity. With more time to pursue your interests, pay attention to your family and your relationships, and stay physically active, your emotional and physical energy and well-being increase—and that pays dividends in every part of life, including work. In that respect, Abdu’l-Baha said that women should demand their rights with the power of intelligence, with scientific accomplishments, with artistic attainments:
The world of humanity has two wings—one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible. Not until the world of women becomes equal to the world of men in the acquisition of virtues and perfections, can success and prosperity be attained as they ought to be. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 301.
The Baha’i teachings say that the time has finally come for absolute gender equality—so let’s create workplaces and workdays that allow us all, men and women alike, to view our work as a joyous service to humankind.