We Should Rethink the Time We Spend In Our Offices, Says Economic Think Tank

Posted on 12 January, 2012 by Neil Bird

When Conservative MP Louise Mensch left a Commons phone-hacking hearing because it was her turn for the school run, it reignited the debate about our work-life balance. Now an economic think-tank and a book by the former political editor of the Observer newspaper are urging a rethink of the way we organise our working lives. So will this lead to us spending less time at the office or are we happy with the way things are?

In the UK we work the longest hours of any major European economy. Many of us are happy with this state of affairs, even boasting about the hours we put in each week. On the other hand, some are concerned about the impact this is having on family life. This is particularly the case where children are concerned and is the reason the Government is considering changes to maternity leave legislation, to allow both parents to share the time equally.

This week the New Economics Foundation (NEF) is holding a conference where experts will propose a novel solution. The independent think tank promotes innovative ideas that challenge mainstream thinking on social, economic and environmental issues. At the London event they will propose a radical reduction in the time we spend in our offices and other commercial properties. This will not only address the family issues, they argue, it will also have a positive effect on business and employment.

If everyone worked fewer hours, the NEF claims, there would be more jobs to go around and staff could spend more time with their families. Spokesperson Anna Coote says: “There’s a great disequilibrium between people who have got too much work and those who have got too little or none.” We need to rethink what constitutes a successful economy, she goes on to explain. Citing the examples of Germany and Holland, she says there is no reason why a reduced working week should have a detrimental effect on the economy.

In a separate contribution to the debate, a new book by journalist Gaby Hinsliff offers a guide to striking the right balance between parenting and pursuing a career. In 2009 Gaby Hinsliff left her job at the Observer to stay at home with her two year old son. It was a decision that forced her to question the relationship between office life and family life and consider ways in which working parents can strike the right balance.

The result is Half a Wife: The Working Family’s Guide to Getting a Life Back. In the book Hinsliff recalls the feeling of having no office to go to and encountering women who once had careers but were now seen as just a parent. The solution she proposes is that both parents reduce or rearrange their working hours to spend two days a week each performing the traditional stay at home role. Working from home is one way of achieving this she suggests. “It is a natural fit for a particular breed of driven parent who may not want so much to halve their hours as to rearrange them,” she says.

Economists once believed that technology would naturally reduce the time we needed to spend in our offices. At the moment it appears the opposite is the case. The proposals from the NEF and Gaby Hinsliff won’t suit everyone working in commercial properties, of course. For many, reducing their hours or working from home is not a practical solution. But it seems the debate about our work-life balance is set to continue for some time.

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