Revisiting Google founder’s take on 40-hour work week

As we reported yesterday, Google’s Larry Page and co-founder Sergey Brin, proposed that perhaps it is time to rethink the 40-hour work week. A lot of people wrote comments on the story so I thought I would revisit the topic again.

In yesterday’s story I included a quote from Larry Page where he said, “…the idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people’s needs is just not true.”

But there was another quote from Page that I didn’t include so here it is:

“Most people, if I ask them, ‘Would you like an extra week of vacation?’ They raise their hands, 100% of the people. ‘Two weeks vacation, or a four-day work week?’ Everyone will raise their hand. Most people like working, but they’d also like to have more time with their family or to pursue their own interests. So that would be one way to deal with the problem, is if you had a coordinated way to just reduce the workweek. And then, if you add slightly less employment, you can adjust and people will still have jobs.”

What Mr. Page didn’t say was ‘since 100% of the people would like an extra week of vacation and a four day work week, and since I’m the CEO of Google, I’m announcing that from now on all Google employees will get an extra week of vacation and a four day work week at the same pay.’

And that brings up the point that just because it would be beneficial to the employees doesn’t mean the people in charge are going to implement any changes. If they can squeeze an extra hour or two of productivity out of their employees they will. If they can boost production by utilizing new technology that requires fewer working hours, they will. At the same time, however they will also consider reducing the work force since they can get the same or even more productivity with fewer workers and more workers mean less profits.

It’s cold hard economics. Raise productivity while you lower your fixed costs and you are more profitable (and with fewer employees there are fewer people to share the profits with).

It also occurred to me that there are already tens of thousands of workers in the U.S. that work less than 40 hours a week – not by choice or because they want to spend more quality time with their families, it’s because they are part time employees and their employers don’t want to pay for insurance or other benefits. They could have two full-time employees each working 40 hours a week but it is cheaper in the long run to have four part-time employees working 20 hours a week.

A reduced work week is only attractive to people on salaries, not to people getting paid by the hour. Turn Mr. Page’s words around a little and I think you would get an entirely different answer.

If you ask part-time, hourly workers ‘would you like to be able to work a full 40 hours a week?’ and I bet most of them would raise their hands and say yes.

I’m all in favor of using technology to make us more efficient and productive, a reduced work week and longer vacations (hell, I couldn’t do my job without a laptop, a broadband connection and the Internet) but I still think the people running the companies who can benefit by implementing technology will simply see this as a way to increase their personal wealth at the expense of their workers. Why would they stop at a 5% increase in profits if they could also lay off half their workforce and add another 10% to the bottom line? They wouldn’t.