The gradual easing of lockdowns and social restrictions opens the possibility of a welcome return to pre-pandemic habits. This might mean trips to the cinema, eating in restaurants, or attending a large wedding. For millions of people, it will also mean reverting to a pattern of work that includes regular stints in the office.
Many of us will have to confront the reality of going back to the office five days a week. It is a development celebrated by some who claim it will restore beneficial and sorely missed social interactions. They argue that it also brings opportunities to share information and ideas – and of course, the potential for more productivity and profit.
But this image of the future betrays a lack of imagination about how work could now be reorganised. It also fails to see the benefits that would come from actually cutting back on work hours – including the chance to move to a four-day working week.
There is growing support for the idea of a four-day working week. Benefits would include greater freedom from work and the opportunity to share work more evenly across the population. We could help spread the benefits of working, without the costs of overwork and unemployment. Returning to a five-day week would prevent these positive outcomes.
COVID has already shaken up modern work patterns in a way that would have seemed unimaginable a couple of years ago. But not in a way that has necessarily benefited employees who were used to working in an office.
Instead, the enforced move to working from home has commonly led to an increase in working hours (with no increase in pay). This partly explains why some firms are, in fact, eager to retain homeworking. Office costs can be passed on to employees in their homes, and constant connectivity can be used to create a culture that allows no one to switch off from work.
A lack of trust towards employees has also led to new forms of remote monitoring. So whatever gains employees have received from working from home – cost savings from not commuting and some flexibility over how work is done – have been more than outweighed by more intensive and prolonged hours of work. Far from being a way to balance work and life, homeworking has embedded problems of excessive working.
But that doesn’t mean employees should be rushing back to the office to find a better work-life balance. On the contrary, the risk remains that long work hours will be maintained, to the disadvantage of employees.
Noticeably, the talk of the benefits of the move back to office working has been focused on the interests of firms.
There are suggestions of the benefits of higher productivity from shared working, but this ignores the fact that issues around control can often motivate decisions to locate workers in the same space. Direct monitoring in the office is more effective than remote monitoring, giving firms a direct interest in returning to office working for the standard five-day working week.
What about the views of employees? The return to office working means new costs – in time and money – from commuting. It also means the re-imposition of a time pattern that was not working for most employees before the pandemic hit.
For many, the return to a five-day office week will bring dread and the sense of loss about a world that limits opportunity and freedom. Reconnecting with colleagues will be scant consolation for the Monday to Friday grind.
One positive of the lockdown has been the emergence of a demand for a “right to disconnect”. Some unions have demanded that time away from work be protected. New laws are being recommended that explicitly give permission to employees not to read or respond to electronic messages outside of their normal hours of work.
A new right to disconnect has been implemented in some countries and could certainly help to protect non-working time. Recent polling also suggests that most UK employees now support a right to disconnect.
But deeper reform is required. If the economy is to “build back better” in a real sense, it will need to accommodate a shorter working week. A move to shorter working hours could help to support economic recovery by preventing higher unemployment. The benefits of short-time working could be realised as the economy is unlocked. A shorter working week would also help to extend our freedom and if combined with work-sharing would enable more of us to gain the benefits of work.
The case for a four-day work week is now well established. There are clear benefits to health, ecology and the economy. Firms may prefer traditional work practices, but progress in society will require that a new normal is established.
There is no other way for us to live and work better than to reduce the working week by a day. We should not be celebrating a return to a five-day week in the office – instead, we should be aiming for a four-day work week for all.
David Spencer has received funding from ESRC and the EU