Europe has always been at the forefront of new approaches to work. Britain was one of the first countries to enter into the industrial revolution, creating entirely new categories of jobs. In the 20th century, European governments introduced rules that prevented the exploitation of workers by their employers and have continued to augment these to this day.
Some parts of the continent have experimented with different forms of business ownership, with state-owned companies and corporate structures that require businesses to listen to their employees as well as their shareholders.
This has meant that European workers have a very different way of life to their international counterparts, with rights like sick leave, maternity pay, and mandatory minimum levels of paid holiday time that aren’t legally required in countries like the USA.
While some business people may consider these rights as in some way offensive to the free market, the reality is that countries with the most worker protections and more time away from work actually have the highest levels of productivity.
When you compare Germany and New Zealand, you can see this clearly. The average Kiwi worker puts in around 1739 hours per year, while the average German does just 1393. Yet Germans get more done while at work compared to their New Zealander cousins, contributing US$58.30 of GDP per hour worked compared to NZ’s US$37.80 of GDP per hour.
Europe is not done though. The continent continues to trial new ideas to improve the lives of its workers, in part, hoping to boost productivity further and grow its economy. Here is how some of those initiatives could impact the future of working in Europe.
Many businesses have been experimenting with remote work for years, with tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams helping this to become a reality for more workers more recently. Remote working means that workers can spend more time at home (or near their home) and less time travelling to the office.
Cutting down on the amount of time we spend commuting can yield many benefits to us, our pockets, and the environment. In the UK, the average commute took 62 minutes a day in 2019, with 15% of British workers spending more than 102 minutes getting to and from work. That means the time spent commuting over a whole year is 21 hours longer than in 2009 – that’s almost an entire extra day wasted on travel.
Reducing the number of days spent in an office means workers could get back much of this time, with the added benefits that they’d save money in the process. According to Totaljobs, the average worker in the UK will spend more than £135,000 over their lifetime just to get to and from their job, more than double the size of the average pension pot at retirement.
Spending less time in a car also means workers can spend less time sitting down. Many modern jobs are desk-based, meaning workers can spend eight or more hours in a sedentary, seated position. A London-based yoga instructor, who has consulted on simple stretches that can be used by gamers during long sessions of playing, also visits offices in the capital to offer workers the chance to “break away from their desks”.
However, these sorts of exercises are less necessary when a worker has a more balanced lifestyle that includes less sitting and more time moving with other activities.
The Four Day Week
The five-day working week has been the norm for around a century. It was pioneered by Henry Ford and some other industrialists who felt that giving workers an extra day off would mean they would be better rested and have more time to go and buy Ford’s cars, driving up demand.
Since then, we’ve developed many tools that can help us get more work done in a day, but instead of reducing the amount of time we work, we’ve just crammed tasks into our working hours.
Recently, Spain began an experiment to move workers in some companies to a four-day working week, helping to create a better work-life balance. This trial is ongoing but, if successful, could be replicated elsewhere in the country and on the continent.
Universal Basic Income
One radical idea that has been touted in recent years is that of a universal basic income. This would mean that every person receives a flat-rate sum of money from the government each month. It would be enough to cover basic necessities and little else.
People would, in theory, then be free to find work they enjoy to earn additional income, start a business, or contribute to charities and other good causes.
Universal basic income pilots have been taking place in Germany, Spain, Finland, Scotland, and The Netherlands. Its proponents argue that it could help solve poverty and improve working conditions by rebalancing the labour market, while critics believe it will be too expensive and will discourage people from finding a job. Results of the pilots have been mixed, but the concept continues to receive a lot of support.
If it does get rolled out further, we could see the world of work change completely in Europe.