The four-day week: here to stay?

By Laurence Hill

Hot off the heels of Easter and with the May and Queen’s Platinum Jubilee bank holidays ahead, by June most of us will be well used to the novelty of a four-day working week. But instead of the occasional treat, should this instead be a permanent fixture of our working lives – and would we be any worse off for it?

The movement behind a four-day week has been steadily gaining momentum in recent years. Following a successful trial in Iceland last year, this June the biggest pilot scheme of a four-day week yet launches in the UK: a six-month trial with more than 3,000 workers at 60 companies taking part, including Morrisons and Unilever, and reporting findings to the universities of Cambridge and Oxford. Some companies aren’t waiting for the results of these experiments though; in November 2021 Atom Bank became the largest British business to implement a four-day week for its employees with no reduction in pay.

For some campaigners, this has been long overdue. After all, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted in a 1930 essay that labour-saving technological advances would mean that by the time his children had grown up, people might be working just 15 hours a week. While the predicted automation and technological advances have occurred, the concurrent reduction in working hours has been far less noticeable, with average weekly hours worked in the UK hovering around 37 since 1990.

While the pandemic has shaken up established working patterns and offered a chance to shift this stasis, in the immediate term it was found to have had the opposite effect for many people. Analysis of daily working hours during the first lockdowns in 2020 showed hours in France, Canada and Spain remained the same as before the pandemic, while they increased by two hours in the UK and three hours in the US.

But should this come as a surprise? After all, who hasn’t experienced Parkinson’s Law – the old adage that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion. From personal experience, thanks to Zoom and Teams, I have cut down significantly on journeys to meetings in far-flung locations, freeing up a huge amount of time and making me more productive, yet I still don’t find myself twiddling my thumbs every afternoon come 5pm. So, in the same way that unlimited holiday policies often have the unintended effect of reducing the amount of holidays taken by employees, perhaps instead of organised fun in the workplace we need organised downtime through an enforced four-day week – as proposed in Labour’s 2019 manifesto.

This has the potential to create a great deal of conflict between businesses and government though, with employees caught in the middle. And in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, surely this would inflict more pain on our wallets? Well, more hours have never been a guarantee of greater economic output. After all, at 36.5 hours, the UK puts in one of the longest working weeks in Europe, ahead of France, Spain and Italy – and more than two hours more than Germany’s 34.2 – yet productivity lags behind our international rivals.

So, while enforcement of a four-day week may create a beneficial end result, a more agreeable solution would be a recognition of the policy’s benefits, both for productivity and wellbeing, in the same way that the benefits of hybrid working have become appreciated by both the public (excluding Jacob Rees-Mogg) and private sectors post-pandemic. After all, in the wake of the ‘Great Resignation’ where companies are fighting to attract and retain talent like never before, measures like a four-day week will have far greater pulling power than perks like free beer and ping-pong tables.

In the end, reduced working hours looks like the inexorable direction of travel for society (although, that’s also what Keynes thought 90 years ago). But with 31% of the workforce in the UK at risk from automation and an ageing population requiring far more caring within families, something has to give, and a four-day working week may be a good start.