The four‑day work week: could it happen here?

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The five-day work week is commonly attributed to Henry Ford who, in 1926, decided to shut his car factories on Saturdays and Sundays to give workers time to rest. He also introduced eight-hour work days as policy. The idea caught on and has only recently been called into question as the most effective way to divide up the week, especially now that the flexible ‘hybrid model’ of working is catching on.

For example, hybrid working means people no longer have to spend hours commuting to a city centre office every week, which means that time can be used in other ways. It also means professionals get to choose the hours, days and locations they work in, which is better for their mental health and well-being, and makes them more productive. It appears that having a longer weekend can boost efficiency too…

Work less, achieve more

This summer, Iceland announced that the results of a series of four-day week trials conducted between 2015 and 2019, whereby people were paid the same to work fewer hours, had been an “overwhelming success”. Researchers reported that productivity remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces (ranging from offices to hospitals) among the 2,500 active participants.

Workers also said they felt less stressed and burned out, and that their health and work-life balance had improved thanks to having more time to spend with their families, focus on hobbies and keep on top of housework. Could this indicate the emergence of a new paradigm – one that runs in tandem with the hybrid work revolution that is taking place and grants far greater autonomy and respect to individual employees?

New performance metrics

Spain has also been experimenting with a four-day work week. Iñigo Errejón, a Spanish politician and political scientist, was reported by The Guardian as saying in March 2021: “Spain is one of the countries where workers put in more hours than the European average. But we’re not among the most productive countries. I maintain that working more hours does not mean working better.” A hybrid model of working allows workers to carve out more quality time for themselves, which in turn creates productivity gains for companies and greater job satisfaction.

New Zealand, too, has been exploring the benefits of a shorter working week (at full pay), with Unilever leading the way with a one-year trial in 2021 to measure the effects on employee and company success. Nick Bangs, Managing Director of Unilever New Zealand, said in a statement: “Our goal is to measure performance on output, not time. We believe the old ways of working are outdated and no longer fit for purpose.”

Creating a healthy balance

In 2022, a group of companies in the US will be taking part in a four-day work week trial run by nonprofit organisation 4 Day Week Global, which is similar to the ones it coordinated in New Zealand and Ireland. Now Scotland is launching a £10m pilot scheme, begging the question – will England and Wales follow suit?

According to Scotland’s Institute for Public Policy Research, the BBC reports that the excess hours could be “bundled up into sabbatical breaks, or handed to workers as annual leave entitlement, as more public holidays, or as parental leave for those who qualify”. With a hybrid working model, employees win back hours spent commuting to city centre HQs, and flexible workspaces in satellite locations offer workers a professional environment within easy reach so they can achieve this all-important work-life balance.

Just as in the way that requiring staff to work daily from a central office is now outmoded, the merits of a shorter working week appear obvious. According to a white paper published by 4 Day Week Global, 63% of businesses found it easier to attract and retain talent with a 20% shorter week. At the same time, 78% of employees with four-day weeks said they were happier and less stressed. As people realign how they think about their working life in the wake of Covid-19, and how they are spending their precious time, working less but better could feel like true progress.

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