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Should we move to a four-day work week?

Understanding the growing movement to rethink our working week

12 Dec 2018
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The four-day working week isn’t a new idea: economist John Maynard Keynes predicted back in 1930 that technology would help us work just 15 hours a week. Despite the information revolution and the productivity gifted us by computers and the internet, Brits work an average of 32 hours a week, down from 62 in 1868. This shift is largely down to legislation capping shifts and the working time directive, but also from the rise of part-time work. A report from TUC suggests 3.3 million Brits work more than 48 hours a week, with 1.4 million working seven days a week.

If you believe the hype around artificial intelligence and automation, we're at the cliff-edge of another revolution. Such changes to work will likely see at least some job losses, with those left in employment faced with more intense, stressful work. Perhaps it doesn't have to be that way.

That's what TUC, the Trade Unions Congress, is calling for. In its Future of Work report, the organisation lays out the case for taking advantage of the productivity gains technology offers to benefit people, rather than just bottom lines. The report notes that "the government believes that robotics and autonomous systems could boost UK output by up to 15%. If this is the case, a choice needs to be made about whether to bank the additional potential benefits in the form of greater output, or to think about how to use those gains to deliver the reductions in hours that so many workers say they want."

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For a four-day work week

4DayWeek is a campaign group backed by a pair of thinktanks and it argues the benefits of a four-day working week. It believes that dropping a day off the work week will benefit the environment (by giving us more time for sustainable lifestyles), democracy (again, but giving us more time to take part) and our society.  A four-day working week encourages mental and physical health benefits, a fairer society (by evening out unpaid work) and strengthening communities (by giving us more time to spend with each other). It also argues it'll benefit the economy by better balancing those who are overworking with those who are underemployed.

What could we all do with that extra day? Parents could spend more time with their children; those with caring responsibilities could have more time to offer support, key as the population ages. We could all exercise, volunteer or just read more; by working less, we'd have better mental health and less stress, both serious challenges that are increasing in our lives. And it could help reduce emissions from cars and the burden on public transport networks if we all avoided one day a week of commuting.

There's plenty of predicted benefits, and working longer hours for more days doesn't necessarily mean you get more done. According to European data, UK people work the longest hours in Europe, at an average 42 per week for full-time staff — that's two more hours per week than Germany, which has a 27% higher productivity rate. Some companies and organisations have trialled the idea: Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand estate management company, trialled a four-day week on the same pay, finding productivity was actually higher.

And, it would help balance against the added work technology has given us. Research suggests that work is leaking into our private time, thanks to smartphones and email making it easier for bosses to ping over a quick question or demand in off hours. According to a survey by CIPD, a third of polled workers said they can't fully switch off in their personal time, with one in seven saying new technologies mean their working hours have increased because they now work from home, too.

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Against a four-day work week

Despite such evidence, not everyone is in favour of a four-day work week. One company tried a four-day week — and promptly ditched it. Ryan Carson, CEO of coding education startup Treehouse, switched his company to a four-day workweek in 2015. A year later, he said the company had gone back to a traditional work week. "It created this lack of work ethic in me," he said, "and was fundamentally detrimental to our business and our mission. It was actually a terrible thing." He admitted the shift to longer hours was "not fun" and he now works 65 hours a week.

Anecdotes from startups aside, one major complaint against a shorter working week is pay. It's already largely flat across the Western world, and slashing our hours by a fifth doesn't seem likely to help. Indeed, TUC's survey suggested 75% of workers said higher pay would be the most beneficial change.

And promised savings may never arrive. Utah implemented a mandatory four-day workweek for state employees in 2008, hoping to save overhead and energy by closing offices an extra day and also help with recruitment by offering a better lifestyle. Three years later, it flipped back to a standard schedule, saying none of the expected savings ever came through.

Tech for workers

As TUC notes, the advent of the gig economy and automation eating into jobs raise challenges, but this isn't about technology. "Many of the demands placed on workers that disrupt their working lives have little to do with technology," the report reads. "Breaking work into small tasks, offered out to workers at small notice, requires only an employer with scant regard for their workers’ terms and conditions, rather than any technological innovation. This is something that the trade unions who fought for guaranteed pay for dockers in the early part of the twentieth century knew well."

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Though AI and automation may make a four-day week more affordable for companies, good management doesn't require more or new technology. Regardless of the tools used, a four-day working week could be good to avoid staff burnout, improve productivity and help recruitment, especially for companies looking to hire more diverse staff, as women still take on the bulk of the burden of carer roles in families.

While TUC, Labour and the Green party in the UK are all openly discussing a four-day week, it's not likely to be a top-down development led by legislation, as Paul Swinney, the head of policy and research at the Center for Cities, told the New York Times.  “We’ll see a bit of that with some people deciding to work four days one week and five another. It’ll change gradually along with social norms," he said, adding it may take decades before four-days of work a week is the default for most of us. Of course, if you're not willing to wait decades for a three-day weekend, you can always ask your boss to give it a go — you've nothing to lose, other than a day of work a week.

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