A shortened workweek for senior employees maintains institutional knowledge and eases transition periods--and helps employees live better. 

Author: Craig Mellow
Carlos Slim wants to hold on to talent for longer.

Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim is turning social philosopher at age 76, advocating a massive shift to a three-day workweek, particularly for older employees. “People should retire later, because they’ll have more knowledge and experience,” Slim told Business Week magazine last month. “And they should work three days a week, so that it creates space for others.”

Slim has good reason to change the subject from his flagship company, cellular carrier América Móvil, whose stock price has halved since Mexican authorities started enforcing new anti-monopoly laws two years ago. His own net worth has shrunk by $20 billion during that time, to a mere $52 billion, according to Forbes.

Still, social scientists agree the magnate may be on to something. A study published this spring by Australia’s Melbourne Institute found up to 25 hours at the desk each week increased cognitive performance in workers over 40.  With more toil the older brains lost sharpness, owing to “fatigue and stress.” A whopping 78% of US employees feel that flexible hours would “contribute to their success” on the job, according to the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. Slim says his company has started offering reduced workweeks to high-value employees; about 40% have taken up the offer.

Cutting hours to spread workloads can prove daunting in practice. The most famous experiment is France’s 35-hour workweek law, instituted in 2000. But still, the French put in an average 39.5 hours weekly, just a hair less than the eurozone figure of 40.9 hours, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Hopes that the working-hours cap would lower unemployment also proved illusory. The French jobless rate is stuck above 10%, near a 20-year high. Still, there are bright spots, as in Scandinavia. Toyota’s Swedish outpost in Gothenburg switched to a shorter workday more than a decade ago, and the company reports happier staff, lower turnover and an increase in profits during that time.

US corporations have addressed employees’ frustration with the classic 9-to-5 schedule by increasing work from home rather than cutting hours. A recent survey by the US’s Society for Human Resource Management found the number of companies offering telecommuting has tripled since 1996, to 60%. Experiments in job sharing have shrunk from 24% to 10% over two decades.

Slim might note that the 40-hour week once seemed utopian, too.  “Shorter workweeks are a solution to civilization shifts,” he declares. Maybe, but the details look devilish.


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