Want To Finish Work At 3pm? Why Working School Hours – Not Eight Hours – Could Benefit Everyone

Ellen Nelson, 37, is on a mission: to drive forward her campaign #workschoolhours (as in working 9am-3pm) to benefit not just working parents, but also non-parents and businesses. The former NZ Army engineering officer who was deployed internationally on reconstruction projects including in Afghanistan has with three other dedicated volunteers including Chris Parsons and Martin Dransfield successfully evacuated 563 people from the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to New Zealand: an incredibly challenging task. Ellen, who has a PhD on the experiences of women in the workforce, lives on a rural property in the Manawatū with her husband, and their sons aged five and one.

Tell me about your campaign #workschoolhours.

So it’s a movement I’ve begun and am driving as part of addressing a massive societal issue: our 9-5 work schedule doesn’t align with our 9-3 school schedule. Working 9-5 was a construct created around 100 years ago, built on the assumption that each household had a [male] worker and a [female] caregiver. Now, often both parents are working, and there are many solo-parent households. It boggles my mind that we haven’t changed this 9-5 arrangement to reflect our changing times. Imagine if we had a clean slate now in 2022, and asked ‘how will we approach the hours we work?’ Not many people would say ‘hey, let’s make school and work hours different’.

Would it need to be more like 9.30–2.30pm to fit in drop-offs and pick-ups?

Yes, or a variation as needed.

Wouldn’t employers see working only school hours as slacking off?

This is something we have to get past. Just because someone sits at a desk for eight hours doesn’t mean they’re really productive for eight hours.

Is it a case of making up the hours later?

No. I’m not saying let’s work in the evening, or weekends, to total eight hours a day. And I’m not saying everybody must have a strict 9-3 or 9.30-2.30 timetable. I’m saying there needs to be more flexibility around your needs [as a worker]. From my PhD research, and post-doctoral research, I found that parents working part-time deliver the same outputs and get through the same workload [as fulltime workers]. Let’s stop focusing on eight-hour days. Let’s focus on doing things more efficiently.

How does #workschoolhours align with the campaign for a four-day week?

It’s a bit of an expansion on it. The four-day week is ‘how do we get the same work done in 32 hours?’ and I’m saying ‘let’s do a bit less than 32 hours and align it to school hours’.

Ellen Nelson

Is there a myth that productivity is linked to long hours?

I fundamentally disagree that working longer hours means you get more done and leads to better productivity. This idea that your worth at work is measured by how many hours you sit at your desk should be kind of irrelevant. A paradigm shift is needed.

For working parents, it’s exhausting to work eight hours, pick up children from after-school care, get home, make dinner, do the dishes, help with homework…

Absolutely. What if they could feel less exhausted and have more personal time? If they’re feeling less knackered and more valued, they’ll be more refreshed, motivated, focused and productive at work. They’ll bring their A game. And this way, parents won’t feel guilty about leaving work to collect kids from school, or have ‘parent guilt’ about not seeing your kids in the [late] afternoon.

You’re a public speaker on this topic?

That’s my biggest thing currently. I spoke at a TEDx event in Auckland in June, and I’ve been booked to speak at leadership conferences. I launched my own consulting business late last year, so it’s early days. My starting point is approaching organisations, so that employers, managers and leaders understand why #workschoolhours is commercially smart. Since I started consulting, more and more CEOs and HR managers are wanting me to come in, talk about this, and create a strategy. I show research to back up that any progress in the direction of [adopting] #workschoolhours will not only improve the lives of staff, but also provide commercial benefits.

Is there an ‘appetite’, so to speak, among business owners to consider #workschoolhours?

There’s an appetite to rethink the way they’re doing things: they’re hungry for new ideas about, and perspectives on, how they might achieve better commercial outcomes. That’s what makes organisations listen to my message. If I was to say ‘Oh, parents are having a tough time, poor them’, most organisations don’t give a shit about that. But when I say ‘hey, this is how you can make more money by making life better for people’, that’s a win-win. That’s what excites me.

Is there scepticism from businesses about your approach?

Often people say ‘oh, if we make these allowances for parents, it will be bad for business’. I reply, ‘Actually, if you do this for parents, you’ll get much more out of them’. Right now there’s talk of The Great Resignation and that is definitely happening. And there’s the hot topic right now around burn-out and staff wellbeing. When organisations talk about struggling to get or retain staff, or struggling with staff burnout, or not necessarily getting great productivity, I say ‘what if you’re more creative around how you focus on outputs, as opposed to how long someone sits at their desk’? Imagine the calibre of talent an employer could attract, if they said ‘we’ll give you more personal time and we’ll never make you feel guilty about having commitments outside of work. We care that you do your job well, but not when or where you do it.’

What do you suggest to businesses wanting to make changes?

The first one is definitely ‘talk with the staff’. They know their jobs. They’re the best-placed people to come up with ideas about how they might do things more efficiently, in shorter periods. The second thing I talk to businesses about is creating a ‘starting point’: such as moving co-working periods into school hours. So, don’t have 4pm team meetings. The third thing is getting really clear on KPIs [Key Performance Indicators] and outputs, and focus on what they want their staff to deliver rather than the hours they do it in. So an employer might say ‘I want you to achieve these tasks, to this standard, by this date’ and that’s what you then get measured on.

How might an individual ask their boss if they can #workschoolhours?

Well, I recommend you don’t say, ‘hey I want to work fewer hours because my life’s really tough’. Frame it the other way around. Say something like ‘hey, I believe you want me to achieve x, y and z over a certain time period – and I’m going to deliver that – but I’d like to change my hours so I can see more of the kids. Could we trial this for, say, a fortnight, then you can let me know if I delivered everything and see if you’re happy with that?’

In our society, it feels like the onus is on mothers, not fathers, to work flexible or part-time hours.

What’s happening is that many mums who are doing part-time [paid] work are actually working full-time when you add in the majority of the housework and childcare. My passion is to make things better for women – with both the work side and the home side of things – in a way that makes it better for everybody. I want to normalise working school hours for dads, so they have more time in the home and with the child-rearing. And I know dads who are doing this already and loving it.

I have an acquaintance, not a mother, who says it irks her that colleagues who are mothers leave before 3pm, and expect her to ‘pick up the slack’.

Sometimes I get this sort of pushback from non-parents, as though they’re going to get shafted. I say ‘my starting point is addressing the issue facing working parents, but hopefully address it for non-parents too’. It’s about what are the hours that work best for your life? Maybe as a non-parent you might want to work four days.

With a five-year-old and a one-year-old, how do you fit so much in?

I like to think I’m efficient! The kids are in day-care three days a week. When my eldest goes to school very soon, I’ll be working school hours, and want to have all Thursdays and Fridays with my youngest son. I won’t schedule meetings after 3pm unless I really need to for some reason.

Do you envisage a future where #workschool hours might actually become the norm?

Yes. My grand vision is that this is how the world will work. I’m not shy about saying that’s my goal. But I’m also realistic. I know it will take time. I feel like #workschoolhours will be a big part of my life’s purpose.

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