In 2018 I was commissioned by a company to conduct a feasibility study. They had one question: “Is it possible to reduce working hours and increase productivity at the same time?” Armed with 20 years of anthropological knowledge and applying methodologies usually preserved for the academic study of human societies, I set out on a journey of discovery. Applying anthropology to business questions allows the question to be viewed from a number of angles that might not at first seem obvious and allows the company to gain a much deeper understanding of their business, their markets, their clients and the environments that they operate in.

busy-office

Over the last few of years much has been written on the subject of reducing the number of hours that should be worked each week by the working population. The topic has been scrutinised within academia and by the popular press around the globe. It has been decried as a ‘communist folly’ and praised as a ‘solution to unemployment and homelessness’. And while it might be a common topic of interest, the idea itself is not a new one. By the latter half of the 19th century Labour movements in the US and Europe were calling for a reduction in the number of working days (from 6 days to 5 per week) and a reduction in the number of hours worked (12 hours per day down to 8). The reasoning behind this demand was to reduce the number of accidents, which, it was claimed, rose dramatically after 8 hours of physical work. This argument turned out to be credible after the number worksite accidents fell dramatically with the introduction of the shorter working week.

More recent studies have listed various benefits that are accredited to working fewer hours. Some of these benefits include: a reduction in stress levels, an increase in productivity, a reduction in the number of sick days employees take, improvement in physical wellbeing, improvement in social relationships, as well as a reduction in traffic, pollution and commuting times. Despite these arguments, there are still many business leaders and economists who argue against the adoption of such practices. They argue that it damages productivity, affects work ethics, creates a non- competitive environment and that it is expensive to implement and to run. Or simply that it is outright ‘Communism’ trying to take hold of our lives and our economies. So where does that leave us?

Productivity and Culture

Research commissioned by One of Europe’s biggest ‘online companies’, vouchercloud.com, revealed that the average UK office worker spent less than three hours per day involved in productive work, the rest of the time they were engaged in other activities such as searching social media, reading the news, chatting with colleagues, going for smoke breaks or making food and drinks or simply daydreaming. However, while this might be true of British office staff it’s not necessarily true of working behaviours and practices in other countries.

It has long been known and understood that cultures, and the social norms they produce, shape and influence people’s motivations and their work ethics. It is also known that these cultures and norms play a role in determining the likelihood of the introduction of such new practices and their success. For example, the idea of a shortened working week is less popular in the United States or Japan, where employees work longer hours and receive fewer days paid leave per year than their European or Australian counterparts. And while it is often believed that hours worked equates to more productivity, research in Europa and Asia has found this to be untrue. The Japanese can work up to 3 times more overtime than the Germans do each month, but their GDP isn’t 3 times higher. In fact, according to data provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Germany’s GDP per capita in 2018 was higher than that of Japan, 54.98 thousand versus 46.07 thousand. This then raises the question, what drives production and productivity?

Motivations

Productivity is shaped by people’s motivations and their abilities (P = M+A). As such, motivations are a central theme within most economic philosophies, where it has long been argued that ‘incentives’ promote ‘motivations’. According to mainstream academic thought motivations can be broken down into two main, or basic, types; Intrinsic and Extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivations are those that can be defined as originating from within the individual, such as a genuine interest in the task one performs or professional pride in what one does. Extrinsic motivations, on the other hand, are generated externally from the person and take the form of a ‘reward’, whether that be in the shape of praise, financial incentives or physical awards. However, in the same way that working environments can positively motivate employees they can also have a negative effect on employee’s motivations. Such as when the working environment becomes toxic, when employees become stressed, when the working processes become monotonous or when KPIs become unreal and unattainable. It should also be noted that financial or performance incentives, offered by employers can adversely affect the employees perception of their work. Incentives are then only weak reinforcers in the short run, and negative reinforcers in the long run, known as the ‘Crowding Out Effect’.

Applying anthropology and its methodologies to business questions provided the client with the deep knowledge they required in order to make informed decisions enabling the business to grow, prosper and become even more competitive.

If you would like to know more about how anthropology can help your business become more productive and competitive please feel free to drop me a line.

Kevin Porter
Consultant Anthropologist