Time to give the four-day week a try?

By Nick Jessup

The COVID pandemic has revolutionised the way we work, so why not pursue further innovations?

At the 2019 general election, the Labour party manifesto pledged to tackle the UK’s culture of excessive working hours, reducing the average working week to 32 hours across the economy, with no loss of pay and the expectation that the move would result in increased productivity. 

To many, this seemed outlandish and impossible, and added to the perception that Labour’s entire programme for government was too radical and could never be delivered. There would be no possible way, sceptics charged, of simultaneously decreasing working hours, maintaining productivity, and keeping pay at the same level. A reduction in working hours and a four-day working week would have such detrimental impacts on productivity that businesses, it was posited, would never be able to afford to pay staff at the same level for fewer hours. Moreover, the Conservatives claimed that a four-day working week would “cripple the NHS” by increasing staff costs by £6.1bn a year and further accused the Labour Party of incoherent messaging over whether or not the policy would actually apply to the health service. 

Similar arguments about the loss of productivity have been made by sceptics concerned about full-time working from home and the impact that this would have. Made necessary for millions by the Covid-19 pandemic, home working has, in some ways, proved very successful and popular, eliminating both the cost and chore of the commute, reshaping the work-life balance, and guaranteeing greater flexibility for those with care responsibilities. While working from home is by no means the solution for everyone, a fact that employers must recognise, and we cannot yet say definitively what impact it has had on productivity, giving employees the choice, and trusting that they will still fulfil the requirements of their role, is certainly something that some employers are considering for the future. Do we really believe that you need to be physically present in the office, every working day, for someone to assess the quality and speed of your work? 

Last week, the results of a four-day working week trial came in from Iceland and were overwhelmingly positive. Workers were paid the same amount for shorter hours, and productivity remained the same or even improved in the majority of workplaces. Workers reported feeling less stressed and at risk of burnout (the risk of which the Covid pandemic has starkly brought into focus), and said that their health had improved, and their work-life balance was better. 

Iceland is not alone in having run successful trials of shorter working weeks. In 2019, Microsoft’s Japan offices (a country known for a culture of long working hours) carried out a four-day working week trial and found that not only were employees happier, they were 40% more productive, took less time off sick, and decreased the company’s carbon footprint by printing less paper and using less electricity. 

Home working has been one of the major changes brought in by the COVID-19 pandemic, and looks likely to stay for millions, in some form, for the foreseeable future. While this has not been without its challenges, especially for those businesses reliant on office worker footfall for trade, it has been an innovation welcomed by many. 

In being forced into full-time remote working, many industries have found that they can work remotely in ways that they would not necessarily have deemed possible before. This innovation should now begat other innovations, which could challenge the assumption, so deeply ingrained in our society, that a working week is roughly 40 hours over five days. However, this cannot happen in the same way as working from home has, as it is not something that can be forced by the public health circumstances. Instead, we need a willingness of both government and businesses to support an innovative trial and assess thoroughly what impact this could ultimately have. 

Early trials have already indicated that increased happiness and productivity, and decreased absence and stress are the benefits, and there is no reason to believe that a UK trial could not yield the same results. What’s more, a shorter working week and increased leisure time with the same rate of pay could provide a much-needed boost to sectors of the economy that have been extremely badly impacted by the pandemic, with hospitality, retail and leisure those likely to benefit. 

If we are to take one positive thing away from a pandemic that has caused agony for millions, it is the fact that the world of work has proved flexible and innovative and has been woken from the stupor that we were stuck in. The four-day week looks set to be the next great revolution to hit the world of work, there is no reason why we should not at least give it a good try.