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In praise of part-timers

Iain Henderson

Faculty Blog

We’ve got it all wrong, says Carlos Slim, the Mexican telecoms tycoon and world’s second-richest man: we should be working only three days a week.

The Financial Times (July 18, 2014) reported that the 74-year-old self-made entrepreneur told a business conference in Paraguay that it was time for a “radical overhaul” of people’s working lives. Instead of being able to retire at 50 or 60, he said, we should work until we are older – but take more time off as we do so.  “People are going to have to work for more years, until they are 70 or 75, and just work three days a week,” he told the conference.  “With three work days a week, we would have more time to relax; for quality of life. Having four days [off] would be very important to generate new entertainment activities and other ways of being occupied.”   Mr Slim believes this would generate a healthier and more productive labour force, while tackling financial challenges linked to longevity.

Mr Slim’s proposal will sound mad to some.  But in 1922, many people thought Henry Ford  - usually  regarded nowadays as a ruthless capitalist exploiter of the working class -  had gone crazy  when he announced that his employees would only have to work a five-day week.  Our working week seems normal to us because it is what we have always known and what everyone else does. In much of the world, Saturdays and Sundays are days off. But just a generation ago in most countries, including the UK, it was not unusual for people to work on Saturday mornings too.

And Slim appears to be practising what he preaches.  In his Telmex fixed-line phone company in Mexico, where employees are eligible to retire before they are 50, he has instituted a voluntary scheme allowing such workers to keep working, on full pay, but for only four days a week.

Shorter weeks may not be suitable for every job, but they work in more jobs than most people think. Any experienced manager will tell you of cases where working parents (usually  women) on three or four-day weeks have been more productive and industrious than many of their five-day week colleagues. They are typically more focused and better organised – maybe they have to be, but the point is they are.

This topic may remind us that senior executives need to understand that the best way to measure people is by the work they produce, not by how much time they spend at their desks: its outputs not inputs that count.

And people like flexibility at work:  it helps them cope with children and elderly parents. There are years when their children require them more and others when they need them less. If companies are serious, particularly, about promoting women, they need to take this into account.

Mr Slim has a deep-held belief that education should be rethought. He told the conference in Paraguay that it should “not be boring, but should be fun” and should teach people “not to memorise but to reason; not to domesticate but to train”. Sounds like the EBS MBA …

Mr Slim, meanwhile, appears to have no plans to retire.