Carlos Slim’s big idea certainly grabbed the world’s attention. And why wouldn’t it have done so? The CEO of Mexican telecom giants Telmex and America Movil suggested last month that we shorten the work-week to just three days, arguing that such a “radical overhaul” would give workers more time for recreation and intellectual pursuits, ultimately boosting creativity –and productivity–in the workplace. Of course, to make the plan viable, admitted the second wealthiest man in the world, people might have to labor 11 hours a day or remain in the labor force well into their 70s. And so the flurry of articles that hit the international press contained reactions ranging the spectrum, with some saying Slim’s proposition would certainly encourage innovation while others called it a wealthy businessman’s ploy to take advantage of the working class.
Slim is by no means the first to push for a shorter week, although he might well be the first industrialist to do so. John Maynard Keynes, the founder of modern macroeconomics, suggested in a 1930 paper that the workweek of the future might only need to be 15 hours. More recently, management pop star Timothy Ferriss caused a fuss with his best-selling book The 4-Hour Workweek. There is scientific evidence that taking regular breaks improves focus during the workday. Slim already allows Telmex employees who are over 50 and eligible for retirement to only work four days a week while retaining full pay.
But while Slim’s idea has plenty of allure, it’s also not much more than an idea. No government has put a proposal on the table for policy change of this nature, nor is there broad-based corporate support for a three-day workweek. “It’s just a headline,” says James Sweeney, chief economist at Credit Suisse’s investment bank. “And not even a remote concern of economists.” The adjustments needed to actually implement such a change could also prove problematic. For instance, many people may not be physically able to continue working until they’re 75. Eighty percent of U.S. workers work into their mid-50s, but that number drops to 20 percent by one’s mid-70s, according to Sweeney. Surely younger workers who are also parents would balk at laboring 11 hours a day.
If a three-day week is a pipedream, then, here’s something that isn’t: the rise of flexible working arrangements, or any working arrangement that falls outside the traditional 9-to-5 work day or 40-hour week. Such programs have surged in popularity of late, in large part due to technology-enabled freedom in the scheduling of work time or location. Flexible scheduling helps workers balance work obligations with family commitments, proponents say, and therefore boost productivity. And unlike Slim’s proposal, the programs already enjoy broad policy support. Since June, for example, new legislation in the U.K. has given employees the right to request work flexibility if they’ve put in more than 26 weeks at their current companies. Citing personal experience, Sweeney says such policies will continue to spread. “Some of my best reading and thinking time comes at home during the evenings,” he says. “And the more flexibility we have to capture our most productive moments, the better.”