Why Gothenburg's six-hour working day trial is doomed to fail

MT visited Sweden's second city to learn about its headline-grabbing trial of a six-hour working day, but found that flexible working, not shorter days, is the answer for the office.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 27 Jun 2014

Sweden is known for crime novels, uber-cool design (Ikea definitely included, in MT’s humble opinion) and high taxes that fund world-class education and welfare from cradle to grave. So it came as no surprise to hear the nation’s second city, Gothenburg, has come over all lefty, planning to trial a six-hour working day. But is it a pr wheeze ahead of elections later this year or a bona fide attempt to increase productivity?
 
The year-long ‘experiment’ may have grabbed headlines across the globe, but it will actually only take place in one care home, admits Mats Pilhem, Gothenburg's deputy mayor, in his office off the city hall’s main foyer, a glorious mid-century confection of curved wood and balconies.
 
The 30-40 staff at the home – which has yet to be selected - take seven days out of every 100 off for illness, double the council employee average. The idea - unsurprisingly a product of local government brainstorming - is to see if cutting shifts from eight hours to six would bring that figure down and improve things for both the elderly and their carers, Pilhem says.
 
However, the council will be adding a third to the wage bill (to hire more people to make up the shifts, while keeping current employees on the same wages) when the trial kicks off some time in the summer, which Pilhem says he hopes will prove a blueprint for wider policies in the 2018 and 2022 elections. Convenient timing perhaps, since there are elections in the city this September, although Pilhem says ideology rather than reelection is his motivation. Hmm.
 
‘It’s about 100 years since we decided to work 8 hours and it’s about 50 years since we worked only 5 days a week. So I think it’s time to make a change and cut the working hours to 6 hours,’ Pilhem says.

A study by his party claimed it would cost 12bn Swedish Kronors (£1.1bn) per year to cut public sector working hours across Sweden to seven per day, which they compared to 350bn SEK of central government tax cuts in the past year.

Gothenburg city hall

Opposition councillor Helene Odenjung, a former shipping agent, isn’t quite so sure the numbers – or the motivation behind them – add up. ‘I think it is up to you and me to decide how much we want to work,’ she tells MT in her office a few floors below Pilhem. ‘If people love their work, it’s ok for me if they work hard and long days.’
 
She suggests care homes need more staff, if the taxpayer can afford it, rather than the same number working shorter days. Private companies, meanwhile, say the local government ‘don’t know what they’re talking about’.
 
But Swedes are, by and large, a measured bunch. Margareta Jensen Dickson, HR manager of SIBA, an electronics retailer with almost 900 staff across Sweden, Denmark and Norway, refused to pass judgement on the idea and says her company will follow the trial ‘with great interest’.
 
Choice and flexible working are more important than shorter days though, she says. ‘It’s different perhaps when you’ve got a family or young children, but… quite a lot of youngsters want to work a lot.’
 
Not all young people though. ‘I feel like eight hours is a little too long, you can’t stay productive that long,’ says Per Bergstrom, the 25-year-old, Gothenburg-based co-founder and former chief exec of student IT consultancy We Know IT, who is now finishing an MBA and working for a software company.
 
Bergstrom is, however, another fan of flexible working. ‘In the startup world, we focus much more on the value created than the time spent in an office chair,’ he says.
 
For hard manual work, a shorter day may well be the answer, if it is affordable. A Toyota car service centre in Gothenburg already works on six hour shifts, with staff paid the same as if they were working eight, and claims it has improved efficiency.
 
However, a six hour day would mean companies hiring more staff if productivity falls, and either cutting wages to reflect the shorter working days or upping salaries and taking a hit to their margins. Someone's got to lose, so this is one Swedish idea that may not be quite so fashionable.

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