Studies show that a shorter workweek increases productivity and has a positive impact on wellbeing and the environment. What’s not to like about it?
With the global pandemic turning the working world on its head and triggering an unprecedented wave of unemployment, a mindset shift around what counts as ‘work’ and work-life balance has begun to take centre stage.
Times of crises, after all, have a tendency of challenging entrenched dogmas and systems, thrusting once radical ideas into the realm of possibility.
One of them is the four-day week. With more people operating from their homes than ever before, revolutionary working practices are becoming more feasible and some are calling to take advantage of this new window of flexibility to rethink how we conceptualise work.
In The Case for a Four-Day Week, authored by researchers from the New Economic Foundation think tank, a shorter workweek should be at the heart of a post-pandemic recovery.
But are we ready to bury the five-day, 9-to-5 grind and usher in a shorter workweek?
“Two years ago, most businesses would say no, you couldn’t do it,” entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrew Barnes, one of the pioneers behind the four-day week, told TRT World.
“What the pandemic has done is shown us that the traditional model is not necessary for the operation of business. It challenged the fallacy of time in the office being equated with productivity.”
One of the problems with the pandemic-induced ‘working-from-home’ approach is that hours are getting longer, said Barnes, adding that the four-day week would function as a much needed “circuit breaker”.
The takeaway is that working longer doesn’t make you more productive, as studies have consistently borne out. And with more disposable time, people are less likely to indulge in unhealthy convenience foods or carbon-intensive activities.
A four-day model would see 560 million fewer miles being driven every week, making a measurable impact on pollution.
Being chronically overworked is an increasingly common affliction. With millions suffering from work-related mental health conditions every year, reduction in workweek can have tangible benefits for employees while saving on public health costs. In the UK alone, over 15 million working days are lost per year due to work-related stress.
In the midst of the pandemic, some companies have started testing the model in a bid to prevent employee burnout and maintain work-life balance.
One of them is Elephant Ventures, a New York-based software and data engineering firm.
“Our Philippines team was on a 4 day week for four-five years already and we perceived them to have outsized efficiency as a result,” founder and president Art Shectman told TRT World. Due to the pandemic, the firm gave up their global offices last March, and with a fully distributed team there were no longer any barriers to test it in the US.
The pilot ran last August for two months, with employees working 10–11-hour days, Monday thru Thursday, for two months. The result was a 15 to 20 percent productivity boost, said Shectman, adding that the move has been “extremely good for retention” and that the staff loved having a three-day weekend.
Pre- and post-pilot company surveys revealed that employees felt it gave them a healthier work-life balance and enhanced focus during the workweek. The compressed workweek was so well received in the end that the company has adopted it permanently.
A growing trend?
Wellbeing and sustainability metrics alone are not enough for businesses to take the leap – unless there’s a positive impact on profitability.
Barnes has first-hand knowledge of implementing a four-day week as the founder and CEO of Perpetual Guardian. The New Zealand financial services firm was one of the world’s first private companies to embrace it in 2018.
Over an eight-week trial, the firm’s 240 staff switched from a five-day to a four-day week and maintained their salary. The results were significant: not only was there a 20 percent boost in productivity and no drop in work output, but employees felt less stressed, happier and more creative.
The move was so popular that management ended up allowing employees to opt into the policy to work 30 hours instead of 37.5, only a few months after the trial ended. Perpetual Guardian is twice as productive on a per capita basis as its nearest competitor today.
A number of corporates and SME businesses have followed suit since.
Microsoft Japan and Shake Shack both introduced four-day trials in 2019, hoping to increase employee satisfaction and attract talent. Microsoft said it saw increased productivity by 40 percent, making up for the 20 percent drop in staff attendance.
Toyota adopted reduced hours in several of its factories; Shopify in Canada gave staff Fridays off between June and August last year; Unilever’s New Zealand office announced in November that it would embark on a year-long trial.
Last month, Spain made headlines as its government agreed to launch a nationwide pilot for companies interested in experimenting with a four-day workweek.
“With the four-day work week (32 hours), we’re launching into the real debate of our times,” said Inigo Errejon, of the leftwing Mas Pais party that put forward the plan. “It’s an idea whose time has come.”
The trial is expected to begin in September and last three years, with €50 ($60) million in EU funding on tap to compensate around 200 companies for reducing their employee's work week without slashing salaries.
The concept behind the four-day week isn’t all that new. Some famous thinkers had prophesied a reduction in work time: economist John Maynard Keynes argued nearly a century ago that by 2030 we would all be working fifteen-hour weeks, while Karl Marx made it central to his post-capitalist vision in which a shortened work week would be a “basic prerequisite” for realising freedom.
The prospect of greater efficiency leading to more leisure time was supposed to be a consequence of technology. Automation reduces labour time, which should mean fewer working hours as more value is created by labour in less time.
But mechanisation has not inevitably led to less toil. In Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, James Suzman explains that technological progress on its own does not deliver a “happy life” or “abundant leisure”.
Rather, the reduction of working hours historically came about as a result of social and political pressure; the eight-hour day and two-day weekend were won largely because of trade union struggles to improve labour rights and battles over factory legislation.
Perhaps it is no surprise that since the power of trade unions were crushed in the 1980s, there has been little to no reduction in the average working week despite the acceleration of automation. As productivity rose, real wages stagnated.
As the late anthropologist David Graeber argued, the reason why productivity gains have not led to a 15-hour work week is because automation under capitalism has led to more “bullshit jobs”: the rise of soul-sucking pointless work in services industries that has eroded creativity.
“More and more employees find themselves…working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as [Keynes] predicted,” he wrote.
For Barnes, the problem was businesses fundamentally misunderstood how to measure productivity. “As productivity has risen, instead of reducing the workweek, we’ve held it constant,” he said. “We’ve assumed that time produced more – the reality is that it didn’t. All that it produced was filler.”
Ultimately, it comes down to management having the “mental agility” to disentangle the concept that time equals productivity, Barnes argues. While longer hours made sense carrying out repetitive tasks on a factory floor, it doesn’t in our digital age where the cognitive component of work is much greater with a premium on creativity.
“We have a model designed in the 1920s, and we’re stuck with it. Everything else in the world of business and work has changed, but we’re still saying that the rationale that drove the five-day week hasn’t.”
‘Wellbeing comes first’
One of the questions at the heart of the debate is what determines productivity in the first place. While managerial approaches have traditionally emphasised payment incentives, a growing stream of behavioural literature suggests otherwise.
“For me, productivity is interesting but secondary. I’m more interested in how you can improve quality of life,” said Dr Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, director of the Wellbeing Research Centre at Oxford University. The centre has the largest group of scholars working on the empirical side of wellbeing, and the workplace is one of their four research themes.
To De Neve, the link between employee wellbeing and productivity is critical to understanding why a four-day week can work. He told TRT World the research centre has produced the first large-scale causal evidence in the field for the link between employee wellbeing and work performance.
In collaboration with British Telecom (BT), the performance of BT call centre workers was studied with surveys of employee happiness collected on a weekly basis across six months, to understand the effect of happiness on different sales.
“When an employee had a good week and wellbeing was higher than normal, it had a 13 percent increase in productivity,” said De Neve.
That the research was able to identify wellbeing having a causal effect on productivity is a key sticking point. It’s this mechanism, De Neve believes, that explains how it’s possible to do as much as work in four days as you normally did in five.
“Wellbeing comes first, and productivity flows from it”.
The way forward
With adoption increasing in the business world and evidence of benefits to wellbeing, policymakers are starting to take notice.
In recent years, governments have passed laws to support reduced working time in France, the Netherlands and Belgium. Germany’s largest union, IG Metall, negotiated a 28-hour week in 2018.
But four-day trials have been almost exclusively company-driven thus far, making the Spanish experiment an important step in the next phase of the global four-day week campaign, noted Barnes.
“The problem is that there has been no large-scale randomised trial of the four-day week that you can draw macro conclusions from,” he said.
When it comes to employment legislation governments are behind the eight ball, as workers’ legal protections have been agreed to in the context of a conventional working environment.
“Legislation doesn’t contemplate variable hours if you’re an employee. I don’t need the government to mandate a four-day week, all they need to do is change the legislation to make it neutral for me to offer one.”
De Neve is optimistic that a transition is starting to come together.
“Where I’m seeing a lot of mileage is where the bottom up and the top-down meet: a visionary leader taking the initiative and showing that it works on the ground, matched with a visionary leader in government looking to set the policy framework to coordinate a shorter workweek and make it easier for businesses,” he said.
For now, progress is likely to start at the local level. In Spain, it was the government of Valencia that adopted trials that stimulated interest at the national level. In the US, a handful of school districts have shifted to a four-day week. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, now frontrunner for New York City mayor, is an advocate of the idea.
Barnes highlights that Ireland's well structured campaign is currently gaining traction. Trials are being considered at some point in 2021, and enjoy the support of a broad coalition of businesses and the government.
Having established 4 Day Week Global with his partner Charlotte Lockhart, which has morphed into campaigns across the world, Barnes is firmly in the middle of a burgeoning movement for the future of work. The campaign’s US launch is where his sights are set on next.
“We had seen what it had done to our people [at Perpetual Guardian] and what the benefits were, and we felt it was an obligation to get the message out,” he said.
“You don’t get many chances to change the world.”