Is leaving work at 6.30pm 'very late'?

Is leaving work at 6.30pm 'very late'?
PHOTO: The Straits Times

She was talking about working till "very late".

I expected her to say "almost midnight" or at least "10pm". I've worked project hours such as from morning to 4am, so I have skewed expectations.

She said: "6.30pm."

The stranger said it with a straight face. I nearly fell off the seat on the train to fantasyland... I mean, on a tram in Melbourne, where I overheard that.

I was on holiday in Australia then. But with smaller shops usually closed by 5pm or 6pm (some even lock up at 4pm), it felt like the lovely people there were on perma-holiday.

Anecdotally speaking, I have friends in Singapore who said they would really try not to bug their colleagues in Australia from late Thursday onwards. Forget about Friday, Saturday and Sunday, mate.

Talk about work-life balance.

Lots of us can talk about only work life.

Some in other countries are talking about negotiations.

In Britain earlier this month, unions are trying to turn a dream into reality. A four-day work week will be possible this century if businesses are forced to share the benefits of new technology with their workforce - that's the claim by Britain's Trades Union Congress (TUC), which called on the government there to help people work less but get paid the same, reported the British media.

According to The Guardian, TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: "In the 19th century, unions campaigned for an eight-hour day. In the 20th century, we won the right to a two-day weekend and paid holidays. So, for the 21st century, let's lift our ambition again. I believe that in this century, we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone. It's time to share the wealth from new technology, not allow those at the top to grab it for themselves."

In Germany earlier this year, employers and trade union representatives in the metal and electrical industries agreed on the possibility of workers reducing their hours from 35 to 28 a week for two years. This is if they need to look after children or care for older relatives. This is part of a broader deal, reported Deutsche Welle. CNN said pay would be cut to reflect the shorter work week, while workers get the option to work 40 hours to earn more.

When I look around and see people still in offices or manning stores in Singapore way past the time of "6.30pm - very late" and answering work e-mails right through Saturdays and Sundays, mate, it feels like we're not getting on the train to fantasyland any time soon.

When the subject of a shorter work week comes up, people's faces become as bright as the festive candles of holidays such as Deepavali and Christmas.

But we usually talk about it when public holidays shorten the week, when it's like a gift that falls from the sky. We hardly talk about it in the official context of turning it into the norm, when it's more like the overworked and the underpaid shaking their fists at the sky.

Talking about fantasyland, New Zealand, where The Lord Of The Rings films were shot, is the setting for a work fantasy. What's more of a dream than elven princess Arwen, what's more desirable than the titular "my precious" ring, is the four-day work week tested out by a company there.

The Straits Times reported recently that a New Zealand firm, which let its employees work four days a week, said the experiment was so successful that it hoped to make the change permanent. Staff members were paid the same amount as when they worked five days a week.

You can take your fantasy ring and shove it (preferably into the fires of Mount Doom, please).

Fewer work hours for the same pay rules them all.

The firm, Perpetual Guardian, which manages trusts, wills and estates, found that the change boosted productivity among its employees, who said they spent more time with their families, exercising, cooking and gardening.

Human resources professor Jarrod Haar of the Auckland University of Technology said of the employees: "Their actual job performance didn't change when doing it over four days instead of five."

A BBC report said that at one Welsh firm, staff already get full salaries doing a four-day work week. Mr Mark Hooper, founder of IndyCube, said the transition to this new arrangement over the last 18 months had not been easy. But "it has been worth it", he said.

Reports about bold bosses leading their staff in working fewer hours in the week sound fantastic to us because "days off" jumps out at us. What we don't really want to think about is how we would have to work harder and smarter within those four days, not to mention sort out how to assign tasks, keep track of who's doing what and measure results, since we're prizing results over face time. We don't really want to think about how a shorter work week can be implemented for, say, companies with round-the-clock operations or are in customer-facing fields - counters and more have to be manned way past the time of "6.30pm - very late".

Then a report like that of Jinya inn comes along: The Kanagawa Prefecture ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) reduced work hours, yet staff pay rose 40 per cent.

In 2014, the bosses made the radical move to close the inn every Tuesday and Wednesday. They went further in 2016, deciding to close after lunch on Mondays and to stop taking overnight guests that day. They developed software to manage tasks from reservations to accounting. They channelled their employees' energies towards creating better meals and other selling points.

In spite of the changes, total annual sales for the inn and its group of companies increased from 290 million yen (S$3.5 million) in 2010 to the current 726 million yen, said an Asahi Shimbun report this year.

But reality bites when we consider how, elsewhere in Japan, karoshi (death from overwork) and companies that overwork their employees are growing problems.

As for British workers, some 1.4 million people there now work seven days a week, according to the TUC.

I had walked in their shoes for a very short while when I worked as a temp chocolate salesgirl for a month without a day off.

Life shrinks to this: You wake. You work. You eat. You work. You eat. You sleep. You wake. You workā€¦

Unless you're fortunate enough to have a job that's glowing with self-fulfilment, rainbows, kittens, unicorns and self-actualisation, when you don't get days off, the soft, squishy human sides of you start solidifying into a sort of working machine.

You steel yourself to make it to another wake-work-eat-work day.

I believe that people basically like having decent jobs, earning decent pay. It's just that we don't want work to spill so much into our personal lives.

For example, France's law giving workers the "right to disconnect", ensuring that work does not spill into after-work hours, is the legal embodiment of such a desire.

Amazon's India chief took a stand against work e-mail after 6pm. Bloomberg reported last month that Mr Amit Agarwal counselled colleagues to stop responding to e-mails or work calls between 6pm and 8am for "work-life harmony".

In Germany, the Labour Ministry ordered its supervisors in 2013 not to contact employees outside office hours.

In Singapore, at our work tables, counters, even on buses and late at night in homes, we answer yet another work e-mail and smile wryly at the thought of "6.30pm - very late".

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

Purchase this article for republication.

BRANDED CONTENT

SPONSORED CONTENT

Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.