Voices: We can no longer ignore the benefits of a four-day working week

·4-min read
The four-day week is no longer fantasy – a major pilot scheme has been launched in the UK  (Getty/iStock)
The four-day week is no longer fantasy – a major pilot scheme has been launched in the UK (Getty/iStock)

The pandemic has shown that the way we work can change – and quickly. It was unthinkable, two years ago, that the vast majority of people would now work from home. Yet here I am, in my bedroom on a Tuesday morning. In a relatively short period of time, our working culture has transformed. The exception has become the rule.

It is worth bearing this in mind when considering the four-day week (this means fewer hours, rather than the same number of hours compressed into fewer days). It seems radical, but isn’t. We are adaptable creatures – within a matter of months, or even weeks, this new routine would feel quite normal.

Productivity is the purpose of work. There are those who stay late at their desks to impress colleagues, of course, but they do this as a display of productivity (imagined or not). Time and productivity have become mistakenly synonymous, damaging our work/life balance.

Many people are convinced that in order to get ahead, you always have to be “on”. The four-day week would shatter this illusion. If it can be proven that people are equally productive in fewer hours – and the studies are encouraging – it would be difficult for bosses to insist on their employees working a five-day week, just as it is now much harder for them to insist on people coming into the office.

The four-day week is no longer fantasy, either. A six-month trial involving about 30 companies has been launched in the UK. Those participating in the scheme are being asked to maintain 100 per cent productivity but will have an extra day off each week. They will be paid their usual salaries. The results will be analysed by researchers at Oxford University, Boston College and Cambridge University.

These results will be particularly enlightening because they will tell us more about how workers from different countries respond to a four-day week. We know, for example, that in Iceland, experiments with a four-day week have been an “overwhelming success”. The trials, which took place between 2015 and 2019, showed that productivity remained the same or even improved in the majority of workplaces, according to a BBC report. “The trials led unions to renegotiate working patterns, and now 86 per cent of Iceland’s workforce have either moved to shorter hours for the same pay, or will gain the right to,” the report states.

We find similar success stories in Denmark, Spain, Korea and Japan. These results might reflect the cultures of those particular countries, though, in the same way that, say, alcohol consumption differs around the world. We don’t yet know how British workers will respond to a four-day week.

There are reasons to be optimistic, however. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, argues that a four-day week leads to “increased productivity and creativity; improved recruitment and retention; less burnout for founders and leaders; and more balanced and sustainable lives for workers”.

The ways in which companies can achieve these goals are not eccentric, either; much of it is common sense. “[The companies] had to meaningfully redesign how they worked,” Soojung-Kim Pang explained in a Ted article earlier this year. “The key to unlocking a shorter workweek without reducing productivity lies in three areas: 1) tightening meetings; 2) introducing ‘focus time’ when everyone can concentrate on their key tasks; and 3) using technology more mindfully.”

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If you are really honest with yourself, how much time do you waste every day in meandering meetings or chatting on Slack? An extra day off would surely be incentive enough to cut out the time wasting, get the work done and then enjoy a three day weekend.

In this way, the system is self-correcting. Those unable to maintain productivity in fewer hours are either working inefficiently (and therefore need further training) or are in jobs unsuited to a four-day week. That’s fine. This may not be a system for everyone, just as working from home clearly isn’t possible for those working in construction, for example.

Indeed, there are likely to be some jobs where a four-day week is a non-starter. Journalism might be one (you can’t mould the news around your working week); trading is another (the markets, like the news, are unpredictable). But other jobs are not so beholden to events.

We have a habit of allowing a task to fill the time. As the old saying goes, “if you want something done, ask a busy person”. The joy of a four-day week is that it allows that busy person the time to recuperate and come back for the next four-day week busier than ever.

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